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November 30, 2004

Show of hands

From:, UK - Nov 30, 2004

Graham Turner has always loved languages, but it was sign language that really blew his mind

Interview by Alice Wignall
Tuesday November 30, 2004

The Guardian

I always gravitated towards languages. I did A-levels in English, French, Latin and Greek. I was awarded a book prize at school and bought a book on linguistics, and it pulled me in.

I did a linguistics degree at York. The course was heavily into socio-linguistics and minority languages. One year was spent on a placement. I already had it in mind to do sign language, so I went to the Northern Counties School for the Deaf in Newcastle.

It was a mind-blowing experience. Sign language is a completely different way of communicating. You can produce two words at the same time, so there's a high degree of productivity and you can assemble the lexicon as you require it.

After my degree, I went to the deaf studies research unit at the University of Durham. The students were split half and half between deaf and hearing, so it was a very rich learning environment. There was lots of interaction and the hearing students really benefited from the native signers.

Not all deaf people sign. There is a debate about what extent it is right and proper for a deaf person to be encouraged to develop English language skills, through lip-reading and hearing aids. There's the benefit that the majority of the population use spoken language, but those measures don't work for all deaf people. And many who find sign language later in life talk of it in terms of finally coming home. That maintains my desire to keep working in this field.

A strong sense of personal identity emerges from the use of sign language, which the deaf community has fought to preserve. We push for sign language to be part of the higher education environment on a par with other languages, because it requires all the same educational resources - plus learning to speak in a new modality. The pay-off is that when you sign you literally hold the world in your hands.

· Dr Graham Turner is senior lecturer in deaf studies at the University of Central Lancashire © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004