Written English: where does enabling stop being enabling?

The Language and Identities in Interaction Research Unit at JournalsYork St. John University has recently published the first in a series of language related policy issues in higher education, on making higher education more Deaf-friendly. I’ve had a number of reservations about this, which I am discussing with them in a series of emails (and which I hope to blog about at a later date), but for now, I want to explore one thing that has been nagging in my mind as a result of this exchange.

Written English¹.

While it may, arguably, be possible for a Deaf person to go through their undergraduate degree submitting all assignments in BSL and accessing their curriculum in BSL (as the position statement recommends, points 1.c and 1.d) I do think that for an academic this may be impossible. Even if the protocols of having a PhD thesis or an academic article translated from BSL into English before being assessed could be agreed upon, I fear the cost (always a concern) may be insurmountable. As a student climbs higher in his or her subject, they have to do more reading. Even the sciences, which base their results on experiments which require less English reading to understand, still have to do literature reviews. For the humanities, which base their evidence on other texts, written English is everywhere. For those who wish to work in academia eventually, a publishing record is a must, as universities and academics are judged at present by a score worked out from this record (the REF). 9 out of 10 journals across the world are written in English. Yes, it may be possible to get them translated, but at what cost?

It is critical, therefore, that a deaf student wishing to go on to study at a higher level, have a decent command of written English. Without this, as things stand, they will not succeed.

Unfair? Perhaps. But I would argue that for someone to succeed at these rarified levels, they must have a certain level of intelligence. Not to be a genius necessarily – any one who studies at these levels will be able to tell you about this student who was brilliant and who everyone thought would go on to be a doctor and they didn’t cos …. well.. reasons. Often the duller tortoise wins that particular race. But a certain level of intelligence, yes. That is required – to understand the work of other people, to be able to explain concepts, to be able to communicate (in whatever language) what is in their heads. THAT is a requirement, and why, when it comes to study at postgraduate level, most universities ask for at least a 2:1 in a bachelor’s degree.

My argument would be that if you have that intelligence, then you should be able to read and write written English. It may be difficult, I grant you. I had to learn a foreign language in my second year at undergrad level, because it is occasionally necessary to read texts in that langauge in my field. I struggled with it – I found that my grasp of grammar is very instictive and I don’t really understand the underlying rules that dictate the way that language – any language – is used. My eyes still glaze over when words like nouns, pronouns and verbs are used – and this language was taught that way. The final exam involved the interpretation of passages in that language and I scraped through, scoring in the mid 50s. My lowest score for an exam at uni, and I still worked my butt off for it! But that was a language that I am not surrounded by, a language that I had only been learning for three months. For D/deaf people who have that level of intelligence (important qualifier, that), who are surrounded by written English all the time, all their lives, it arguably should be easier to learn than I found it for my foreign language [and yet, it seems that this may not be enough, as this study shows].

I would be really interested to do an informal assessment on those few people who have managed to succeed at University, who have done postgraduate degrees, who have gone on to enter academia, write journals and books, to assess whether they feel comfortable with written English. Do they feel able to understand works that they read in English? Do they submit things in English? Do they have people who read through their works, checking for grammatical errors, that sort of thing?

This becomes even more of an issue because of something I read the other day somewhere. A student at a college was unable to graduate from his course because the government had decided that all people who didn’t have GCSE level C in English and Maths, needed to obtain this level before they could graduate from a college course [a fuller discussion of this can be found here]. While, granted, studying at postgraduate level is very different from studying at GCSE Level (or Level 2), with a totally different demand on one language skills, the same core argument applies.

How much should it be possible to legitimately demand that deaf people have a certain skill in written English? Where does the line lie between being unthinkingly obstructionist (as is is with the student I just described), and enabling study to a point where … actually, you’re not doing the student any favours by allowing them to NOT use written English?

And perhaps even more to the point: what can we, as a society, do to help deaf children leave school with better levels of literacy in written English, so that access to written English is no longer an issue for students wanting to study at postgraduate level… and beyond?


¹please note, throughout, I am discussing WRITTEN English and not spoken English. Spoken communication is, of course, a different issue.


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