So I passed my BSL exam – now what?

On Facebook and Twitter, you often see people announcing with glee that they have passed their BSL exam and are wondering what to do with their newly minted qualification. Whilst the eagerness of people to use their new knowledge and skills to support the Deaf Community is commendable and welcome, there does need to be some discussion about what these qualifications mean in the real world and the ‘best’ or most responsible way to move forward.

Stop, Look, Listen

The first thing is to understand the Level of qualification that you now hold. British Sign Language (BSL) qualifications are not unique or like a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket: they equate to other qualifications and certificates – they open doors and also have their limitations.

We often see people declaring they have achieved their Level 1 in BSL and so they are now setting up their own site, page or channel to teach BSL. Alternatively, people achieve Level 1 or 2 and then start taking on interpreting assignments or working as a Communication Support Worker (CSW) in schools, colleges and universities.

Let’s just take a minute to understand the Levels. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are actually 9 qualification levels that have been mapped. Whether you take a ‘certificate’, an NVQ or a degree, all these levels all map together so you know what they are equivalent to.

Entry Level qualifications include: Skills for Life; entry level awards

Level 1 qualifications include: GCSE (grades D, E, F, G); level 1 certificate, level 1 NVQ

Level 2 qualifications include: GCSE (grades A*, A, B, C); level 2 certificate; level 2 NVQ

Level 3 qualifications include: A Level; AS Level; Level 3 certificate; level 3 NVQ

Level 4 qualifications include: certificate of higher education; higher national certificate; level 4 certificate; level 4 NVQ

Level 5 qualifications include: diploma of higher education; foundation degree; higher national diploma; level 5 NVQ

Level 6 qualifications include: degree with honours (BA or BSc with hons); graduate certificate; level 6 NVQ

Level 7 qualifications include: master’s degree; postgraduate certificate or diploma; postgraduate certificate in education

Level 8 qualifications include: doctorate (PhD); level 8 certificate or diploma.

Don’t drink the Cool-Aid

When you read this through, you might have a bit of a shock! With your D in GCSE in French, would you go and start teaching classes? Would you take your A in German A Level and offer your services to interpret at business meetings in Berlin? If you are like me, all I can do is order beer and ask how to get to the library! So, it begs the question, why is this ok when it comes to BSL and in bridging the communication gaps for Deaf people and professionals?

We often hear of people who skip levels – they do an intro or entry level course, then jump to Level 2 and then Level 4. Whilst we may feel some disdain for the over-confidence, we also have to cast an eye of judgement over the Centres and colleges that allow this. Would you normally allow someone to jump from Year 7 French to A Level French unless they were a native user? Even then, it is often seen as good practice to actually go through the levels in turn, albeit at an accelerated pace.

There is a lot to be said for practical usage of a language. Classroom, online or book learning can only take a person so far – if they have never met a native user, have never visited the country of the language’s origin, one must question their real dedication and proficiency in the language. As most of us know, we do NOT speak English in the same way as books tell people we do. When was the last time you used ‘whom’ and ‘one’ (I just did haha), ‘or’ and ‘nor’? Rushing from finishing one level into the next, often without ever having attended a Deaf club or event, never having spent time within the Deaf Community, can be a route to a naive and impractical knowledge of the language and culture.

Think about it…

In summary, we offer these seeds of thought:

  • Be aware of what your qualification means – what does it allow you to do and what does it not allow you to do?
  • Think, if this was another language, would I expect to be able to… [interpret / teach / spread knowledge]?
  • Is it fair to other people if I have a rudimentary knowledge but teach as if an authority?
  • Is it fair to a Deaf person (who has already faced multiple and incredible barriers in fighting for their right to equal access and communication) to offer myself as a proficient language user, when I effectively have a D at GCSE in the language?
  • What does my level of language lend itself to? I might be able to function in a relaxed office environment or workshop but are my language skills up to dealing with a fast-paced, jargon-filled office meeting? Am I prepared to deal with mental health crises and the nuances of language involved? Am I prepared to deal with the high specificity of language required for a hospital consultation?
  • Should lower levels of qualifications allow a person to work directly with Deaf children? Think about it, most Deaf children are born to hearing parents and many of those parents choose not to learn sign language. If that person is the only adult interacting with the child in their native language, is it right that they are doing so with an incomplete knowledge of the language? Can they really act as a language model for that Deaf child to acquire fully BSL so that they have a robust language platform to then acquire a second language in English? Would the parents of the hearing children in the class be happy that the person teaching their child can barely speak English when teaching the intricacies of Biology, Social Studies or History? We demand high levels of language fluency and subject knowledge for a teacher or teaching assistant to be let loose on the sponge-like minds of the young, so is Level 2 really appropriate in a CSW?
  • Just because I can ‘speak’ the language, does this qualify me to teach or interpret? These are professional skills that people go to university to learn, on top of learning a language. Do my 60 hours of language learning really make me a highly specialised professional?

The phrase ‘pride comes before a crash’ holds weight here. It is amazing that people have invested time, energy, self-confidence in learning a language and have conquered the summit of the exams and got their qualification. No one is taking that away from them. But, rather than cresting the mountain’s summit and then jumping off to start another, why not stop, talk to some people at the top, appreciate the view, think what you could have done better, realise your limits for the next challenge and carefully plan your next steps.

It can take years to fully learn a language, be comfortable in it and be able to forge a career out of its use – and it should. It means when we finally achieve the coveted higher levels, we have earned it through blood, sweat and literal tears. We can go out into the professional world confidently and competently, with intricate knowledge of the language, culture and community whom we will be serving and working alongside.

This shouldn’t put people off, shouldn’t sound daunting. It should rather sound exciting and humbling. If you only want to learn conversational BSL, then do so: complete your level 1 and 2 and open yourself to the new friends and experiences you will gain from it. If you want to become an interpreter, understand the path ahead of you and the responsibility that comes along with it.

So, well done on passing your exam. Relish the feeling, bathe in the praise because you DO deserve it. Get it framed, put it on the wall, and then feel the butterflies in your stomach as the next chapter begins.

Submitted by: Robin

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