The Silent Treatment: Breaking cultural barriers through sign language

One of the benefits of learning a second (or third . . .) language is to be able to travel the world more effectively. Knowing the local tongue can help you make connections, travel independently, or simply get a discount. Having been born with an incurable wanderlust (it’s genetic), learning languages was an obvious and practical choice. Until, that is, I fell in love with British Sign Language (BSL).

Learning to sign activates a much different part of your brain. Effectively, your eyes function as ears. Most of all, it is your gateway to a fascinating community: a visual world of comedy, theatre, poetry, pride and acceptance literally at your fingertips.

When I discovered this world, I realised I wanted to be a part of it. But why learn a language so specific to one community in one country? Sign languages aren’t international and are in fact deeply regional. Would focusing on my only non-foreign language harm my lifelong need to travel the world?


sign langauage


It wasn’t long before discovering the opposite was true. Sitting in a small restaurant in Essaouira, Morocco, I jumped into a conversation with a Deaf Moroccan man, his sister and his wife. My enthusiasm to sign and his eagerness to communicate cut through all our language differences, and I left feeling that it was the only genuine conversation I had had with a Moroccan on that trip. Speaking French to Moroccans was to communicate on the surface as a tourist, but signing to this man was to speak directly to his core.

In France, I met the Deaf community through Couchsurfing. I spent days discovering their theatrical and circus arts performances, went to see Deaf-friendly films, and ended up at a sign language festival. In Thailand, I bumped into a group of signing university students and had a quick conversation in the busy and isolating city of Bangkok. In a bizarre reversal, I found myself interpreting BSL into spoken French for a Deaf Moroccan visitor to a UK sign language festival last year. I couldn’t sign his language, but he could lip read when I spoke French.

These small experiences have reassured me. Even though BSL isn’t a universal language, smiling, waving, being willing to try to communicate will get you very far. There’s a worldwide Deaf community that you can plug into wherever you travel, if you keep your eyes and mind wide open.

Words by Jessie Heyworth

Photo by Margaret Woods