This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Attain (

One language is often overlooked but should be universally taught, argues Matt Robinson, Junior School Head of the City of London Freemen’s School. This language is different – it’s entirely silent.

the silent language

As a parent, you may have questioned the number of languages, both ancient and modern, that your child is taught. The solution is to add another – one more language which I feel passionately should be introduced across IAPS prep schools and which would bring huge advantages to pupils. It is one that is separate and distinct; one that has its own structure, vocabulary and dialects. It is a language that guarantees smiles and frowns, obvious frustrations and the stamping of feet. Indeed this language demands all those things.

As the little brother of a profoundly deaf sister, I have been a staunch advocate of exposing pupils to sign language (and in particular British Sign Language) for the whole of my teaching career. And it is for reasons other than just increasing a pupil’s chances of communicating with deaf people, though that should be reason enough. My hearing sister contracted meningitis at eight months and when my parents brought her home she was brain damaged: physically disabled and deaf. I arrived 16 months later so have always known the deaf world. Through the 70s and 80s we communicated in our own family way, my parents having been advised to educate her via the Oral communication method.

But deaf people communicate best through their language, and so when I was 21 I enrolled in BSL training, following my mother who had started a few years before me. I passed my Stage 1 in no time. I instinctively knew most of it already. Finally I was able to talk to my sister on her terms; our family life improved immeasurably.

Before hearing children can start to sign, they need to be made ‘deaf aware’. The vast majority can discuss blindness, both how it affects the blind person, but also how it affects themselves. A blind person often has big dark glasses, a white stick, and a guide dog. We have to move out of the way if they approach; we help them find things in a shop; we can empathise. Wheelchair users are similarly obvious, easy to avoid or approach and help if they want it. But children don’t ‘get’ deaf people.

With the reduction in size of hearing aids such that they are practically invisible nowadays, a deaf person is indistinguishable from a hearing one. And yet, they can seem totally oblivious to their surroundings and, in a child’s eyes, they make funny noises. Children tend to laugh at funny, whichever way you mean it. And discussing this – giving them a chance to have a go at speaking like a deaf person and at first finding it funny – is a great taboo breaker.

And breaking down barriers and taboos is critically important. In most prep schools, unless there is a child who is deaf, this disability is unlikely to be given much attention in the curriculum. Certainly my experience is that very few people in the hearing world have ever had any interaction with a deaf person, nor given that particular disability any thought. Prep schools are bastions of all sorts of privilege: money, social position, academic opportunity, and all expend energy and time on charity. Hundreds of thousands of pounds every year find their way from prep schools to charities, but our children and adult community can help deaf people in ways beyond giving cash.

The children soon appreciate the difficulty they will have in identifying a deaf person, and then the practical difficulties deaf people struggle with on an hourly basis: ‘How do they know someone’s at the door?’ ‘What happens if the fire alarm goes off?’ ‘How do they understand what people are saying on TV?’ Discussions develop as to methods of communication: lip-reading, texting, emailing… ‘How do deaf people learn to read?’ ‘How do deaf people learn to talk?’ And then to signing. It’s at this point that the second purpose of introducing sign language comes into play.

When one sees a group of young children first attempting to sign ‘My name is…’ it is amazing to note the differences. Some children with no experience whatsoever immediately sign with a flamboyance and exaggeration that others can only dream about. Big gestures; open body language; great eye contact; confidence – fantastic and appropriate signing. Others are often nervous of getting it wrong or concerned about being watched – their elbows remain fixed to their blazer pockets. But, because this isn’t drama for drama’s sake – because there is a reason – and because sign language demands size, those children slowly but surely have to drop their self-conscious style and they have to get the accent right. They might be shown the BSL finger-spelling alphabet, but no language depends on spelling out every word. Use the signs and it’s quicker and more efficient – and you can communicate effectively.

So to the third benefit; the children laugh a great deal as they learn to sign. Is it because I show them a few of the ‘rude’ words? Is it because they themselves work out some of the signs for those bodily functions? They definitely revel in inventing their own sign names; certainly this makes them giggle – who’d have thought a Headmaster used to suck his thumb as a little boy? Are they delighting in the fact that they will be able to communicate with each other in the corridor, playground, classroom without any adult knowing what’s being said? Many go home and teach siblings – now parents are excluded from their conversations too, and yet it’s ‘in their faces’! There’s no compulsory exam, there’s no compulsory prep and there’s no immediate obvious benefit – ‘Sir, what if I never meet a deaf person?’ At my school, there is a treat when my sister Annabel brings to school her Hearing Dog, Bryn, for the children to meet and stroke. And because she’s deaf they can sign to her. And because she’s a deaf person, she signs back, and they’ve met and used yet another language. One with its own structure, one that requires practice, one which insists on showmanship.

I would like to see all schools choosing to introduce Deaf Awareness and sign language to their pupils. It is a novel and useful lunchtime or after school club; one that all ages can start together. One that guarantees enjoyment, purpose and more than just a nod to the wider community. Children learn about language: its varying structures and dialects. They perform, innovate and communicate in the most practical of manners. It represents a wonderful new skill your child can develop and, even if he or she never uses it, why not include it on a future CV or university application? Furthermore it is right for parents too. Adult classes are widely available: learning BSL properly from trained Deaf Instructors is an amazing experience – and it’s great for chatting across crowded rooms!

The children at my school talk about assemblies. Not because I deliver enlightening, thought-provoking studies of depth, nor that I am entertaining or funny (though the recognition would be nice). The children love assemblies when they applaud one or more of the other students, because I occasionally insist on ‘deaf applause’, which is recognition without sound. The children and staff lift their hands and wave them quickly in absolute silence. 400 people, sporting massive grins, waving their hands, no noise. And that’s the last benefit – inclusivity. I encourage everybody to try it.

Matt Robinson is the Junior School Head of the City of London Freemen’s School. Find out more at:

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Attain (

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