Speech Sucks: The Future Signs

In all the noise and bustle of Edinburgh during August, this was a refreshing and quiet event. The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas regularly puts on open debates headed by university professors. This one, led by Heriot Watt professors Graham Turner and Gary Quinn, was on the role of sign language in the modern world—do we still need it in an age of electronic communication and cochlear implants? The majority of the audience was signing rather than speaking, and it was quite an experience for the handful of us in the audience who couldn’t sign. For once, the tables were turned and speech didn’t dominate. Fortunately, a quartet of sign language interpreters were on hand to translate for the hearing,

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas will be putting on events throughout the Fringe so go along and discover something equally fascinating.

Turner played devil’s advocate first, arguing that sign language is becoming obsolete and unnecessary in the modern world, but was roundly shouted, (well, signed), down by Quinn and various audience members who ascended the podium to sign or speak their opinions. Next, Quinn and Turner changed sides, though Quinn found arguing against the use of sign language very difficult, as he’s deaf himself. The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas’ debate-style structure is really just a way getting the audience involved, though—and it worked beautifully, as various attendees were moved to share their own experiences with the value of signing. One man mentioned that though both he and his wife are deaf, their two young children are hearing, but the family has found that using sign language at home helps them pay full attention to each other without the distractions of electronics and outside noise. In my favourite example, another man pointed out that sign language has an expressive value all its own. When you speak the word “bowl,” it only gives so much information about the bowl in question. When signing, one can immediately convey how big the bowl is and what sort of bowl it is. In addition, various others testified to the importance of sign language in the practical world and in the arts; Quinn is also a theatre artist.

This was a lovely and informative community event. I learned a great deal, including the correct way to applaud in sign language: it’s jazz hands raised above your head, and it’s about the expression, not the noise. The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas will be putting on events throughout the Fringe so go along and discover something equally fascinating. 

Reviews by Lauren Moreau

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The Blurb

You speak 15,000 words a day. You read 10 times more. You're force-fed 50 gigabytes of data daily. Language is tired: mangled, mauled and meaningless. We've exhausted it. But we can breathe life into language – by learning to sign. Signing opens your mind to a completely different way of seeing life and puts the world in the palm of your hand. And best of all – the machines can't do it. Because when you sign, your body becomes your language. Can Professor Graham Turner (Heriot-Watt University) persuade you to sign up for tomorrow?