The Benefits of Being Bilingual

by Cassandra Wye

Imagine …

There is a field of corn. And in that field of corn there lives a family of mice – Mrs. Mouse and all her baby children. All through the spring and summer, the corn grows higher and the babies grow bigger. As summer turns into autumn, the corn ripens in the field and glows golden tall, rustling in the breeze. One day Mrs. Mouse is woken by a terrible sound. The combine harvester has come to harvest the corn. Quick children we must run for our lives! And they do – out of the field and into the farmyard where they find a safe spot to shelter for the night. Mrs. Mouse keeps watch as her babies sleep. And she hears something … the scratch of claws. And she sees something – the shadow of a shape looming over her. And she knows it is a CAT! Wake up children! she says. Be ready to do EXACTLY as I do. And she draws herself up and BARKS at the Cat. And the mousekins follow suit. The cat –  hearing the sound of the dog – runs for its life! Mrs. Mouse turns to her children and says “Let that be a lesson – in the Benefits of Being Bilingual!”

I first saw that story on a Sign Language video back in 1993 at a sign language course run at my Circus School in Bristol. And I loved it then and love it still. As a child, I was introduced to the deaf community and to their language, BSL (British Sign Language).* At my school I learned alongside deaf children. I was puzzled – why didn’t more people learn this language? Being able to sign means you can communicate with anyone. When I was at the University in the 1980’s we looked at research that suggested children learn to sign BEFORE they learn to speak – so why don’t we teach sign at pre-school?

As a Storyteller, I was always going to be inclusive. I come from a family of disabled people. I grew up in an integrated community and couldn’t imagine telling tales only to the “walkie talkies.”

I spent my childhood as a caretaker to my dad, fighting to get into and out of places. I know how frustrating and weary-making exclusion can be – so I was always committed to developing a form of storytelling that would be for everyone.

As a storyteller, my first community project was working with hearing and deaf students on an integrated theatre course. We invented a form of multi-lingual storytelling – tales told in sign, mime, graphics and sound. This led me to working with dance, physical theatre and clowning traditions from around the globe to create a form of storytelling that could be both seen and heard so I could communicate with everyone.

I have worked many times with interpreters – BSL, Mandarin, Behasa and other languages. These amazing people always add an extra dimension to the storytelling

So if you want to make your storytelling welcoming to the deaf community, working with a Sign Language Interpreter is a great first step.

Some tips:

Do your preparation: Send the interpreter your story beforehand, or meet them early on the day and go through the story. Interpreting English is NOT merely translating the words, but translating the meaning. It really helps to go through the story in advance to be able to communicate the essence of the story.

Learn Sign: Even a two-hour introduction will teach you loads about communicating visually and physically, as well as verbally. Putting the hours into learning sign and to incorporate it into your physical telling will make you a much more powerful performer in any language.

Watch performances in sign: Learning Sign not only made me a better communicator but a better performer. Take any chance to watch deaf performers communicating and then you will understand.

Work with your local deaf community: Many festivals make their venues physically accessible, which is good. Some provide BSL and other interpreters, which is even better.

They would do well to go a step further and contact their local communities to TELL them what they are doing?

Expectations in the disabled community are not high. We are used to being excluded. So, if you want us to come, you need to TELL us that you are inclusive and have thought of and included our needs.

If you communicate with us before you run your event, we can help you plan it and shape it to include everyone.

After all storytelling festivals are always needing to develop their audiences.

Promote diversity: Book storytellers with a passion for working across cultures and a particular passion for working with stories from the cultures within your community.

Book disabled storytellers: Work with disabled young artists to increase their opportunities to perform to a mainstream audience. Create an inclusive atmosphere throughout your event.

Above all – talk to people. In any language: Look at your event and figure out who is not present. Then talk to that community to find out why. Take their ideas on board, ask them to come as a test audience and promote the results.

Storytelling IS a fabulous multilingual form of communication, it can and should be open to all. Learning how to be inclusive is a lifelong process. Who knows where it might lead you?


* NOTE: in the US, ASL (American Sign Language) is utilized.

wyeCassandra Wye has been a professional storyteller since 1991. Her inclusive approach to storytelling – Stories in Motion – has taken her around the globe, working on the streets with audiences of 1000’s – from America to Australia, in the heart of the rainforest and on the roof of the world. She specializes in working with marginalized communities with little or no access to education and the arts, with local, national and international organizations. She was recently funded by Arts Council England and British Council to research the use of First Nation storytelling in science education in USA and Canada.


The Benefits of Being Bilingual — 2 Comments

  1. Cassandra Wye, your words are wise. My wife is Deaf. I am Hearing. Most of my storytelling is for hearing students. I always teach them a few signs as I tell them a story. My wife, KR GLickman, and I tell stories in tandem in sign and voice called Unseen Borders. It is great for hearing students to see that this Deaf Woman can tell stories, and make jokes, and draw them in. Next time you wander through Boston give me call. I’ll buy you a coffee, or a chai, or what ever is you delight.

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