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Karen Denis

Karen Denis and Christofe - the star of 'Small Talk'

1. How did 'What's the Sign for…?’ come about?

It was actually my husband’s idea! It all started from a conversation about a young Deaf girl from Libya that had just started in my class. She had arrived several months earlier with no language (signed or otherwise). Her parents struggled to understand her, and there didn’t seem to be very much communication with her at home. Her family were amazed when she started to communicate in Sign Language with us at school (although I’m not sure that they always believed us!).

When her father decided to take the family back to Libya I was really upset. I felt as though we’d taught her to communicate, and shown her how things could be, then we’d sent her back home where no-one would understand her again. I was all fired up to ‘adopt’ her and take her under my wing!! This is when my husband said there must be hundreds of kids (and adults) in this position even within the UK. I started to think about children and families I know who couldn’t get to sign classes for various reasons (.e.g shift workers, older people, etc) and decided to make a beginners DVD. ‘Sign In’ was born, and because of the interest and uptake on this one it snowballed from there.

2. Tell us about the gallery where you film the DVDs - is it a cellar?!!

Ha ha…. No, I wish it was… filled with bottles of fine wine! It’s a barn that we’ve converted into a studio. We normally hire a studio, but because of the amount of filming we were doing last time, we decided it would be easier (and more cost effective) to buy in everything we needed. It’s great though as we don’t’ have to buy in time slots in a studio or panic if we don’t finish in time. We can just carry on until we get it right. We did get a few strange looks when we were buying loads of black carpet and curtains though!

3. 'Small Talk' - your Baby Sign DVD - has it been successful? Who inspired you to produce this work?

‘Small Talk’ has been very successful. We get a steady stream of orders coming in for it, and it’s got some great reviews. I am actually surprised though that we weren’t overwhelmed and completely swamped with orders, as baby signing classes are popular all over the country. There has been so much research into the benefits of signing with babies and a lot of publicity about how it can develop thinking skills, and language abilities that I honestly thought we wouldn’t be able to keep up with demand.

Even though it’s sold as a ‘Baby Signing’ DVD, it’s useful for children who want to learn to sign, and it also has a section on Signing with Special Needs Children too.

My son, Christofe is the star of ‘Small Talk’ and I suppose in a way it was him who inspired me to produce it. Even though he’s hearing, I signed to him as soon as he was born, and he started signing back at 10 months old! I remember I used to take him to Mother and Toddler group on my days off thinking this was the right ‘motherly’ thing to do! As soon as we arrived he would start to sign ‘home’. He’d obviously had enough of the noise and hustle and bustle of other kids at nursery all week whilst I’d been at work and wanted a bit of time to himself! At least he was able to let me know!

Baby signing is fantastic and makes you realise just how much babies can actually understand and want to talk to you. It’d be great if ALL parents could see the benefits and learn!

4. How did you get to work with Jim Hay?

Some friends introduced me to Jim a few years ago when I was looking for an artist to work with on the ‘Picture this…’ book.

We got on straight away, and I was amazed at Jim’s ability to turn my story ramblings into a pictoral form and produce something that looked exactly like the version in my head. Very worrying! ha ha…
In addition to being a great artist, Jim also has a multi-media business (Cyber 42). The lads (Jim, Paul and PJ) have been fantastic at knowing what we want and have been really flexible in all kinds of ways to help us achieve what we wanted to do. They’ve filmed and produced our last 5 DVD’s and have put up with me changing my mind every 5 minutes about what I want, and how I want the production to be.

It’s great to work with friends who really want our projects to succeed. Jim is one of the most chilled out, generous people you could ever meet, and we managed to rope Kerry in (the friend that originally introduced us) to deal with all of our orders and Admin. Kerry’s my ‘right hand woman’ and the one who needs the credit for making sure all the orders go out on time and to the right customers. If it was left to me, Baby signers would end up with Level 2 material and vice versa – I’m completely disorganised - ha ha! Good to know they all keep me in check.

5. Are there trends in Sign Language teaching? If so, what have you noticed in the last couple of years? Better regulation? Higher pass rates?

To be honest, because we’re not linked to ‘Signature’ (CACDP) in any way, I can’t really comment on their teaching methods or classes.

All I will say is that some tutors seem to be unhappy with new assessment systems, and I’ve heard comments and grumblings about people passing exams when their signing doesn’t appear to be of a high enough standard. I don’t know…. It’s not really for me to judge. We base our DVD’s on the curriculum that is taught at Level 1 and 2, but always make it clear that we’re not linked. As long as our standards are kept high, then I’m happy.

6. What was the rationale for 'Picture This'? Did it take a long time to assemble?

The ‘Picture this…’ book started as 5 stories that were part of the ‘See it Signed’ Level 1 DVD.
I wrote the stories based on funny things that had happened to me, family or friends in the past, and we used these to sign stories for receptive practice in one of the sections of the ‘See it Signed’ DVD.

Once Jim had drawn these 5 stories, and I saw how great they looked, I asked him if he wanted to join forces to make a book. He agreed, but I’m not sure that he knew what he was letting himself in for!

I started having more and more story ideas pop into my head. I’d be driving down the road and see something silly and think ‘yeah… there’s another one for the book’. Poor Jim, it was him that had to keep up with all of the story boards and he spent hours and hours drawing and re-drawing them all. We called a halt at 50 stories, and put them onto 2 DVD’s ‘Picture this signed – Level 1’ and ‘Picture this signed – Level 2’.

The Picture this book, and Picture this signed DVD’s are popular as students use the picture format to sign the stories themselves, but then have the DVD version of the story so they can watch Deaf presenters signing it and showing ‘how it should be done’. Tutors also like it as a teaching resource. It was a lot of work (mainly for Jim!), but I think it was worth it.

7. What's the next project to come off the 'What's the Sign for…?' production line?

I’ve got loads of ideas in the pipeline, that involve beginners, children, and level 3 material, but I like to listen to what people want rather than producing something that I think they need. I’d really appreciate any suggestions as to what people would like next. I’d love for this interview to lead to an influx of ideas from students, tutors and anyone else with an interest in Deafness and Sign Language. Let us know what you want so we can produce it!

One of our first jobs for the New Year is designing a new modern ‘all singing, all dancing’ website. We want to include sign language on there for our Deaf customers, and make our products available to buy in various formats and in cheaper ‘chunks’. I’ll let you know more about this once we know exactly what we’re going to include.

Keep an eye on our website for updates. (www.whatsign.co.uk)
Happy New Year to everyone!