Iona Rhys – the sign language pioneer
Jade O'Donoghue

Iona Rhys – the sign language pioneer

Iona Rhys the sing language pioneer

First published date November 24 2014 Amended date March 16 2016

Looking for sign language experts wasn’t easy, because to all of us on the editorial team, anyone who could simply speak it was to be admired and definitely an expert. Iona Rhys though, has gone a little bit further than just learning to sign. When one of her twin daughters was diagnosed with severally sensorineural hearing loss aged just three and a half, she not only learnt to sign but became a prominent member of the deaf community, attending events and even organising her own conference for those with hearing loss. With her daughters now 10 and the conference in its third year, Iona was more than happy to chat to us about her experiences with sign language and inspire anyone thinking about studying it to get their hands at the ready and start.


Tell us a bit about your experience with sign language – when did you learn first learn it?

My family and I have been members of North Wales Deaf Association for a number of years and take part in their events when possible. We first went on a family weekend with the National Deaf Children’s Society around three years ago where we played games and learnt a bit of sign language.  After this weekend I realised how amazing this language was and the following September, I, along with my friend (who is also the mother of a deaf child), enrolled in a 10 week Introduction to BSL course and then followed by doing Level 1. I’m now studying Level 2 iBSL at Coleg Llandrillo.


How did you go from that to organising a conference about hearing loss?

When I said at work that I was doing the BSL course, my colleague Wyn Thomas, who was Pro Vice-Chancellor at Bangor University, asked me about it as he was interested.  I said that we, as a university, need to do something and this is where the idea of ‘Lend me your ears’ came from. It’s a conference for both deaf and hearing people.  The first conference was a success, with a lot of interest, and I’m in the process of arranging our third one for April 2015.


How important do you think sign language is to the lives of deaf people?

Sign language is essential to the lives of deaf people as it’s their way of communicating.  I also feel that sign language could be a very useful and powerful tool in any school.  My daughter has spelling tests every week with the rest of her classmates and we’ve been finger spelling the words which she remembers really well.  Her twin sister has been learning the same to a great advantage.


Do you think it’s harder to learn than spoken languages?

I’m speaking form a personal point of view but I find sign language much easier than other languages.  A lot of the signs are common sense when you sit down and learn. For example, the sign for Wales are like the 3 feathers on the Wales Rugby Shirt. Scotland is like you are playing the bagpipes and so on. I think one of the most important things to remember is that there is a lot of pointing to objects and people, which is not taken as a rude gesture.


Are there often updates to the language and new signs?

I think what you need to realise is that sign language is very much like English – it has its own words depending on the region you live in. Think about London and Manchester English – they have different vocabulary for different things – it’s the same in sign language – different signs depending on the region you live.


What advice would you give for someone interested in learning sign langauge but maybe a bit nervous about it?

I would say go for it! The deaf culture is amazing and a lot of fun. You will also meet some amazing people by doing so.


Lastly, what’s your favourite thing to sign?

Many of the animal signs are a lot of fun. I also like the signs for party, Welsh and practice.


Thanks Iona, we’ll have to go away and learn those ones to understand! If you’re inspired by Iona to start learning to sign, have a look at the range of courses available or contact Bangor University to find out more about her conference. Sign language can be useful in a number of different careers as well as being the springboard to start a whole new one in interpreting or helping those with hearing loss, so get your hands at the ready and start learning now.