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British Sign Language: Facts and Information

  • Synopsis: Published: 2009-01-20 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-09) - Information on British Sign Language for the deaf including its history and learning to sign tips. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Neil Payne/George Spence.

Main Document

Quote: "Users of British Sign Language successfully campaigned the government of the United Kingdom and made BSL into an officially recognized British language back in March 2003."

British Sign language (or BSL) is a visual-gestural language which makes use of three dimensional space and the movement of hands (and other parts of the body) to convey meaning. It has its own vocabulary and syntax.

An aid to understanding it can be helped by understating the processes of spoken language.

Spoken language involves the use of the oratory faculties to produce sounds mapped against specific words and grammatical combinations. The oratory elements are then received by the auditory faculties and processed accordingly. British sign language however, makes use of the visual faculties as opposed to the auditory faculties. In the same way that spoken language makes use of rules to produce comprehensive messages, British Sign Language is also governed by a complex grammar which allows both the tangible and the non tangible to be discussed thoroughly.

Contrary to the beliefs of significant parts of the speaking population, British Sign Language is not a mixture of arbitrary signs modeled solely on the visual referent.

History of British Sign Language

British Sign Language has fought a difficult battle throughout history - a battle which is still being fought today.

The following information will give an overview of the language and some of the battles that it has had to endure throughout history.

One of the first official historical record of BSL dates back to 1576, when a wedding ceremony was conducted in sign language in Leicester.

The 18th and 19th Centuries appear to have been a far more positive time in history for individuals using it. Examples of events during this period are as follows:

  • Reference to the development of a sign language finger alphabet, developed by Daniel Defoe, was documented in 1720. Incidentally, this method of communicating alphabets is still in use today (with a few minor adjustments)
  • The first public school for Deaf children was established in 1755 by Charles-Michel de l'Epee. Charles-Michel de l'Epee continues to be celebrated as a pioneer in educational services for the Deaf. Following his death, he became recognized as a 'Benefactor of Humanity' and it was hence declared that deaf people had rights according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (this declaration was documented during the French Revolution and defines individual and collective rights).
  • Not long after this, Thomas Braidwood established a school for the Deaf in Edinburgh in 1760. Twenty three years later he established the Braidwood Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Hackney, London. One of Thomas's graduates was Joseph Watson, who also went on to establish a well known school for the deaf. In turn, Joseph's most famous graduate was the inspirational John Lowe who became famous not only for being an excellent barrister but also, for being the first recorded Deaf Barrister.
  • In 1917, Laurent and Lerc (a graduate of l'Epee's School for the Deaf) established the first ever School for the Deaf in America. This school had a great reputation for excellence in its field and became state sponsored in 1819.

Unfortunately, the history of sign language takes a negative turn at this point in history.

From the 1860's onwards, oralism became popular in Deaf education and as such a number of Oral only schools were established. Twenty years later, delegates at the Conference of Educators of the Deaf, voted to implement oralism as the sole method in schools.

At this point, life became difficult for significant numbers of Deaf children.

Forbidden to use sign language, and as such unable to express themselves and engage fully in learning opportunities the potential and well being of many Deaf children became stunted at the best and inhumanely violated at the worst.

The History of the Deaf did not start to take a more positive direction until 1974 when it was agreed that British Sign Language is a language in its own right. From this point, great attention and respect became generated for it from broader society and Deaf people became better able and equipped to express themselves in the educational arena. As such, the acceptance of BSL as a viable and positive language and method of communication, presented the catalyst for Deaf children to be able to achieve both personally and educationally.

The fights for British Sign language which have been fought throughout history have still not ended however. Although 2003 saw the British Government recognizing British Sign Language as a language in its own right, they have yet to give it legal status. As such, the accessibility to necessary information and literature which the hearing population take for granted (such as health, legal, benefits and employment information) is not automatically made available in the necessary formats to the Deaf population. As such, this is a fight that continues to be fought.

British Sign Language Facts

In the last few years, there has been an increasing amount of interest in British Sign Language (BSL). Here are 6 quick facts for the beginner and newbies to BSL:

  • The sign language used in England and the UK is known as British Sign Language (BSL). It is the first language of approx. 150,000 deaf people in the British Isles. There are also many thousands of people who are not deaf who BSL such as employers of deaf people, relatives/friends and interpreters.
  • British Sign Language has its own grammar which uses facial expressions, hand shapes and upper body movements to convey meaning. BSL is a spatial and visual language and a lot of beginners think it is similar to mime (which it is not). The important thing to remember is that the grammar used in BSL is completely different to those used in everyday English.
  • Even though Britain and the U.S.A. speak English as the first language of their respective countries, British Sign Language is different to American Sign Language, also known as ASL. Again, it is also the the same difference with BSL and Irish Sign Language (ISL) and Northern Ireland Sign Language (NISL). This fact demonstrates that even though these countries have English as the first language, the sign language used varies from country to country.
  • Users of British Sign Language successfully campaigned the government of the United Kingdom and made BSL into an officially recognized British language back in March 2003. British Sign Language is now recognized on the same level as other languages of the United Kingdom such as Scottish, Welsh and Gaelic. But to this present day, BSL has no legal protection.
  • Just as in the English language, British Sign Language also has regional dialects. As an example, some signs used in the Northern parts of England may have difficulty being understood in the south of the country and vice versa. And what is even more confusing is that some signs are 'local signs' which are understood in only certain towns. For example, some of the BSL used in Manchester is so local that it is not understood outside of the city. Think of it as local 'slang'. And just like local slang in any town or city, new phrases and words come in and out of fashion or just evolve over time.
  • After reading the facts above, you may think that British Sign Language is difficult to learn. Well the good news is that learning BSL is not as difficult as you may think. Just like learning any other French, Spanish, Japanese or any other language, the hardest part is just getting started. There are many resources for learning BSL. Some are easy to grasp and some are impossible to follow! There are many different resources both online and offline which are worth researching.

Related Information:

  1. Scotland: British Sign Language Bill Passed Unanimously - The British Deaf Association (BDA) - (2015-09-19)
  2. Online Sign Language Dictionary - Ian Langtree - (2015-01-26)
  3. Infants Can Learn to Sign and Communicate from Videos - Emory Health Sciences - (2015-01-24)


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