I’ve always been curious about British Sign Language.
How does it work? It is similar linguistically to spoken English or is it totally unique?
And what’s the best way to go about learning it?
A few months ago, I received an email from a reader, Derek, which really struck a chord with me and reignited this curiosity once again. Here’s what he wrote:
“I work as a healthcare assistant and often come across people who have sign [language] as their only means of communication.
Most of the time I can kind of get by, by speaking slowly so the patients can lip read what I say.
But honestly, I feel embarassed that I can’t communicate more effectively with them.
I know that even if I made even just a little effort to learn the basics of sign language, it would brighten up these patients’ day and allow me to perform my job much better.”
I soon discovered that Derek wasn’t the only only one who felt this way.
As I reached out to people to find out more about BSL, a number of other readers shared similar stories with me.
Whether they worked in healthcare, childcare or even just encountered deaf and hearing-impaired people in their local cafes, the feeling was the same:
We’ve all had those moments when we wish we knew a little sign language. I’ve been there myself many times.
And yet, even within the language learning community, sign languages tend to get significantly less attention than spoken languages do.
That’s why, in this article you’re going to learn exactly what British Sign Language is and find out – from 5 BSL experts – why you should seriously consider learning it.
(Note: If you're from the USA, check out this guest post to learn about American Sign Language – ASL).
British Sign Language (BSL) is a unique language developed by the deaf and hearing impaired community in Britian.
It was recognised in 2003 by the British government and has almost 200,000 deaf and hearing users all over Britain.
You might assume that BSL is just an interpretation in English but in fact, English and BSL are very different!
BSL has it’s own grammar and sentence structures that are different from English, making it a unique language in its own right.
Naturally, it’s a very visual language and it requires you to use your hands, your face and your body to make signs and communicate. This can make it a very fun language to learn and use!
So now you know a little bit about British Sign Language. But why should you decide to learn it?
Well, when you think about it, there are lots of great reasons:
I decided to find out more about these and other motivations for learning BSL by asking a group of sign language experts and enthuasiasts their opinions.
Here's what they had to say…
“I studied with two deaf students at college. I learnt to sign my name and that was it. I always felt that I could have done more to make them feel included and part of the class. This failing lived with me and when I started working at the Employment Service and we had a deaf person working alongside us, I decided to study BSL. I went to night school to study every Tuesday and Thursday. Myself and Emma became good friends. I loved our in jokes, our lunchtime wander to the shops sussing out the undercover security guards and signing to each other.
The feeling of making someone feel included is amazing. The friends you make live with you forever. If you want to help make the world a better place learn to sign.”
“Because it’s a unique language which when understood, unlocks a rich and vibrant culture. If you don’t believe me, ask someone to tell you a Deaf joke – the ones I’ve heard (seen?) are intellectual and physical comedy combined! King Kong’s marriage proposal is my favourite. Yes, I’m a rubbish linguist but I stand some chance of making myself clear in BSL as we’re used to gesturing and physically describing when we speak. It’s almost natural and I feel less afraid and so it’s my favourite language.
My advice is ‘use it or lose it’ once you’re learning!”
– Mark Applin, Signly
“In our experience, people learn British Sign Language for many different reasons. For some it is to be able to communicate better with a family member, friend, or colleague who uses BSL. Some people learn BSL as part of their job, either because they regularly work with people who use BSL or because they work in a public facing position and wish to be prepared to be able to communicate with any BSL users that they may come into contact with. Others learn BSL for general interest and may not have any immediate plans to use their new skills with anyone in particular. No reason is better than any other but it is great to know that more and more people within communities all around the UK are able to communicate using BSL with those who rely on it for their day-to-day communication.”
– Simon Harvey, British-Sign
“BSL is the most exciting and expressive language in the UK, as you learn how to create linguistic meaning using your face, your shoulders and your body. It relies entirely on visual images and has a different grammatical structure to spoken languages, so it is like finding new depths of yourself that you didn’t know existed. It’s a great skill to have as it really does open up your way of looking at the world. The more people that learn BSL, the more integrated Deaf BSL users are going to be – so why not join the club?”
– Aine Jackson, Research & Policy Officer, British Deaf Association
“I’ve only recently started learning sign language. I grew up using speech and lipreading, although I have a profound hearing loss. I felt like I wanted to be part of both the Hearing world and also the Deaf world and learning sign language was a way for me to be able to communicate better with my Deaf friends and the Deaf community. Since I became Deafie Blogger and began writing blogs for the Phonak Hearing Like Me community blog, I’ve met more Deaf people. The knowledge of sign language opens up many doors and who knows what opportunities it will lead to in the future! It’s an incredibly beautiful language and I recommend learning it as you never know when it’ll come in handy!”
– ‘E' a.k.a. Deafie Blogger
By now, you probably have all the motivation you need to get started learning British Sign Language.
As anyone who has ever successfully learnt any language will tell you, the moment you realise you are having a conversation with someone – when you are expressing yourself and can understand what people are communicating to you – it’s an amazing feeling.
Don’t worry about making mistakes, just start by learning a few basic signs and begin using them.
Accept that you will get things wrong and that it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is just to start.
You'll find that BSL users are very appreciative of the effort you make and will do whatever they can to help you learn.
With your new language, you will soon be able to:
One final word of advice: when learning any language daily practice is key. Practising for a short amount of time every day is much better than practising for 3 or 4 hours once a week.
Make BSL a part of your daily life and you will be amazed at how quickly you progress and can start using it with the people you meet.
I hope you’ve found this post useful! If you're ready to start learning BSL, then I want to help you out! I've created a free PDF guide that teaches you 10 Easy Words in British Sign Language. These are the essential signs you need to take your first steps in BSL. Click here to download the PDF for free.
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