BSL: 14 FAQs and answers that will really help you understand BSL

We answer some of the most frequently asked questions about sign language:

1. What is BSL?

British Sign Language (BSL) is the official sign language used in the UK. It is a visual-gestural language used mainly by people who are profoundly deaf or have severe hearing loss. There are no confirmed figures for the number of deaf people in the UK, but estimated figures for the number of people with some level of hearing loss is around 11 million people, (around 1 in 6 people). There are also no confirmed figures for the number of people who use BSL either, although estimates range from 50,000 – 170,000. Local Social Services departments used to keep registers of deaf and hard of hearing people in their local area. However, there has been no mandatory obligation to do so as of 2013. The numbers quoted for sign language users also includes family members who use BSL and professionals working with sign language users such as interpreters.

2. Why should I learn BSL?

i. You have a deaf friend or relative and want to communicate with them

Parents of deaf children, school friends, girlfriends (or boyfriends) and work colleagues often learn sign language to connect with the people closest to them.

ii. You’re helping to make the world a better, more inclusive place for deaf people

Smiles and good karma for everyone! BSL users appreciate the fact that someone has taken the time to learn sign language. Even the basics such as ‘good morning, and ‘please/thank you’ really help.

iii. Your (future) boss will be impressed that you’re enhancing your skillset

If your job involves meeting the public, BSL is not only a great addition to any CV, it shows customers you care and that fundamentally, you (and the company you work for) are interested in people.

iv. You will open up new (more exciting) career opportunities

Interpreting, Teacher of the Deaf, Communication Support Worker – the more you learn, the more career opportunities open up for you. BSL enhances your career prospect so, why limit your potential?

v. Your mates will think you’re totally awesome when you show off your hot skills!

Yes, you can just learn for fun! Sign Language is a fabulous language to learn and your hearing mates will wonder what you’re signing about when you bump into a deaf person you know.

3. Is BSL the same as Makaton?

This is a frequently asked question as there is a lot of confusion about Makaton and BSL – to the untrained eye, they look the same.

Makaton is a communication support system that uses a limited number of individual signs. Usually, Makaton involves using individual signs along with speech. BSL, on the other hand, is a recognised language (see the answer to the question below). Sign language also uses more hand gestures, facial expressions and body movements to create language within 3-dimensional space. It is a complex language with all the usual elements of a language, including regional variations. English has no part to play in BSL except for fingerspelling, which is used in limited circumstances such as spelling people’s names or place names.

4. Deaf children: does BSL delay speech?

There is a popular misconception among hearing parents of deaf children that using sign language delays speech. There is no evidence that signing causes a delay in speech. In fact, the opposite is true – as long as a child has access to a language before the age of five, then a deaf child will develop language skills on par with hearing peers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that babies can learn sign language from as young as six months which is significantly earlier than learning speech which doesn’t start until around the age of two.

5. BSL: how, when and where was it invented?

When BSL learners ask this question, many students are surprised to learn there are historical references to deaf people dating back to Socrates. Here in the UK, there are historical documents dating back to the 1500s that indicate deaf people were part of society and carried out activities such as going to school, working and getting married.  Sign language has probably been around for as long as people have been able to communicate with each other. Nonetheless, there are key historical dates that mark the modern use of British Sign Language in the UK.

6. What is Total Communication?

Sign language was often acquired by deaf children as a result of attending deaf schools, many of which have closed. As 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, many deaf children still learn sign language at school as part of the Total Communication strategy that is used in mainstream schools.

Total Communication (inclusive communication) uses a combination of signs, speech, lip-reading and any residual hearing (or sound acquired from hearing aids/cochlear implants) to assist with the communication. If you are a parent of a Deaf child, you can look at our families page on MK Deaf Zone for resources to support your child.

Historically, when children attended deaf schools, they developed a strong sense of community. This carried on into adulthood when adults attended deaf clubs. In recent times, many deaf clubs have closed so technology now plays a major part in helping sign language users stay in touch with each other. There are a number of Facebook groups such as Deafland UK where members discuss popular news topics and other topics of interest.

7. Is there a universal sign language?

Yet another frequently asked question about BSL! Sign Language is like every other language on the planet, in that there are as many different sign languages as there are countries. There are also regional differences so signs will vary across the country too. So, just like someone from Bristol has a slightly different dialect to someone from Newcastle, the same applies to British Sign Language – even the simplest signs will vary according to region. For example, at the time of writing, there were over 12 signs for purple!

While there is no universal sign language, there is a form of international sign language called Gestuno. Gestuno uses elements of different sign languages so that sign language users from different parts of the world are able to communicate with each other.

8. Is sign language a ‘real’ language?

Yes, British Sign Language is a real language. Research on BSL started around 40 years ago and has demonstrated that sign language has a structure, syntax and grammar, just like any other language. However, despite the research, British Sign Language was only recognised as a language in the UK in 2003. The recognition has helped BSL gain popularity but sign language is still without legal protection across most of the UK. Unfortunately, the lack of legal protection causes significant issues for deaf people in accessing information. The situation is different in Scotland where BSL now has legal protection thanks to the BSL Act which came into force in 2015.  

9. How does sign language change over time?

British Sign Language, like any other language, changes over time to reflect how language is used in society. For example, new signs are created when new technology becomes mainstream or when major events such as Brexit, occur. Sign language is a living language, its use is adapted by deaf people so that sign language users can communicate and more importantly, understand each other.

10. What are the best resources for learning sign language?

The resources you use depends on the type of learner you are. Some learners prefer to learn from books, some prefer to learn with others in a group and some prefer to learn alone. Whatever your preference, our courses use a combination of group sessions, one to one tutorials and online resources to ensure students maximise the time spent learning BSL.

We have a list of reading resources we recommend to BSL students. We also provide paper-based resources such as our fingerspelling chart.

11. Learning online vs classroom course – which is best?

People learn sign language online for all sorts of reasons and they can be beneficial for practising signs. However, there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t pay for online courses that do not offer access to a Deaf tutor:

  • The quality varies widely. There are very few online courses that are accredited.
  • There is no opportunity to practise your new signing skills with others
  • How do you know that you are performing signs correctly?

To be proficient at sign language, learners need to interact with deaf people. Everyone has their own style of signing (signing style is as individual as the wands in the Harry Potter universe!). The only way you can get used to different styles of signing is by practising with other people.

12. Where can I practice my signing?

Most learners tend to practise BSL with their sign language tutor and classmates in a classroom. However, there are deaf pubs and events where deaf people welcome learners as they know people need to practise their sign language skills. Interaction with other sign language users, particularly native sign language users is essential to developing your skills.

There are a number of deaf groups and activities in and around Milton Keynes that students are welcome to attend. Check out our Community section for details of group activities.

13. Where can I learn BSL (near me)?

You can find BSL classes in your area by checking the awarding body websites. Courses are officially accredited by two awarding bodies – Signature or iBSL. The two awarding bodies list BSL training centres across the UK. You can use the register to contact a centre in your area to find out the cost and format of their course.

The average cost for a Level 1 accredited course is around £350 – £500 depending on location. Costs increase as you achieve higher qualifications. Be aware that there are a number of online courses that offer some form of ‘accreditation’ such as a diploma. However, these are unofficial accreditations and have no value because they are not nationally recognised qualifications.

14. Can I learn BSL online?

We run a number of courses ranging from BSL Basics to BSL Level 3. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, you can now learn online. Costs vary but you can learn as part of a group or book one to one sessions for as little as £19 for a session. Most BSL courses across the UK follow the academic year but learning online means you can learn when it suits you. Harness those ninja signing skills and sign up here to one of our sign language courses. You can access our BSL Basics for free if you sign up for our BSL level 1 course.

If you’re not quite ready to sign up why not click here to download our free fingerspelling sheet.

Need more facts about BSL? Then here are 10 facts you need to know about sign language