Sign language is a visual form of communication that involves the use of facial expressions, hand shapes, and gestures. It’s mainly used by people who are deaf, or have other hearing impairments.

There are more than 300 different sign languages being used in different countries across the world. In the UK, however, the most predominant is British Sign Language (BSL), which is currently used by around 151,000 people.

Sign language is often overlooked because many people believe that it’s only relevant for people with hearing impairments. But whether you struggle with hearing or not, the benefits of learning sign language are huge. It can boost cognitive function, lead to new career opportunities, and encourage cultural integration. Plus, as a visual language, it can make for a fun and interesting learning experience too.

To give you a better understanding of what British Sign Language is all about, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide full of background information and learning resources.

What is British Sign Language?

In the UK, British Sign Language (BSL) is the most commonly used form of sign language. After extensive campaigning, BSL was finally recognised as an official minority language by the UK government in 2003. Thankfully, this has led to heightened awareness of the language, which now holds similar status to other minority languages such as Welsh and Gaelic.

BSL has been in use for hundreds of years. In fact, the first recorded observations date back to 1576 and 1595, and even still – there are various references found in the Bible and in Roman and Greek writings.

As with all languages, BSL has evolved naturally over time. But today, it’s generally based on a combination of facial expressions, hand shapes and gestures, lip patterns, shoulder movements, and body language.

Interestingly, BSL isn’t strongly related to spoken English, and instead has its own grammatical and sentence structure. For example, in BSL, sentences start with the main topic or subject, before referring to something about the topic. For example, where in English you might say ‘What is your name?’, in BSL this is phrased ‘Name – what?’

Sign Support English (SSE) is another form of sign language used in Britain, though it’s not an official language. SSE uses the same signs as BSL but places words in the same order as in spoken English. It’s generally used to support spoken English with sign language, for example, in schools or on television.

In Northern Ireland, Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used as well as BSL, which you can read more about on the Irish Deaf Society website.

Important aspects of British Sign Language

Fingerspelling

Every letter of the BSL alphabet has its very own fingerspelling sign. You can use fingerspelling to spell out words – usually to communicate the names of different places and people for which there’s not a specific sign.

People can also use fingerspelling to spell words that they don’t know the sign for, have forgotten, or to provide extra clarity for the person they are communicating with.

In some cases, fingerspelling is also incorporated into other signs within BSL. For example, the sign for the word ‘gold’ is communicated via the fingerspelling of ‘g’ followed by a movement of the hands in a shimmering motion.

To get a better understanding of the Fingerspelling alphabet, have a watch of the video below.

Lip patterns

When people communicate in sign language, they also move their mouths. And in BSL, lip patterns are often used to help clarify signs. This involves mouthing English words while signing, without using your voice.

Generally speaking, in BSL most common nouns – and all proper nouns – are mouthed as they’re signed. For example, place names and the names of people, whether finger spelt or signed, are always lip patterned.

Lip patterns can be very important when distinguishing between words in BSL. For example, the handshape and movement for ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’, ‘nephew’, and ‘niece’ is the same, but each word is distinguished by different lip patterns.

Facial expressions and hand movements

Facial expressions and hand movements are another key component of sign language. They can be used to reflect the mood of the conversation or topic, or to add extra emotion to what you’re saying.

Though it may feel unnatural to begin with, try not to be afraid of being expressive. For example, if you wanted to communicate that it’s really rainy or really windy outside, you could use facial expressions and hand gestures to add depth and expression to your sentences.

For more top tips on how to effectively communicate using BSL, have a watch of the video below.

What are the benefits of learning British Sign Language?

Sign language is generally meant for people with hearing impairments and the people they interact with. However, even for those who don’t fall into these categories, there are many benefits to learning BSL. Below are a few examples…

  • BSL is an exciting and expressive language. As a very visual language that involves the use of your hands, face, and body, BSL differs from other languages and can be fun and interesting to learn.

  • Learning BSL can improve cognitive skills. Learning a new language can boost our academic potential and memory, and improve concentration and problem-solving skills. Among other things, research suggests that this might delay the risk of dementia for up to five years.

  • BSL engages all of your senses and encourages new levels of expression. Many of us have always relied solely on speech to communicate. Learning a new language – particularly BSL – can push you outside of your comfort zone and help you to reach your full potential. By engaging other senses, such as sight and touch, you can improve your visual and spatial awareness.

  • BSL can encourage you to meet and interact with new people. Since BSL is spoken by 151,000 people across the UK, by learning you’ll be able to meet and interact with new people where you otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

  • BSL encourages cultural integration. Being able to communicate with deaf communities can help to gain a better awareness of their rich culture.

  • BSL can help you to stand out from the crowd. For those seeking new challenges or a career change, learning BSL can open new and exciting doors. Sign language is particularly useful in areas such as social care, education, and hospitality, or in any frontline public-facing role.

For prospective employers, knowledge of BSL can be indicative of your cognitive, critical thinking, and communication abilities. Plus, if you decided to take your skills further, you could also consider becoming a BSL teacher or interpreter

To continue reading about the many benefits of learning a new language, check out our article The benefits of learning a new language.

How can I learn British Sign Language?

It can be quite tricky to teach yourself BSL from a book, leaflet, or video (though these can be useful resources for practicing at home). This is because it can be difficult to know whether you’re doing it correctly or not. Instead, the best way to learn BSL is to undertake a course led by a qualified sign language teacher.

Probably the quickest and easiest way to start learning BSL is to enroll onto an online course. Not only does this offer you the flexibility to study BSL at your own pace and in your own time, but you’ll also be able to save on travel costs too.

If you’re interested in signing up to a course, you’ll find some options over on the learning section of our site. Whether you just want to learn the basics, or brush up your skills to a high standard, there’s various options to choose from.

For example, Open Academy offers a comprehensive course designed to set you up with a solid foundation of knowledge which you can then develop into more advanced skills. Alternatively, The British Sign Language Diploma course, for both novices and those with background knowledge, is designed to help you take your skills further. It covers all the practical aspects of BSL vocabulary and grammar, as well as additional topics; such as the origins of BSL.

Alternatively, if online courses aren’t for you and you prefer in-person teaching, you could consider attending BSL evening classes instead. BSL evening classes are available across the country and usually involve between 16 to 20 hours of studying. Enrolment on a course will usually cost around £300.

To find out what BSL evening courses are happening in your area, you can use the search toolbar on Signature. There are also various BSL qualifications to explore on the Institute of British Sign Language website.

Final thoughts…

The benefits of learning a language are well-known, but when it comes to deciding which one to learn, sign language is quite often side-tracked. This is mostly likely due to the fact that it’s based on visual communication rather than the spoken language, which we’re used to using everyday.

However, whether you struggle with a hearing impairment or not, the benefits of learning sign language are huge. Not only can it boost cognitive function, improve memory, and open up career opportunities – but any extended means of communication between different groups in society is also great for encouraging cultural integration too.

What are your experiences of learning sign language? What do you think are the main benefits of learning British Sign Language? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below. 

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