What is BSL?

British Sign Language

BSL stands for British Sign Language, a visual language used by 151,000 people in the UK. It is a natural language created by deaf people and dates back hundreds of years. Did you know that many heading people also use BSL, making it more common than Welsh and Gaelic!

What is Sign Language?

Deaf people around the world communicate using sign language as distinct from spoken language in their everyday lives. A Sign Language is a visual language that uses a system of manual, facial and body movements as the means of communication.

Sign Language is not a universal language, and different sign languages are used in different countries, like the many spoken languages all over the world.

Some countries such as Belgium, the UK, the USA or India may have more than one sign language. Hundreds of sign languages are in used around the world, for instance, Japanese Sign Language, (or Nihon Show, JSL), British Sign Language (BSL), Spanish Sign Language (Lengua de signos o sends sepanola, or LSE), Turkish Sign Language (Turk Israel Dili, TID).

Sign Languages can be analysed at the phonological, morphological, grammatical and lexical levels, and there are differences at each of these levels between the many different sign languages. There are however language families of sign languages: American Sign Language, French Sign Language (langue des signed franchise, LSF) and Irish Sign Language (ISL) are a part of the same sign language family.

Some of the world’s sign languages are legally recognised in national laws or constitutions, or are mentioned in the laws of different countries, such as those relating to education, the justice system, etc. Other sign languages are not recognised or considered as languages. Deaf communities all over the world strive to have their Sign Languages recognised as fully-fledged languages and to secure their rights to live daily life in their sign language.

Having access to  signed language is central to any Deaf person, child or adult for their cognitive, social, emotional and linguistic growth. Signed languages are acquired by children in the same timeframe as spoken languages and this acquisition process. It is important that deaf children at early ages have access to a sign language – it should be understood as their first language, their education can be achieved bilingually in the national sign language and the national written/spoken language.

Language and culture are interrelated. Deaf culture is deeply dependent and rooted in signed languages.

British Sign Language (BSL)

Within Britain the most common form of Sign Language is called British Sign Language (BSL). BSL has its own grammatical structure and syntax, as a language it is not dependant nor is it strongly related to spoken English. BSL is the first or preferred language of 151,000 people within the UK.

 BSL – a recognised language?

BSL was finally recognised as an official minority language of the UK by the UK Government’s Secretary of the State for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on 18th March 2003 with the promise to look into a legal status for BSL. Deaf people today do not see that BSL is recognised on the same level as other indigenous languages such as Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish. BSL is Britain’s fourth indigenous language!

Additionally, BSL and ISL were officially recognised as minority languages in Northern Ireland in March 2004 by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy MP.

To date, BSL is still not legally recognised. If you wish to support the BSL legal recognition, please:

 Additional Information

Scotland – Scottish Parliament passed BSL (Scotland) Bill in September 2015 and got a Royal Assent – BSL (Scotland) Act 2015. Click for more information

Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland Assembly

 A worldwide language?

Many hearing people have the false impression that Sign Language is a worldwide universal language, but this however is far from the truth. Because of the isolated nature of Sign Language there is even significant variation from city to city within Britain, this is known as regional variation (for example, Scottish Signs, Manchester Signs, Welsh Signs, London Signs) and can be thought of as being similar to regional accents and colloquialisms found in spoken languages. Other countries have their own sign language.

When Deaf people communicate with other Deaf people from other nations they often use International Sign (IS). IS is a contact form of signing/communication system (as distinct from a full language) used at international meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) Congress and events such as the Deaflympics.

British Sign Language History

Back in 1880, the Second International Congress of Education of the Deaf was held in Milan, where educators came from all over the world to discuss three main topics. These were: ‘School Buildings’, ‘Teaching’ and ‘Methods’. The conference, which was organised by those who favoured oral education, quickly focused on the last topic ‘Methods’, which saw a lot of pro-oral presentations which were heavily in favour of the oral method.

One example was a demonstration at a local Milan deaf school, where the pupils were paraded as a success of the Oral Method, as they could receive and answer questions orally. However, these questions were asked by the teachers at the schools, and any attempts from sceptical delegates to ask oral questions were rejected. There was evidence of these children being drilled to produce striking results. These children were also born hearing at birth, and had learned the basics of speech before being deafened. The school had also hidden the children that used sign language away from the delegates.

The conference passed eight resolutions, two of which were that the Oral Method be used in the instruction of the Deaf, and to discourage sign language in the education of the deaf. The resolution was passed in favour with 160 voting for, and only four against, meaning sign language in the education of the Deaf was to be discouraged/suppressed and the Oral Method used instead.

These resolutions ensured that Deaf people who worked in educating Deaf children lost their jobs, and that sign language was no longer used as a teaching method.

Over nearly 140 years, the Oral Method was the only way of educating the Deaf, and still plays a major role in Deaf Education, yet the achievements of Deaf people has gone into reverse. A few examples of the consequences of Milan 1880 are listed below:

  • Over 70% of UK Deaf children left school with a reading age of 7 and with few qualifications and social skills.
  • Hearing parents were told not to use signs and to only use speech/lipreading with their deaf children.
  • Paternalism and poor attitudes towards deaf children grew.
  • The British Deaf and Dumb Association (BDDA) was formed in 1890 by Francis Maginn to fight the Oral Method and to protect the rights of the Deaf people. In 1971, the “Dumb” was dropped to create the British Deaf Association that we know today.
  • The impact of Milan 1880 on the Deaf was severe, yet there is still hope. In the 1960s, American Sign Language (ASL) was recognised by linguists, as a language in its own right with its own grammar, vocabulary, structure and syntax.

Following in the same vein, British Sign Language also received the same recognition on 18 March 2003. Deaf and hearing people together are now campaigning for full bi-lingualism – fluent BSL and written/read English – to be used in education.

Interesting little historical facts

  • Sign language has a very long and rich history- the very first record of sign language dates back to 5BC.
  • Thomas Braidwood brought sign language into the educational system in UK in the 18th century and lasted for a good fifty years till the 1889 Royal Commission of the Blind and Deaf & Dumb was issued. This commission saw the end of sign language in schools!
  • The 1944 Education Act ensured that sign language stayed away from the classrooms in Britain – any schools of the Deaf who used the ‘oral’ system were given a rise!
  • The nineties saw rules being relaxed- some schools allowed sign language to be used in classrooms.
  • The nineties also saw our profile being raised by Her Royal Highness, Diana, the Princess of Wales, in her role as the Royal Patron of the British Deaf Association, who used some BSL at the celebrations of the BDA 100th anniversary in 1990.
  • BSL was recognised as a language in its own right on 18th March 2003 by the British Government.
  • In 2009, UK signed the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which viewed sign language on par with spoken languages.
  • Did you know that many hearing people also use BSL, making it more common than Welsh and Gaelic!

Let’s hope that there are more positive milestones for BSL in the future!

BSL Statistics

Click www.bda.org.uk/bsl-statistics to find out how many people use BSL in the UK and also ISL in Northern Ireland.