How to Learn BSL
This factsheet contains information about communicating with Deaf
people, the Deaf Community and British Sign Language (BSL). It also
tells you briefly about other ways Deaf people communicate and about
sign language in different countries. It explains where you can learn
BSL and about the BSL examination structure and gives you
information on books, videos and CDs to supplement classes in BSL.
We also list organisations you can contact for information on the Deaf
Communicating with Deaf people
Deaf people in the UK use various methods of communication. This
factsheet looks at the most widely used method of signed
communication: BSL. We tell you more about it on page 2. You may
also come across references to Sign Supported English (SSE). SSE
uses many BSL signs, but with the grammatical structure of English
unlike BSL, which is a language in its own right. SSE may be used by
people who have learned English as a first language and then learned
to sign, or as a first language.
The Deaf Community
It is estimated that 8.7 million people in the UK are Deaf or hard of
hearing. However, not all of them are members of the Deaf Community
people who use BSL as their first or preferred language. It is difficult
to say how many people in the UK use British Sign Language (BSL) as
their first or preferred language current estimates vary between
50,000 and 70,000. BSL users may describe themselves as Deaf,
rather than deaf. Their degree of deafness does not, in itself,
determine whether or not a person is a member of the Deaf
Community. Someone who has become profoundly deaf in adulthood
may still identify with the hearing world and rely on lipreading, speech
and hearing aids to listen to sound; someone born with a less profound
hearing loss into a Deaf family may identify with the Deaf Community
and use BSL.
British Sign Language
BSL is the language used by the Deaf Community in the UK. It has its
own grammar and syntax, completely different from the grammatical
rules of English. It uses both manual and non-manual components:
handshapes and movements, facial expression, and shoulder
Linguists generally agree that BSL is a topic-comment language. For
example, the question in English What is your name? becomes the
sequence Name you what? in BSL. The topic of the sentence, name
you, comes first, followed by the comment, what?.
Other methods of manual communication
Other methods of manual communication in Britain include those used
to teach Deaf children English, such as Signed English and Paget
Gorman Signed Speech. Some methods such as Makaton and BLISS
Symbols (Blissymbolics) rely on the use of symbols to communicate
with people who have learning difficulties or who cannot speak for
neurological or medical reasons. For further information, contact the
RNID helpline (address on page 9).
Sign language in other countries
Sign languages develop naturally, just like spoken languages. They are
as diverse as spoken languages. Thus, Deaf people in different
countries do not use the same sign language, but some sign languages
are related to one another, just as some spoken languages are related.
For example, early educationalists and missioners from Britain
influenced Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and Auslan is therefore
closely related to BSL, although not identical to it. Some Deaf people
also use International Sign Language to communicate with Deaf
people from different countries. Deaf people in Northern Ireland use
Irish Sign Language as well as BSL.
BSL also has dialects, which means that signs will have different
meanings depending on where the Deaf person comes from. For
example, signs that someone in Newcastle uses to say something may
have a different meaning in Brighton.
BSL users also use fingerspelling. Certain words usually names of
people and places are spelled out on fingers. However, it is important
to remember that fingerspelling is not sign language.
Where to learn BSL
About 800 centres in the UK run courses in BSL. These include further
education colleges, community education centres, adult education
centres, universities, local deaf clubs and deaf groups. The Council for
the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP)
produces a leaflet with details of colleges running BSL courses in your
area. For a copy of the leaflet, write to CACDP (address on page 8)
enclosing an A4 SAE and stating whether it is Stage 1, 2 or the new
NVQ Level 3 you wish to find a course in and where you live.
Alternatively, contact the RNID Helpline for information (details on
page 9). Fees for BSL courses vary contact your local course organiser
directly for this information.
BSL examination structure
Courses in BSL stages I and II are designed to prepare students for the
nationally validated examinations in BSL Stages 1 and 2.
BSL Stage 1
For Stage 1, you follow a course that involves 60 hours of study. Very
often this is two hours a week for one academic year from September
to June although courses with other structures are available too. By
the end of the course you will be able to:
BSL Stage 2
- Conduct a basic conversation with a Deaf person in BSL.
- Sign a short passage.
- Answer questions on a short story signed to you by a Deaf person.
- Provide information about Deaf people, the Deaf Community and
- Recognise the different ways in which Deaf people communicate.
To be accepted for a CACDP Stage 2 course, you must have passed the
Stage 1 examination. You must have proficient English and you will
need access to a video recorder for private study. The recommended
length of the course is 120 hours, of which 90 are based in the
classroom. It is common for Stage 2 courses to run for one evening a
week over two years, or two evenings a week for one year, but there
are other possibilities such as a block course or attending classes at
weekends. CACDP also recommend that a BSL Stage 2 course be
taught by two different tutors. By the end of the course, you should be
New NVQ BSL
- Hold a conversation in BSL on a range of topics.
- Use BSL at Stage 2 level in a range of situations.
- Understand a BSL conversation between two people over a range of
- Retell a short story presented in BSL.
- Sign a story using topics showing a good use of BSL principles.
- Give up-to-date information in BSL on current issues and activities
within the Deaf Community.
CACDP is in the process of establishing National Vocational
Qualifications (NVQs) for sign language courses. The Stage 3 BSL
examination was discontinued at the end of 1998 and replaced by NVQ
Level 3. NVQs are by definition vocational related to work and the
contents of NVQ assessments are geared towards the needs of people
who are working with and have contact with Deaf people. In practical
terms, this means anyone who works with the general public, and
anyone who works with Deaf people such as a shop assistant, a
receptionist, an ENT consultant or a barrister.
Part of the overall assessment requires students to have considerable
contact with many Deaf people and asks them to research specific
areas of interest that are relevant to their own field of employment.
- The British Sign Language CD-ROM. Has more than 30 hours of
video clips. £59.00 plus VAT from Microbooks Ltd, 16 Sandhurst
Road, Yateley GU46 7UU. Tel: 01252 668484; Fax: 01252 668485.
Contact Microbooks for details of other CD-ROMs about deafness.
If you would like to buy books, videos or CD-ROMs about sign language,
or if you want to broaden your knowledge of deafness and the Deaf
Community, contact the following organisations for copies of their free
catalogues or publications lists.
Please enclose an SAE.
RNID Information Services, March 2000.
Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People
(CACDP), Durham University Science Park,
Block 4, Stockton Road,
Durham DH1 3UZ.
Tel: 0191 383 1155;
Text: 0191 383 7915;
Fax: 0191 383 7914;
CACDP sells copies of course materials, videos and curricula for all BSL
- The Forest Bookshop,
8 St John Street,
Coleford GL16 8AR.
Tel/Text: 01594 833858;
Fax: 01594 833446.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ;
The Forest Bookshop is a leading supplier of books, videos and CD-
ROMs on deafness and produces a free catalogue for these. You can
also visit the bookshop.
National Deaf Childrens Society (NDCS),
15 Dufferin Street,
Tel/Text: 020 7250 0123;
Fax: 020 7251 5020.
NDCS have information on childhood deafness. NDCS publications are
of interest to families of deaf children and those who work with them.
The RNID Helpline,
PO Box 16464,
London EC1Y 8TT.
Tel: 0870 60 50 123;
Text: 0870 60 33 007;
Fax: 020 7296 8199.
RNID has a range of more than 100 factsheets and leaflets for Deaf
people, their friends and family, and professionals working them.
Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital,
330-332 Grays Inn Road,
London WC1X 8EE.
Tel/Text: 020 7915 1553;
Fax: 020 7915 1443.
The RNID library is the largest library in Europe on deafness and
communication. It has specialist publications ranging from academic
journals to books for children. Anyone can visit the library you do not
have to be a member to use its services. It does not lend books direct
to visitors. However, if you are a member of a local public library, a
college library or any other library in the British Library's inter-library
loan scheme, you can borrow books via the scheme. The library also
supplies free reading lists on deafness, BSL, deaf culture and history,
and many other related fields. The library does not have a video
The library is normally open from 10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm weekdays,
except public holidays. If you are coming a long way, please check that
the library is open.