British Sign Language (BSL) was recognized by the United Kingdom government as a language of its own right in March 2003, and the language of the signing Deaf community in United Kingdom. BSL is the native mother tongue (or hands, in this case) of approximately 70,000 Deaf people in the United Kingdom. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa also use a variant of BSL: Auslan, New Zealand Sign Language, and South Africa Sign Language.
Like any other sign languages around the world, BSL is a highly visual-gestural language that does not rely on speech or listening skills. However, BSL does have its own grammatical structures and syntax different from the English language and also from other sign languages. I do not profess to be a knowledgeable linguist. Only my sign language linguist friends can tell you the finer details of the structure of sign language. However, I am fascinated at the similarities and differences between the various sign languages I see and learn during my travels.
BSL was the very first “foreign” sign language I learned other than American Sign Language (ASL). Coming from an ASL background, I felt a little bit disorientated and “strange” at having to use two hands instead of one hand to communicate my thoughts or spelling out words with greater frequency. Using two hands to spell out words is called “handspelling” in BSL, while in ASL, using one hand to spell out words is called “fingerspelling.” No wonder!
From my experience learning ASL in college, the fastest and most efficient way of learning any sign language is to attend deaf social events, make new friends, and persist in learning vocabulary and other finer details of the sign language over a sustained period of time. It was about one and half months in my case before I was at around conversational level in BSL. Don’t worry if you make mistakes with your signs. It’s all part of the learning process!
I was fortunate that there were weekly deaf social gatherings and major deaf events in London, so that provided the perfect opportunities for me to show up, learn BSL, and make new friends at the same time! Visit this Deaf Social Gatherings in London page for information on the latest deaf social events still occurring in London. The information is still current as of the time of this post.
One thing I realized about BSL is that I couldn’t hold a drink in one hand and sign with the other hand in pubs. But I could do so in “lazy ASL.” Instead of using proper signs that involve two hands for a sign, such as the ASL sign for “good”, I could easily use one hand and still convey my idea. In BSL, I always had to put down my drink on a table or flat surface first and hope that the drink doesn’t get knocked over by roving hands!
Also, the sign for “deaf” in ASL means “hearing” in BSL! I had confused myself and other people many times when asked about my hearing status, but I wised up quickly. Sometimes, ASL and BSL would have exactly same signs but have the opposite meaning. For example:
Same sign, but different meaning!
Regardless of its difference from ASL, BSL is a beautiful language in its own right and deserves more attention, especially for the need of more qualified BSL interpreters for children and adults in the United Kingdom. I encourage you to visit the United Kingdom and put in the effort to learn BSL! It may help you with your future trip to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. 🙂
Featured image of BSL sign came from University of Leicester website