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Learning Basic British Sign Language



A little bit of a different kind of post today. For the last couple of weeks, I have been attending a Beginners British Sign Language course run by my university. The course is 20 lessons in length, with two-hour classes one night per week. BSL is something which I have wanted to learn for some time now, probably ever since I watched Switched at Birth and was fascinated by this language told completely in hand gestures and facial expressions.

And then, during the summer when I was working in a local café before going back to uni, I served a deaf couple. They were very understanding, and didn’t expect us to know anything in the way of sign language at all. They wrote down what they wanted to ask us, and were able to make very simple signs and point at things to order. But, this encounter has really stuck with me ever since. All I could actually say to them that they could fully understand was ‘thanks’. That’s it. An entire language, and I can say thanks.

I wish BSL was something you had to get taught in school. Even just the basics, like the alphabet, so you would be able to fingerspell words if the occasion ever should arise. I’m sure there are some schools out there that do teach this, perhaps because of a deaf student or just a teacher with enthusiasm and a good idea, but my school was not one of them, and I grew up completely ignorant to it.

While it is very difficult to explain signs through writing and describing, I figured it would do no harm to include some helpful graphics for you to learn the very very basics of sign language. A quick Google will tell you other things you may want to know, like colours, the weather, and so on.

Just like there are different accents across Britain, different dialects, and different words for the same things, there are different regional signs. A couple of the images I’ve included are slightly different to the way I am being taught, but this is certainly better than nothing at all. This maybe has something to do with me being Scottish, and some of the signs here are different to ones used in England. It also often depends on the hearing impaired person as well, who may have grown up developing their own signs from a young age that differ from more generic ones. The alphabet seems to be the same, regardless, so even just learning that gets you one step ahead.

A couple of rules to note:

– Choose one dominant hand that does the all the work. The other hand is the support hand, for example the letter ‘M’. I am right-handed and use the three fingers on my right hand into my left palm. My right hand is doing the work. Don’t chop and change between them. 

– Facial expression and posture is incredibly important, if not the most important things when signing. Where hearing people can use the tone is someone’s voice to establish meaning and emotion, hearing impaired people do not have this ability. They need to be able to see the tone in your face and body. They wouldn’t know you are surprised without your face reflecting this, and so on. 

– This not American Sign Language. Their signs are very different, including their alphabet. Some may cross over though, but I am not learning that language and so if this applies to you, a quick Google may help you – just like it did for the images I found above. I found them in a matter of minutes, so you can too. 

I would urge you to take five minutes a day to go through these and familiarise yourself with them. The look on those customers’ faces when I simply signed ‘thanks’ when they paid for their food was so heartwarming – imagine being surprised that someone can say just one word in your language. That’s how little they have come to expect.

Likewise, everyone I have told that I am learning BSL is really surprised at my choice. Don’t get me wrong, they are all very positive and all say what a brilliant idea it is, but they are surprised nonetheless. We can’t deny that they wouldn’t be this surprised if I said I was learning Spanish. They would say, “Great! I can’t remember much of what we got taught in school either,” or, “What a useful thing to learn! We always go on holiday there too.” BSL gets you, “Oh! What made you want to learn that?” or, “How unusual, well done!”

To put it harshly – don’t be ignorant. You know basic French, Spanish, maybe a touch of German. Make BSL one of those.

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