Our guide to sign language
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to sign language

First published date November 15 2013 Amended date April 17 2015

Want to learn another language, but don’t feel inspired by the usual suspects? Looking to channel your expressive side and embrace a completely new skill? Learn sign language – or, as it’s called in the UK, British Sign Language (BSL).

British Sign Language is a language of communication that uses gestures, facial expressions and body language. It’s an official minority national language in its own right – much like Welsh – with 70,000 people in the UK stating BSL to be their preferred language. It’s mainly used by the Deaf community or people with hearing impairments, but many hearing people are also fluent in the language. 

Be careful not to confuse BSL with Sign Supported English (SSE), which is not technically a language, but a support tool for spoken English. You’ll come across it in schools where children with hearing impairments are learning English


Myth busting

Sign language is the same across the world

False! Every country has its own sign language. In fact, even the sign languages of countries that share the same spoken language can vary wildly it comes to signing. American Sign Language (ASL) and Irish Sign Language differ hugely from BSL (although Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and New Zealand Sign Language do not). For a start, BSL uses a two-handed alphabet; ASL’s is one-handed.  


British sign language is the same throughout the UK

False! Just like the UK has different regional dialects and accents, so sign language has regional variations. A signer from Glasgow will use colloquialisms that a signer from Cornwall may not understand.


British sign language is derived from spoken English

False! BSL is not dependent on spoken English, nor even closely related to it – its grammar and syntax are entirely separate. So learn BSL, and you really are learning a new language from scratch!


Did you leave caps lock on? What’s with Deaf and deaf?

Deaf with a capital ‘D’ is a cultural identity. Many Deaf see themselves as akin to an ethnic minority, with their own language and heritage. Being deaf (lower case ‘d’) is a physical description indicating the inability to hear.


Reasons to learn sign language

Sign language can be a real cognitive challenge for hearing people. You have to get your head around a language that is visual and spatial and not rely on any auditory information.

Some hearing people choose to learn sign language in order to communicate with family members and friends who sign. Some (hearing) parents of deaf children feel that learning sign language has helped them strengthen their bond.  Other people have a hearing impairment, wear hearing aids and lip-read, but learn sign language in order to explore and become involved in the Deaf community. 

The Deaf community is very much a community, where deafness isn’t seen as a deficiency, just a badge of difference. The BBC produces See Hear, a programme focusing on issues affecting the Deaf community, such as rights, language and technology.


Careers using Sign language

Morally-speaking, you could say that one compelling reason to learn sign language is because there is an extreme shortage of BSL/English interpreters. Interpreters are essential when it comes to making sure that profoundly deaf people – who communicate exclusively in sign language – have access to vital services, such as medical appointments or meetings with accountants and solicitors. You could even find yourself interpreting plays and performances.

Although not formally trained interpreters, Communication Support Workers (CSWs) work with deaf students in schools and assist deaf people in the workplace. They call upon BSL and other communicational methods.


What to expect

It’s possible to explore sign language in short courses (sometimes one-day courses) that aim to initiate learners with the basics of BSL. These courses also touch on issues relating to the Deaf community, deaf awareness and deaf etiquette. You won’t need any prior experience of signing.

Initiation courses also cover fingerspelling, where words are spelt out using different hand movements. Fingerspelling is important in sign language as it’s used to spell proper nouns for which there is no sign (ie people’s names and place names). Fingerspelling is useful for BSL learners, as it can be relied upon to spell words for signs where the actual sign is not known, or used to clarify a sign. Sometimes fingerspelling is used as part of other signs.

You can work towards recognised qualifications in BSL, usually starting with a Pre-Entry class before moving through Levels 1 to NVQ Level 6. Scotland uses a separate certification system.

Courses are available online and on a full or part-time basis. If you’re feeling really inspired, you could take Deaf Studies at degree level.


Help! I’m left-handed…

Not a problem. Use as your dominant hand whichever hand you feel most comfortable using – but don’t swap hands, or people will struggle to understand you.


By Kate Wilkins

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