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23 September 2014
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BSL today
The history of BSL

British Sign Language today by Rachel Sutton-Spence

British Sign Language (BSL) is the visual language of Britain's Deaf Community. It is a language that is completely unrelated to English (or any other of Britain's spoken languages). It is not universal, and most countries have their own sign language, so British Sign Language is different from Irish Sign Language, French Sign Language or German Sign Language, for example.

We do not know exactly how many people use BSL, but estimates of the number of Deaf signers who use it as their first language range from 30,000 to 70,000. Many hearing people also know some BSL because they might have family members, friends or colleagues who are Deaf, and recent figures from the British Deaf Association suggest that on any day up to 250,000 people use some BSL.

BSL is used across the UK, although there are considerable differences in regional dialects. The BSL used in Belfast, for example, is very different from the dialect used in the Channel Islands. Many of the regional signs have their origins in the residential schools for the Deaf that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Children and teachers in these schools often developed their own particular signs, which were also used in the adult Deaf communities in these areas. Despite the large range of differences, there is a strong feeling within the British Deaf community that the sign language is a single language, and most signers have no problem communicating with each other across regional dialects.

BSL has a history of oppression by hearing people, who have often misunderstood the language, wrongly believing that it was nothing more than a collection of ungrammatical gestures. In fact, it is a richly expressive language, with a full grammar (one that is based on space and timing), a creative and adaptable vocabulary and a long cultural and artistic heritage, with complex and original signed stories and poems. In March 2003, it was finally recognised by the British Government as being a full, independent language. This recognition has been important for the status that it has given BSL and its Deaf users. It also means that money is now being invested in training more Deaf BSL tutors and BSL-English interpreters.

Schools have been important to BSL because most Deaf children have hearing parents and only learn to sign when they meet other Deaf children at school. For most of the 19th century, BSL was used in schools and widely accepted in society. However, for most of the 20th century, hearing educators banned BSL in schools for Deaf children, insisting that they should speak and lip-read instead. Children were ridiculed and punished for signing in schools, but the language did not die out. In the UK, 5-10% of Deaf children have Deaf parents, and it was these children who helped to keep BSL alive in secret in schools, teaching signing to other children when teachers were not looking. When children left school, they often joined their local Deaf club where BSL was also valued.

Today, BSL is used in increasing numbers of public places and is seen on television, at theatres, in universities and at public meetings and conferences. Since the 1980s, most residential schools for Deaf children have closed and children are now educated in 'mainstream' schools with hearing children, so their access to BSL and other Deaf people is more limited. However, the language is still a central focus of many Deaf people's lives so that, for them, to be Deaf is to be a signer of BSL.


Your Comments
What is your experience of BSL?

I am currently taking a degree in Deaf Studies and use BSL at Level 3. I have studied Deaf Studies for three years and thoroughly enjoy it. I have a large group of Deaf friends and socialise in the Deaf Community. However, it is really really irritating when people do not get their facts right or research something before making an unsupported comment! Eg, Nita Cuffs and Ruka. You both did not bother to find out of the statements you were making were correct, just said them anyway as if you knew! If you really want to use articles like this and then comment on them at least look into what you want to say before you upset/offend the people whom you are discussing.

E, Liverpool
Laura - just to correct you - there are over 9 million registered deaf or hard of hearing people in the UK, 700,000 of which are profoundly deaf, 50,000 use BSL.

John Dumfries
I would like to comment on Nita Cuff from Bucks. BSL is not a universal language!!!!! B stands for British!!! Get your facts right!!! I find it so frustrating that people have this idea that BSL is used all over the world, No, it is not, the French have there own way of signing just like the USA have there way and so does every other country in the world!! I can't visit Hong Kong and start signing in BSL and expect the other person to fully understand me!!! Also the basic signs are not the same!!!! A very anoyed BSL signer & user!!

Angela from Liverpool
Hi I've just started my level 2 BSL course, I loved the level 1 I felt like I was learning something useful. I had wanted to learn for years but the cost put me off, but my local council Knowsley have started subsidised classes so my whole course including the exams is £103, if I went to the local college it is £300.

Suzanne from Halifax
I had a virus, which made me deaf in one ear, and may end up being profoundly deaf. I would love to learn BSL and have picked up a few letters, words and phrases from the BSL website. As you all say taking the courses at College are expensive and I can't afford these as a single mum. But I am trying the basic course from the BSL website. This hopefully will stand me in good stead to learn from if I decide to invest in the course at college. I think BSL should also be learnt in primary schools, as my 6 year old daughter is as eager as me to learn BSL.

Find more of your thoughts here.

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