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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.