How to learn BSL: top tips for learning sign language
Anne is the sign language skills facilitator at Sense. She supports our staff to learn British Sign Language (BSL), so they can communicate with the people we support and with the wider Deaf community. Anne is Deaf herself, and has been using BSL since she was a teenager.
For Sign Language Week 2023, Anne tells us all about how, where and why to learn BSL.
For many Deaf people, British Sign Language (BSL) is their first language.
When I was 16, I decided that I wanted to learn BSL. I started out by going to a local Deaf club. Then, I went on my first BSL course, to get my Level 1 BSL qualification.
Today, I’m a sign language teacher. I’ve been teaching for about 32 years now. I’m fluent in BSL, and very happy communicating in both hearing and Deaf communities.
This Sign Language Week, are you thinking about learning BSL, too? If so, here are some of my answers to frequently asked questions, and my top tips for learning BSL.
Why learn BSL?
As a British person, there’s even more benefit to learning BSL than learning a foreign language like French or German. We use it here in Britain! BSL is a first language for over 87,000 British people.
As a hearing person, learning BSL gives you the confidence to make conversation with Deaf people. Lots of Deaf people are really happy to make small talk with you as you practise your sign language!
Most importantly, we want people to keep learning BSL so that it’s protected.
Lots of Deaf schools are closing down, and lots of Deaf people are now going to mainstream schools. There’s more Deaf people that have English as their first language. I don’t know how long BSL will carry on for.
Sign language is really important to the welfare and mental health of Deaf people. A life without language is very isolating. This is why we need to keep protecting and learning BSL.
Where to learn BSL
You can find an accredited BSL course by searching on the Signature website.
They show all the tutors that are registered, and all the places that are registered for training under the Signature exam scheme.
Can I learn BSL online?
I would say yes, you can learn BSL online, up to a point.
Face-to-face training is so much better for sign language, because it’s three dimensional. You need to see all of the person’s body language and facial expressions. Online, you can miss things. There’s a number of challenges.
But I understand that learning online is more accessible for some people. During the Covid-19 pandemic, lots of courses adapted to take place online.
For me personally, I think you can do your Level 1 BSL qualification online. Beyond that, you can’t beat learning face-to-face.
How long it takes to learn sign language
At the very beginning of your BSL journey, there are some introductory courses available that are about six to 12 weeks.
To get your Level 1 qualification usually takes about 30 weeks.
Level 2 qualifications usually take a couple of years. Each level tends to take a bit longer than the last. On average, it takes about three or four years to become fluent.
But everyone learns at their own pace. You’ll move through the levels a lot faster if you’re spending a lot of time in the Deaf community, regularly using BSL.
Five top tips for learning BSL
Find a good teacher
Make sure you’ve read the reviews for your course online.
If possible, learn from a Deaf teacher. I know it’s not always possible, but it is much better, because they’re in a much better place to teach.
Watch Deaf shows – and try them without sound!
Watching Deaf TV shows is a great way to immerse yourself in BSL. If you’re a hearing person and you want to really challenge yourself, try following it without the sound on! Then you’re learning to take in the information through your eyes, like a Deaf person does.
There’s a Deaf programme called See Hear on the BBC that’s been going since the ‘80s. That’s a very good example. Another one is BSL Zone.
These programmes are a bit fast for Level 1, but they’ll help you to build your confidence.
Learn the right signs for your region
Something that can be quite difficult about learning BSL is that you need to learn the regional dialect of your area.
The core signs are the same, but different places around the country have different accents in sign languages. For example, colours and numbers are often signed differently in different parts of the UK.
In some regions, there might be an online dictionary you can draw from, which will tell you the regional differences. Ask your teacher what regional variations you’re learning.
Spend time in the Deaf community
There’s no better way to improve your sign language than by spending time in the community, communicating with Deaf people.
In cities like London and Birmingham, there are a lot of Deaf events and clubs you can go to.
But it can be challenging, because lots of Deaf clubs have closed down now, so those kinds of opportunities are more limited.
Be confident and expressive
Learning BSL can be very hard if you’re a shy person. People are watching everything about you: your facial expression, your hands, your body.
Sometimes, people find that exposure quite a challenge. Those with a stiff upper lip find it especially hard!
There’s a big difference between Deaf culture and hearing culture. When hearing people look at Deaf people signing, they can think we’re being a bit wild. But it’s just the way we express ourselves.
Every gesture has meaning. For example, the signs have to be big if they’re relating to something that’s loud.
To learn BSL, you have to embrace this aspect of Deaf culture. Get in touch with your wild side!