This page explains the basics of sign language, including how it works, who uses it and how to learn it.
What is sign language?
Sign language is a way of communicating using hand gestures and movements, body language and facial expressions, instead of spoken words.
Like any spoken language, such as Italian or Spanish, there are lots of different sign languages across the world.
Who uses sign language?
Sign language is used mainly by people who are Deaf or have hearing impairments.
British Sign Language
In the UK, “sign language” usually refers to British Sign Language (BSL), the most common sign language, used by around 125,000 people.
For over 87,000 Deaf people, BSL is their first language and English is their second or maybe even third language.
In Northern Ireland, Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used as well as BSL. You can find out more about ISL at: irishdeafsociety.ie/irish-sign-language
BSL, like all sign language, is more than hand shapes and movements. Lip patterns, facial expressions and shoulder movements are important too.
Since 2003, BSL has been recognised as a language in its own right. It is a complete language, with its own vocabulary, grammar and word order, as well as its own social beliefs, behaviours, art, history and values.
If you were born deaf, you probably learned BSL as your first language.
BSL is the language of the Deaf community, who use a capital D to express pride in their identity.
In BSL, you start with the main subject or topic. Then, you say something about it.
So, for example, in English, you say:
Q: “What is your name?"
A: “My name is George.”
But in BSL, you say:
Q: “Name – what?”
A: “Name me George.”
Fingerspelling is the BSL alphabet. Every letter of the alphabet has a sign.
You can use these letter signs to spell out words – often, names and places – and sentences on your hand.
Fingerspelling is an easy way to communicate if you don’t know or can’t remember some BSL signs.
“It was such a rewarding moment when Sam signed 'more' to get extra time on the swing. We'd been immersing Sam in sign language for months and months, not by giving him lists of words to learn, but by talking and signing our conversations so he got used to language and how to ask for what he wanted. He really appreciated someone making the effort to try and communicate with him. Finally, he started using it himself!”
Say hello to George
Watch George using BSL and fingerspelling.
If you are blind or have limited vision and you can't see signing at a distance, you can use hands-on BSL.
With hands-on BSL, you and the person you’re communicating with use the BSL signs on each other’s hands, not on your own.
Say hello to Helene
Watch Helene using hands-on signing as one of the ways she communicates. She also explains how you can say hello to her using block, another fingerspelling alphabet
Sign Supported English (SSE)
Sign Supported English (SSE) borrows BSL signs but uses them in the order they are used in spoken English.
Before you read on…
- You can communicate using a mix of different ways. (We all do!)
- At Sense, we use whatever combination of speech, touch, sign or visual language works best.
- It’s never too late to start.
- Have a go and don’t worry about getting it wrong.
How can I learn British Sign Language?
The best way to learn BSL is on a course taught by a qualified BSL tutor fluent in the language. Most BSL tutors are deaf and hold a relevant teaching qualification.
Courses are held in colleges, universities, schools, Deaf clubs and community centres. Some are basic introductions to BSL, but most offer qualifications.
Courses offering qualifications are usually part-time or evening classes, running from September to June.
Intensive courses, with daytime or weekend classes, are also available.
Where can I find out about courses?
You can find out more about BSL courses in your area from:
Institute of British Sign Language
The Institute of British Sign Language (IBSL) works in partnership with teachers, Deaf community organisations and government to support BSL education.
IBSL was recognised and accredited by Ofqual, the Office of the Regulator for Qualifications and Examinations, in June 2009, and issued its first qualifications in April 2010.
IBSL offers BSL Studies Level 1 to Level 6, which will then lead to Interpreting qualifications. It also offers other qualifications linked to Deaf Studies and Deafblind awareness.
IBSL runs courses in centres throughout England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Find out more about the IBSL’s work, courses and qualifications,
Find out more about IBSL courses and centres in your area
Signature is a national charity and the leading awarding body for deaf communication qualifications in the UK.
All Signature qualifications are nationally recognised and accredited by Ofqual.
With almost 40 years’ experience, Signature has supported more than 450,000 people to learn BSL.
Find out more about Signature’s work, courses and qualifications
BSL interpreters enable communication between Deaf sign language users and hearing people.
If you need to book an interpreter, check they are registered with either:
- National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People(NRCPD)
- Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI)
Top tips for British Sign Language
- Learn the BSL fingerspelling alphabet. They’re quick to learn and an easy way to get started. Practise every day for 10 minutes and you’ll pick them up in no time.
- Facial expressions are key! You use them to show the mood of the conversation or topic.
- Don’t be afraid to be expressive. Want to show "it’s raining heavily?" Or "it’s really windy?" Show it in your facial expression and sign "rain" or "wind" more strongly with your hand movement.
- BSL has different dialects across the country, just like spoken languages. There are at least seven different ways of signing "toilet", depending on where you live.
- Teach a friend. Teaching someone else as you learn is one of the best ways of remembering what you’ve learnt.
Other ways of communicating
- Braille uses raised dots to touch
- Deafblind Manual spells words on to your hand
- Block alphabet spells letters on to your hand
- Moon uses raised lines, curves and dots to touch
- Tadoma uses lipreading by touch
- Hand-under-hand signing using touch
- Makaton, a simpler version of sign language
- Visual frame signing for people with reduced vision
- Objects of reference
- Non-formal communication without speaking, writing or signing
- Intensive interaction treating everything as communication
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