Sign language

This page explains the basics of sign language, including how it works, who uses it and how to learn it.

Fernando, a man who Sense supports, fingerspelling in British Sign Language.

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.

Try using sign language!

View the complete sign language alphabet

A

Touch the thumb of your left hand with the index finger of your right hand.

B

Make ‘O’ shape with your fingers in both of your hands separately. Put your hands together to make an OO shape.

C

Make the pattern exactly like the letter ‘C’ with your right hand’s index finger and thumb. Fold the other fingers inwards.

D

Point the left hand’s middle finger upward. Touch the tip of this finger with the index finger of your right hand. Touch the knuckle of the left hand’s index finger with the right hand’s thumb.

E

Touch the tip of the index finger on your left hand with your right index finger.

F

Put your right hand’s index and middle fingers on the ones on your left hand. Keep other fingers of both hands folded.

G

Make both of your hands into fists with your thumbs tucked in, and place your right fist on top of your left fist.

H

Open up the left hand’s palm facing up. Put your right hand’s palm on the left hand’s one. Stroke the right hand in the forward direction, from your wrist to your fingertips.

I

Spread up your left palm and place your right index finger on the middle finger of your other hand.

J

Spread your left palm open, facing up. Move your right index from the tip of the left middle finger down to its thumb as if you are writing the letter ‘J’ on your hand.

K

Point upwards with your left hand, make a bent shape with your right index finger and hold it against the left index finger.

L

Open and face your left palm upward. Right index finger rests on the middle of your left palm with its other fingers closed.

M

Hold your left palm out and place the main three fingers on your right hand onto the palm of your left hand.

N

Hold your left palm out and place your right index and middle finger in the middle of your palm.

O

Hold your left palm out and place your right index finger on the tip of the left ring finger.

P

Create a circle with your right index finger and thumb. Touch the tip of the left index finger to make a ‘P’ shape.

Q

Put your left thumb and finger together to make a circle, then hook your right index finger to your left thumb.

R

Curl the index finger of your right hand and place it on the palm of your left hand.

S

Spread your left palm and lock the smallest finger on your left hand with the smallest finger on your right one.

T

Keep your left hand open, palm facing up. Press the palm with your right index fingertip.

U

Place your right index finger on the tip of the left smallest finger.

V

Make a ‘V’ symbol with your right hand and rest it on your open left palm.

W

Interlock the fingers of your both hands and point them up diagonally.

X

Curl in all the fingers of your both hands except the index fingers. Make a cross with the index fingers.

Y

Extend your left thumb and index finger and place your right index finger between them.

Z

Open both your palms. Point your left palm upwards and touch the middle of it with the fingers of your right hand. Keep your right hand flat, parallel to the ground.

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. Find out more about ISL on the Irish Deaf Society website.

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.”

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.
  • If you want to learn more about BSL, check out Sense Sign School.

Fingerspelling

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!”

Sarah Turpin, senior MSI practitioner, Sense

Say hello to George

Watch George using BSL and fingerspelling.

Audio described version of Say Hello to George with transcript.

Hands-on BSL

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

Audio described version of Say Hello to Helene with transcript.

Sign Supported English (SSE)

Sign Supported English (SSE) borrows BSL signs but uses them in the order they are used in spoken English.

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.

Sense Sign School is a fun way to learn BSL at home, with lessons and activities delivered to your door.

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 Signature.

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Find out more about communication methods and read inspiring stories about the people that use them.

Signature

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.

Signature’s work, courses and qualifications

BSL interpreters

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:

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.

Using British Sign Language

Other ways of communicating

Using speech

Using touch

Using signs

Also

More information

This content was last reviewed in April 2022. We’ll review it again next year.