Resources & Guides

A guide to learning British Sign Language

5 minutes
5 minutes
Just understanding the very basics in British Sign Language (BSL) can be beneficial for any team focused on inclusivity. That’s why we have put together this guide to help you get started.

87,000 Deaf people use BSL and up to 151,000 people know and use BSL e.g. friends, family and colleagues of BSL users.  These people might be your colleagues, customers, patients, tenants or your students. To work well together we need to communicate well with each other.  Learning BSL is fun and rewarding,  using it confidently in a real-life situation is 100% satisfaction all round.

Participants learning BSL at a HearFirst Training Event.
Images: Participants learning sign language at a HearFirst training session

How do I get started?

There’s a range of learning materials on You Tube, Tik Tok and Instagram to get you started including some free tutorials.  If you are learning in this way,  always check the signs you are learning are British Sign Language (BSL) signs and not American Sign Language (ASL) signs.  Even though the spoken languages are the same,  the signed languages between the countries are different. We’d recommend you go to a class to learn BSL,  preferably with a d/Deaf tutor,  you’ll be able to interact with other students and your tutor will be checking if you’re doing it right!  Our half and full day BSL courses are popular with organisations. We pack a lot into that short time and can teach you and your team the basics of BSL and Deaf Culture so you can confidently meet and greet Deaf BSL users.

"We got great knowledge.  I feel like I can go away knowing quite a lot of sign language.  Julie answered every question we had."

Loretta Brooke, Line Manager @Royal Mail Dunstable

The challenges of learning a new skill

Learning BSL gives you a double challenge as you will need to use two skills at the same time to have a successful interaction:

  • Receptive skills: this means understanding what the other person is conveying to you. Often Deaf people will slow down their signing, if they are communicating with someone learning BSL, giving the learner more time to process the signs. The hand movements are just part of it, the person signing to you will also use an array of non-verbal communication tools to get the detail over to you.  Part of learning your new skill is recognising these subtleties which include facial expression, eye gaze, lip pattern and body language.
  • Productive skills: this is knowing what you want to convey and how to sign it. Remember BSL is a separate language and the order in which you sign doesn’t follow an English word order. Of course, you’ll also use non-verbal communication too as that contributes to the meaning of the communication.  Having the confidence to use the full set of productive skills comes easier to some people than others and comes easier to everyone over time. Once you’ve got started, you’ll want to remember what you’ve learnt and as with any new skill,  that entails as much practise as you can. Either connect with another BSL user or look out for videos and Deaf content on line.

What can you expect?

Have patience when you start, it takes a long time with many hours of practise to become fluent in any language and BSL is no different.  The good news is, you don’t need to be fluent to start to use BSL. A little can go a long way.

There’s lots of logic to BSL and some basic rules of the language.  We structure our courses to build up your knowledge step by step.

The biggest surprise for most people is BSL has its own grammatical structure and syntax; as a language, it is not dependent upon or related to English. BSL is a visual language so it helps to think how you would paint a picture….. you’d draw the outline of the key topic and then build up the detail.

Learning new skills is tiring.  When you’re learning to use BSL you’re giving your brain a workout.  You’ll get the best results doing a little and often.

Why not start right now and learn the alphabet with Julie?

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