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Spotlight on British Sign Language 


Sign languages have been in use for centuries across the world. Relying on a system of manual, facial and body movements and gestures to communicate meaning, they are employed daily by Deaf individuals across the world.  


Just like spoken language, sign language is not universal — there is a broad range of sign languages used by different communities everywhere, with distinctive grammatical and syntactical structures. Variations can also occur, in the same way as oral accents or dialects crop up locally in the same country or region, or within the same language.  


Sign systems are also not tied to the spoken language of any country or territory, and they have their own, autonomous genealogy. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is closely related to French Sign Language (LSF), but differs from British Sign Language (BSL), which is part of a separate family. This means that ASL and BSL users would have a hard time understanding each other.  


To bridge this gap and aid the communication between users of different languages, International Sign was created; however, because it is not as developed as other sign languages, it is best used for simpler conversations. 


BSL: the basics 


BSL is a visual-gestural language, in which signs together with non-manual gestures including facial expressions, mouth patterns and body movements, are used to create meaning. Gestures play a central role in the communication, as they add key information and also help clarify or complete the sense of what is being signed.  


It is based on a topic-comment structure, also used by other sign systems. This means that the main subject of the communication is stated first, and then further details are added (or commented on). BSL doesn’t use verb tenses to express past, present and future; instead, it uses timelines to set events at a given point in time.  


Like other sign languages, BSL uses fingerspelling to form the names of people or places that have no signs. It uses a two-hand method, as opposed to, for instance, ASL, in which users spell out words with one hand only. Users can be right or left-hand dominant. 


BSL signers use their signing space, which can be thought of a frame around the upper body of the signer, to place people, locations and objects topographically, in order to show where they are located in the real world. Placement can also be syntactic, where a signer “places” a concept, object or person, so they can refer to them throughout their discourse or explain its connection to other elements. 


BSL has been in use in the UK for centuries. According to the British Deaf Association, the first printed account of it was published in 1644, in John Bulwer’s Chirologia – The National Language of the Hand, but earlier references to the usage of sign languages in the area date back to the 16th century. In 2003, the UK government recognised it as an official language; however, Scotland was the only country to grant it legal status (in 2015). 


At present, it is the preferred language of 87,000 Deaf people in the UK, although it is estimated that 151,000 individuals (excluding professional interpreters and translators who don’t employ it at home) can use it. 


Raising awareness for inclusive environments 


Deaf individuals often face a number of challenges in everyday life. The lack of qualified BSL interpreters represents a big obstacle for the Deaf community, as it can make tasks such as going to medical appointments, participating in interviews or running errands more complicated or difficult to navigate. According to the NRCPD (The National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People), in 2015 there were just 908 registered sign language interpreters (RSLIs) and a further 234 trainees for some 90,000 individuals. 


Initiatives and events such as Deaf Awareness Week, which runs between the 3rd and 9th of May, are key to shine a light on these difficulties and to promote inclusion. Along with Sign Language Week, which is held in March, it also looks to put BSL and its users in the spotlight, highlighting the positive impact of the use of BSL.  


Organisations and businesses also play a crucial part in creating more inclusive spaces for BSL users by not only providing the right tools and making the necessary adjustments, but also by fostering a positive, welcoming environment. For example, every Tuesday afternoon, THG Fluently staff can take part in the BSL Book Club, hosted by THG’s Accessibility Champion Network. During the sessions, participants practice the BSL alphabet and learn new words each week through games and thematic bite-sized lessons. 


At THG Fluently, we’ve been providing language services to a range of sectors, including healthcare, legal and government, for more than 17 years. In that time, we’ve learned what it takes to give organisations the interpreting services they need to support the Deaf community. So, if you’d like to learn more about how we can support your project by connecting you with BSL interpreters, feel free to get in touch.

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