An Introduction to British Sign Language

Category: Languages


As of 2003, British Sign Language has been an official minority language of the United Kingdom. This might suggest that the language is fairly new, but records of BSL usage in schools go back to as early as the 18th century. In this blog post, we’re going to explore some of the history of British Sign Language.

British Sign Language: a language of its own

The first thing to know about British Sign Language is that it isn’t an offshoot of English. As it developed as a language, BSL acquired its own syntax and sentence structure, and uses far fewer signs than there are words in the English language. That distinction is just one important factor to remember when we talking about the need for British Sign Language interpreters.

What is British Sign Language?

While many people assume they have some understanding of BSL, most stop at hand gestures. In actual fact, British Sign Language is a combination of three things:

  • Gestures (signs)
  • Facial expressions
  • Body language

Variations in each can result in different meanings.

With a sentence structure that’s inconsistent with spoken English – placing the subject or topic of the sentence first – it can cause some confusion for people who haven’t separated BSL and English in their minds. Just like any other language, learning the syntax and grammar makes things clearer for everyone.

Key facts about British Sign Language

In the UK, while British Sign Language is used by the deaf community to communicate, regional dialect still exist. Due to the language developing spontaneously and organically around the country, there are several signs with similar meanings, depending on where in the country BSL is being used. 

While this can make sense when considering the number of dialects in spoken English around the UK, it is necessary to remember the vast difference in numbers of speakers of English and British Sign Language. While there are over 66 million people in the UK, fewer than 150,000 people use British Sign Language as their primary form of communication. As of 2011, an estimated 125,000 adults use BSL, with a further 20,000 children. The number of BSL users is likely to be higher, when one considers the family and friends of the deaf community, and those using British Sign Language professionally.

A universal sign language?

Apart from the common misconception that BSL is related to English, there is also an assumption worldwide that all sign language is the same. Just as there are regional dialects of British Sign Language around the UK, there are different variations of sign language used all over the world. At present, there are in excess of 100 sign languages used globally, which are distinct enough to be listed independently of one another.

Why British Sign Language needs interpreters

In order to be fully inclusive, the UK needs British Sign Language interpreters. A professional interpreter is essential when it comes to communicating sensitive information, particularly where an error can have serious consequences. A professional interpreter in any language is one who can:

  • Communicate the meaning of a sentence, without making additions or omissions
  • Interpret without personal bias
  • Maintain discretion at all times
  • Show empathy

It is typically preferable to have a professional interpreter at hand, even when someone may have some experience with British Sign Language. This is particularly the case where sensitive information is being communicated, or where specialised language is required.

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