British Sign Language
|British Sign Language|
|Native to||United Kingdom|
|Native speakers||40,000 (1984)|
British Sign Language (BSL) is the sign language used in the United Kingdom (UK), and is the first or preferred language of some deaf people in the UK; there are 125,000 deaf adults in the UK who use BSL plus an estimated 20,000 children. In 2011 15,000 people, living in England and Wales, reported themselves using BSL as their main language. The language makes use of space and involves movement of the hands, body, face and head. Many thousands of people who are not deaf also use BSL, as hearing relatives of deaf people, sign language interpreters or as a result of other contact with the British deaf community.
Records exist of a sign language existing within deaf communities in Britain as far back as 1570. British sign language has evolved, as all languages do, from these origins by modification, invention and importation. Thomas Braidwood, an Edinburgh teacher, founded 'Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb' in 1760 which is recognised as the first school for the deaf in Britain. His pupils were the sons of the well-to-do. His early use of a form of sign language, the combined system, was the first codification of what was to become British Sign Language. Joseph Watson was trained as a teacher of the Deaf under Thomas Braidwood and he eventually left in 1792 to become the headmaster of the first public school for the Deaf in Britain, the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Bermondsey.
In 1815, an American Protestant minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, travelled to Europe to research teaching of the deaf. He was rebuffed by both the Braidwood schools who refused to teach him their methods. Gallaudet then travelled to Paris and learned the educational methods of the French Royal Institution for the Deaf, a combination of Old French Sign Language and the signs developed by Abbé de l’Épée. As a consequence American sign language today has a 60% similarity to modern French Sign Language but is almost unintelligible to users of British Sign Language.
Until the 1940s sign language skills were passed on unofficially between deaf people often living in residential institutions. Signing was actively discouraged in schools by punishment and the emphasis in education was on forcing deaf children to learn to lip read and finger spell. From the 1970s there has been an increasing tolerance and instruction in BSL in schools. The language continues to evolve as older words such as Alms and PawnBroker have fallen out of use and new sign such as Fax machine and laser have been invented. The evolution of the language and its changing level of acceptance means that older users tend to rely on finger spelling while younger ones make use of a wider range of gestures.
Like many other sign languages, BSL phonology is defined by elements such as hand shape, orientation, location, and motion.
Relationships with other sign languages
Although the United Kingdom and the United States share English as the predominant oral language, British Sign Language is quite distinct from American Sign Language (ASL) - having only 31% signs identical, or 44% cognate. BSL is also distinct from Irish Sign Language (ISL) (ISG in the ISO system) which is more closely related to French Sign Language (LSF) and ASL.
The sign languages used in Australia and New Zealand, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language, respectively, evolved largely from 19th century BSL, and all retain the same manual alphabet and grammar and possess similar lexicons. These three languages may technically be considered dialects of a single language (BANZSL) due to their use of the same grammar and manual alphabet and the high degree of lexical sharing (overlap of signs). The term BANZSL was coined by Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri.
In Australia deaf schools were established by educated deaf people from London, Edinburgh and Dublin. This introduced the London and Edinburgh dialects of BSL to Melbourne and Sydney respectively and Irish Sign Language to Sydney in Roman Catholic schools for the deaf. The language contact post secondary education between Australian ISL users and 'Australian BSL' users accounts for some of the dialectal differences we see between modern BSL and Auslan. Tertiary education in the US for some deaf Australian adults also accounts for some ASL borrowings found in modern Auslan.
Auslan, BSL and NZSL have 82% of signs identical (using concepts from a Swadesh list). When considering similar or related signs as well as identical, they are 98% cognate. Further information will be available after the completion of the BSL corpus is completed and allows for comparison with the Auslan corpus and the Sociolinguistic Variation in New Zealand Sign Language project . There continues to be language contact between BSL, Auslan and NZSL through migration (deaf people and interpreters), the media (television programmes such as See Hear, Switched, Rush and SignPost are often recorded and shared informally in all three countries) and conferences (the World Federation of the Deaf Conference – WFD – in Brisbane 1999 saw many British deaf people travelling to Australia).
Makaton, a communication system for people with cognitive impairments or other communication difficulties, was originally developed with signs borrowed from British Sign Language. The sign language used in Sri Lanka is also closely related to BSL despite the oral language not being English, demonstrating the distance between sign languages and spoken ones.
BSL users campaigned to have BSL recognised on a similar level to Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish. BSL was recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government on 18 March 2003, but it has no legal protection. There is however legislation requiring the provision of interpreters such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
BSL has many regional dialects. Signs used in Scotland, for example, may not be used, and may not be understood immediately by those in Southern England, and vice versa. Some signs are even more local, occurring only in certain towns or cities (such as the Manchester system of number signs). Likewise, some may go in or out of fashion, or evolve over time, just as terms in oral languages do.
Many British television channels broadcast programmes with in-vision signing, using BSL, as well as specially made programmes aimed mainly at deaf people such as the BBC's See Hear and Channel 4's VEE-TV.
BBC News broadcasts in-vision signing at 07:00-07:45, 08:00-08:20 and 13:00-13:45 GMT/BST each weekday. BBC One also broadcasts in-vision signed repeats of the channel's primetime programmes between 00:30 and 04:00 each weekday.
BSL is used in some educational establishments, but is not always the policy for deaf children in some local authority areas. The Let's Sign BSL and fingerspelling graphics are being developed for use in education by deaf educators and tutors and include many of the regional signs referred to above...
Learning British Sign Language
British Sign Language can be learned throughout the UK and three examination systems exist. Courses are provided by community colleges, local centres for deaf people and private organisations. Most tutors are native users of sign language and hold a relevant teaching qualification.
Signature excellence in communication with deaf people is accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and provides awards at the following levels:
- Level I – Elementary
- Level II – Intermediate
- Level III/ NVQ 3 – Advanced
- NVQ Level 6 – Required as part of the NVQ Level 6 BSL/English Interpreting. (This qualification was formerly called NVQ Level 4)
In Scotland, there is a Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) system for students learning British Sign Language. Currently there are 3 levels in the SQA system (continuing assessments):
- SQA: Introduction to British Sign Language
- SQA: British Sign Language Level 1
- SQA: British Sign Language Level 2
Becoming a BSL / English interpreter
Deaf Studies courses with specific streams for sign language interpreting exist at several British universities. Course entry requirements vary from no previous knowledge of BSL to NVQ level 6 BSL (or equivalent). Courses are often mapped against Signature's (previously CACDP) language qualifications and/or the National Occupational Standards for Interpreting; mapping ensures completion of a course gives eligibility to register with the National Registers of Communication Professionals with Deaf and Deafblind People (the NRCPD).
Applications for Junior Trainee, Trainee or MRSLI (Member of the Register of Sign Language Interpreters) status are considered and vetted by the NRCPD. To be eligible candidates must have the relevant qualifications and must pass a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check. Interpreters must have an advanced knowledge of English and BSL and must be able to process information quickly and accurately.
Interpreters may apply for the status of "Junior Trainee Interpreter" after completing the Level III/ NVQ 3 BSL assessment (they must also be enrolled on a recognised interpreter training programme, have completed some initial training and have professional indemnity insurance to register). They may then undertake work in restricted settings. Once registered with an approved course and having demonstrated their BSL is NVQ 4 standard interpreters are then eligible for the "Trainee Interpreter" title and can work in a wider variety of settings.
After completing an approved course and once the interpreter has been assessed for the NVQ 4 in BSL Interpreting (or equivalent), Trainees can apply to become a "Member of the Register of Sign Language Interpreters" (MRSLI). This status allows an interpreter to work in all settings. Even once MRSLI status is achieved, however, an interpreter is required to undertake Continuous Professional Development and when available, specialist training is required to work in specific domains. Some settings have policy guidelines (e.g. the Criminal Justice System) that require registered MRSLI status or, 'the yellow badge' before a sign language interpreter can work in those settings.
The Association of Sign Language Interpreters provides a network of regional groups, professional development opportunities and a mentoring scheme. It represents the sign language interpreting profession in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sitting on advisory committees and having strong links with the NRCPD. Membership is available as Student, Associate and Full levels. The latter two categories provide the interpreter with professional indemnity insurance. Other interested parties can also subscribe as either Individual or Corporate Supporters.
Communication Support Workers
Communication Support Workers (CSWs) are people who support the communication of deaf students in education at all ages, and deaf people in many areas of work, using British Sign Language and other methods. Association of Communication Support Workers ACSW is the National Association that supports and represents the interests and views of CSWs, encourages good practice and aims to improve the training standards and opportunities for current and future CSWs. The Association provides a professional network; improving information exchange, professional standards and support. Because CSW's have not received any formal interpreting training they should not be used in place of a qualified and NRCPD registered interpreter.
- British Sign Language reference at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
- IPSOS Mori GP Patient Survey 2009/10
- 2011 Census: Quick Statistics for England and Wales, March 2011, Accessed 17 February 2013
- Deaf people and linguistic research ,Professor Bencie Woll ,Director of the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre based at University College London. British Science Association. Accessed October 2010.
- Kyle & Woll (1985).Sign Language: the study of deaf people and their language Cambridge University Press, p. 263
- Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language J. G. Kyle, B. Woll, G. Pullen, F. Maddix, Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 0521357179
- McKee, D. & G. Kennedy (2000). Lexical Comparison of Signs from American, Australian, British, and New Zealand Sign Languages. In K. Emmorey and H. Lane (Eds), "The signs of language revisited: an anthology to honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima". Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
- Johnston, T. (2002). BSL, Auslan and NZSL: Three sign languages or one? In A. Baker, B. van den Bogaerde & O. Crasborn (Eds.), "Cross-linguistic perspectives in sign language research: Selected papers from TISLR 2000" (pp. 47-69). Hamburg: Signum Verlag.
- British Sign Language Academy
- "British-Sign Dictionary - Free online Dictionary of British Sign Language signs".
- "British Deaf Association Sign Language Resource".
- "Signature; the trading name for CACDP (the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People)".
- "Edinburgh BSL Group".