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How to Learn BSL

This factsheet contains information about communicating with Deaf people, the Deaf Community and British Sign Language (BSL). It also tells you briefly about other ways Deaf people communicate and about sign language in different countries. It explains where you can learn BSL and about the BSL examination structure and gives you information on books, videos and CDs to supplement classes in BSL. We also list organisations you can contact for information on the Deaf Community.

Communicating with Deaf people

Deaf people in the UK use various methods of communication. This factsheet looks at the most widely used method of signed communication: ‘BSL’. We tell you more about it on page 2. You may also come across references to Sign Supported English (SSE). SSE uses many BSL signs, but with the grammatical structure of English unlike BSL, which is a language in its own right. SSE may be used by people who have learned English as a first language and then learned to sign, or as a first language.

The Deaf Community

It is estimated that 8.7 million people in the UK are Deaf or hard of hearing. However, not all of them are members of the Deaf Community – people who use BSL as their first or preferred language. It is difficult to say how many people in the UK use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first or preferred language – current estimates vary between 50,000 and 70,000. BSL users may describe themselves as Deaf, rather than deaf. Their degree of deafness does not, in itself, determine whether or not a person is a member of the Deaf Community. Someone who has become profoundly deaf in adulthood may still identify with the hearing world and rely on lipreading, speech and hearing aids to listen to sound; someone born with a less profound hearing loss into a Deaf family may identify with the Deaf Community and use BSL.

British Sign Language

BSL is the language used by the Deaf Community in the UK. It has its own grammar and syntax, completely different from the grammatical rules of English. It uses both manual and non-manual components: handshapes and movements, facial expression, and shoulder movement.
Linguists generally agree that BSL is a topic-comment language. For example, the question in English ‘What is your name?’ becomes the sequence ‘Name you what?’ in BSL. The topic of the sentence, ‘name you’, comes first, followed by the comment, ‘what?’.

Other methods of manual communication

Other methods of manual communication in Britain include those used to teach Deaf children English, such as Signed English and Paget Gorman Signed Speech. Some methods – such as Makaton and BLISS Symbols (Blissymbolics) – rely on the use of symbols to communicate with people who have learning difficulties or who cannot speak for neurological or medical reasons. For further information, contact the RNID helpline (address on page 9).

Sign language in other countries

Sign languages develop naturally, just like spoken languages. They are as diverse as spoken languages. Thus, Deaf people in different countries do not use the same sign language, but some sign languages are related to one another, just as some spoken languages are related. For example, early educationalists and missioners from Britain influenced Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and Auslan is therefore closely related to BSL, although not identical to it. Some Deaf people also use International Sign Language to communicate with Deaf people from different countries. Deaf people in Northern Ireland use Irish Sign Language as well as BSL. BSL also has dialects, which means that signs will have different meanings depending on where the Deaf person comes from. For example, signs that someone in Newcastle uses to say something may have a different meaning in Brighton. BSL users also use fingerspelling. Certain words – usually names of people and places – are spelled out on fingers. However, it is important to remember that fingerspelling is not sign language.

Where to learn BSL

About 800 centres in the UK run courses in BSL. These include further education colleges, community education centres, adult education centres, universities, local deaf clubs and deaf groups. The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP) produces a leaflet with details of colleges running BSL courses in your area. For a copy of the leaflet, write to CACDP (address on page 8) enclosing an A4 SAE and stating whether it is Stage 1, 2 or the new NVQ Level 3 you wish to find a course in and where you live. Alternatively, contact the RNID Helpline for information (details on page 9). Fees for BSL courses vary – contact your local course organiser directly for this information.

BSL examination structure

Courses in BSL stages I and II are designed to prepare students for the nationally validated examinations in BSL – Stages 1 and 2.

BSL Stage 1

For Stage 1, you follow a course that involves 60 hours of study. Very often this is two hours a week for one academic year – from September to June – although courses with other structures are available too. By the end of the course you will be able to:

  • Conduct a basic conversation with a Deaf person in BSL.
  • Sign a short passage.
  • Answer questions on a short story signed to you by a Deaf person.
  • Provide information about Deaf people, the Deaf Community and Deaf Culture.
  • Recognise the different ways in which Deaf people communicate.
BSL Stage 2

To be accepted for a CACDP Stage 2 course, you must have passed the Stage 1 examination. You must have proficient English and you will need access to a video recorder for private study. The recommended length of the course is 120 hours, of which 90 are based in the classroom. It is common for Stage 2 courses to run for one evening a week over two years, or two evenings a week for one year, but there are other possibilities such as a block course or attending classes at weekends. CACDP also recommend that a BSL Stage 2 course be taught by two different tutors. By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Hold a conversation in BSL on a range of topics.
  • Use BSL at Stage 2 level in a range of situations.
  • Understand a BSL conversation between two people over a range of topics.
  • Retell a short story presented in BSL.
  • Sign a story using topics showing a good use of BSL principles.
  • Give up-to-date information in BSL on current issues and activities within the Deaf Community.

CACDP is in the process of establishing National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) for sign language courses. The Stage 3 BSL examination was discontinued at the end of 1998 and replaced by NVQ Level 3. NVQs are by definition vocational – related to work – and the contents of NVQ assessments are geared towards the needs of people who are working with and have contact with Deaf people. In practical terms, this means anyone who works with the general public, and anyone who works with Deaf people such as a shop assistant, a receptionist, an ENT consultant or a barrister.
Part of the overall assessment requires students to have considerable contact with many Deaf people and asks them to research specific areas of interest that are relevant to their own field of employment.


  • British Sign Language: a beginner’s guide. Video to accompany the BBC book. £15.99. Available from the Forest Bookshop (see below).

  • Sign: an introduction to British Sign Language (BSL). Series of 10 VHS videotapes for sign language teachers and students. £30 plus VAT each or £250 plus VAT for all 10 including postage from MALTS, Faculty of Education, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ. Tel: 0131 516 6022; E-mail:

  • An introduction to sign language. A video with about 450 words and phrases, grouped in 13 lessons. Price: £22.00 from Enterprise Video Services, 7 Tamworth Street, St Helens WA10 4JF. Tel/Fax: 01744 26302; E-mail: Website:

  • Acquisition skills. This video is designed to follow on from the above video. It includes 15 signed short stories, some of which give you an insight into Deaf humour. Price: £15.00 from Enterprise Video Services (address on page 7).

    Enterprise Video Services also sell compilation packs comprising a range of videos – please contact them for further details (address on page 7).


  • The British Sign Language CD-ROM. Has more than 30 hours of video clips. £59.00 plus VAT from Microbooks Ltd, 16 Sandhurst Road, Yateley GU46 7UU. Tel: 01252 668484; Fax: 01252 668485. Contact Microbooks for details of other CD-ROMs about deafness.
Useful organisations

If you would like to buy books, videos or CD-ROMs about sign language, or if you want to broaden your knowledge of deafness and the Deaf Community, contact the following organisations for copies of their free catalogues or publications lists.
Please enclose an SAE.

  • Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People
    (CACDP), Durham University Science Park,
    Block 4, Stockton Road,
    Durham DH1 3UZ.
    Tel: 0191 383 1155;
    Text: 0191 383 7915;
    Fax: 0191 383 7914;

    CACDP sells copies of course materials, videos and curricula for all BSL examinations.

  • The Forest Bookshop,
    8 St John Street,
    Coleford GL16 8AR.
    Tel/Text: 01594 833858;
    Fax: 01594 833446.
    E-mail: ;

    The Forest Bookshop is a leading supplier of books, videos and CD- ROMs on deafness and produces a free catalogue for these. You can also visit the bookshop.

  • National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS),
    15 Dufferin Street,
    EC1Y 8UR.
    Tel/Text: 020 7250 0123;
    Fax: 020 7251 5020.

    NDCS have information on childhood deafness. NDCS publications are of interest to families of deaf children and those who work with them.

  • The RNID Helpline,
    PO Box 16464,
    London EC1Y 8TT.
    Tel: 0870 60 50 123;
    Text: 0870 60 33 007;
    Fax: 020 7296 8199.

    RNID has a range of more than 100 factsheets and leaflets for Deaf people, their friends and family, and professionals working them.

  • RNID Library,
    Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital,
    330-332 Gray’s Inn Road,
    London WC1X 8EE.
    Tel/Text: 020 7915 1553;
    Fax: 020 7915 1443.

    The RNID library is the largest library in Europe on deafness and communication. It has specialist publications ranging from academic journals to books for children. Anyone can visit the library – you do not have to be a member to use its services. It does not lend books direct to visitors. However, if you are a member of a local public library, a college library or any other library in the British Library's inter-library loan scheme, you can borrow books via the scheme. The library also supplies free reading lists on deafness, BSL, deaf culture and history, and many other related fields. The library does not have a video collection.

    The library is normally open from 10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm weekdays, except public holidays. If you are coming a long way, please check that the library is open.

RNID Information Services, March 2000.

Source: RNID Factsheet
Date Published @ DS: 31/10/2000 

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