British Sign Language (BSL) is a visual form of communication, mainly used by Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in UK. It is a combination of gestures, handshapes, facial expressions and body language all used to create a language that is expressive and creative. This is the same for sign languages all over the world as each country have their own sign language and they are different from each other.

An estimated 151,000 people in UK use BSL and 87,000 of these people are Deaf/Hard of Hearing (British Deaf Association). Although not all Deaf/Hard of Hearing people use BSL as some will prefer oral method of using speech and lip-reading.

BSL is not related to spoken English in whatsoever way and this is due to BSL having its own grammatical structure and syntax that is completely different from English. BSL don’t follow the same word order as in English- this is due to the fact BSL use a grammar structure known as TOPIC COMMENT STRUCTURE. In this structure, the topic of the sentence comes first, followed by a comment about the said topic and is followed up by an explanation about the topic. An example is shown below-

English- “What is your name?”

BSL- “Name your what?”

OR

English- “Where is the bus stop?”

BSL- “ Bus Stop Where?”

The difference is English uses suffixes and conjunctions as well as different word order. BSL don’t require these as the meaning is derived from the context and the way how the signs are expressed.

In addition, BSL has its own regional variations, just like accents and the way how people pronounce words. For example, for the colour Green, there is at least 10 different versions of sign for this colour, varying across the country. Someone from Glasgow will use one version for Green but another Deaf person who is from Bristol will use a different sign. So, if you meet a Deaf person from another part of the country, there is a chance they will use different signs from you.

BSL is an official recognised language in its own right. In 2003, the UK Government recognised BSL as an official language and in 2015, the Scottish Parliament passed a landmark legislation on BSL (Scottish BSL Act), giving it a legal status in Scotland that is equal to other minority languages such as Gaelic.

BSL is a beautiful language and is so expressive, it can create a picture and make more of an impact than spoken language. You know what they say… “Actions speak louder than words”. Some of the best things about BSL is that it can be used to facilitate communication in situations where communication would be impossible, such as having a conversation through a window or even underwater. You can even talk while eating- that’s multi-tasking at its best! But ultimately, it brings a community together through a shared language as Deaf community are so immensely proud of their language.

Anyone can learn BSL, just find your nearest centre that would offer BSL classes or a local BSL tutor, or even do it online.

So, for this year's Sign Language Week, here are my TOP FIVE TIPS FOR DEAF AWARENESS

1. Make sure to get their attention- tap their shoulder or arm gently.

2. Make sure you’re talking to them in a quiet area, there are no distractions around you and ensure there is plenty of good lighting.

3. Look at them, talk normally as you would, with a natural lip pattern (no exaggerated mouth patterns) and DON’T cover your mouth when talking

4. Don’t speak too loud or too fast.

5. Make sure they understand you- if they don’t understand, try to repeat what you said in a different way or write it down.

Fiona Stewart