British Sign Language – by Amie Harrison

Amie Harrison Sign Language

This month one of our Finance Coordinators, Amie Harrison will introduce us to British Sign Language, which she has been studying for over 2 years.

Sign Language is a visual means of communication using hand movements, facial expression, body language and lip reading. This is used by deaf people or those who have hearing loss.

Many countries use Sign Language and each country has its own form. In Britain, it is called BSL (British Sign Language). BSL is independent of the spoken English language and follows its own path of development. It also has its own grammatical structure and syntax.

BSL is an essential language of around 145,000 people within the UK. In 2011, 15,000 people living in England and Wales reported that they use BSL as their main/only language.

There are records of a Sign Language existing within deaf communities in England as far back as 1570. BSL has evolved, as all languages do, from these origins by several means, including modification and invention. Thomas Braidwood, a teacher from Edinburgh, founded Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in 1760 which is recognised as the first school for the deaf in Britain. 

Until the 1940s Sign Language skills were unofficially passed on between deaf people, often living in residential institutions and communities. The use of signing was discouraged in many schools.

Since the 1970s BSL or Makaton (the child-friendly version of BSL) has been increasingly used in schools. On 18 March 2003 the UK government formally recognised BSL as a language in its own right. This has led to increased funding for the needs of the communication of deaf people, and an increased awareness of the language which now has a similar status to that of other minority languages such as Gaelic and Welsh.

A common misconception is that BSL follows the same grammatical and sentence structure as English.BSL actually uses a grammatical structure commonly described as a Topic Comment Structure. This means that the topic is stated first and then a comment about that topic is stated and explained afterwards - similar to a lot of other spoken languages.

Take this example:

The man is walking over the bridge – English

Bridge man walk - BSL

British Sign Language is a visual language and as such requires the development of a visual image in the mind of the observer. You need to ‘set the scene’ so that the other person is able to visualise/see what is being communicated to them. When painting a picture, for example, one would first paint the largest object and then add the other, smaller elements, gradually adding more details as the painting develops. In the example above, the largest object is the bridge, not the man. Signing bridge first allows the observer to get an image in their mind of the scenario being created. If one had signed man first, the scenario is still uncertain. It is the bridge which is the main element of the statement. The man is secondary. Thirdly, one needs to describe what is happening in this ‘picture’, so the action (verb) comes last. Essentially, there is a bridge, with a man on it and he is walking: bridge man walk.

Many people have the false impression that Sign Language is a worldwide universal language, but this is far from the truth. Due to the isolated nature of Sign Language there is even variation from city to city within Britain. This is known as regional variation and is comparable to regional accents and dialects in spoken languages.

Signs used in Scotland, for example, may not be used, or understood immediately by those in Southern England, and vice versa. Some signs are even more local, occurring only in certain towns or cities.  Other countries also have their own version of Sign Language. However, International Sign (IS) is a variety of Sign Language used in a variety of different contexts, particularly at international meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress. The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is an international non-governmental organisation representing approximately 70 million deaf people worldwide.

Recognised by the United Nations (UN), WFD works closely with the UN and its various agencies in promoting the human rights of deaf people in accordance with the principles and objectives of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other general acts and recommendations of the UN and its specialised agencies.

When necessary, WFD uses special, legal or administrative measures to ensure that deaf people in every country have the right to preserve their own sign languages, organisations, and cultural and other activities. Most important among WFD priorities are deaf people in developing countries; the right to sign language; and equal opportunity in all spheres of life, including access to education and information.