BSL Tips & Advice

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  • What is British Sign Language?
  • British Sign language (or BSL) is a visual-gestural language, which makes use of three dimensional space and the movement of hands (and other parts of the body) to convey meaning. It has its own vocabulary and syntax.

    British Sign Language (BSL) is officially recognised in Britain and is the second most widely used language, after English.  Over 50,000 Deaf people and 100,000* hearing people use it.  It is a visual language and relies on a number of different components, including hand shapes, movement and facial expression.  Grammatically, it is very distinct from English and is known as a ‘topic comment’ language.  For example: “What is your name?” in English becomes ‘Your name what?” in BSL.

    * Royal Association for the Deaf (RAD) source of information

  • How does it work?
  • Lip-patterns and finger-spelling make up an important part of BSL.  Different lip patterns produced in conjunction with signs change the meaning. For example, the signs for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ use the same hand-shape and movement but the lip pattern and facial expression are different.  Finger-spelling is used to spell out words if a person or place name is unfamiliar to someone, or if an item of new jargon is being used for which no sign has yet been coined. It is also used to introduce new people to whom a BSL sign-name is then allocated. Fingerspelling can also be used to spell words for signs that the signer does not know the sign for, or to clarify a sign that is not known by the person reading the signer. BSL is as diverse as any other language, and is constantly evolving. This form of signing is only used in the UK and like spoken languages, has many regional variations, which adds to its richness.

  • What is the advice for people who want to learn sign language for the first time?
  • We know it can be daunting at first as sign-language uses such a different modality from speech and the use of facial expression can seem a challenge to our British reserve!  It gets easier very quickly once you get used to it.

    Our initial courses will focus on understanding and using specific basic vocabulary items, for example necessities like toilet, food and table, and will then progress to include more descriptive signs such as sunny, on-the-fourth-floor, etc., which will allow you to expand your vocabulary into sentences.

    The secret to learning sign language is that your hands control your mouth, and you do not need to mouth every single word, as you will not be signing in the order of English sentences.   A BSL-user always looks at the other person and uses peripheral vision to see what’s happening on the hands as all the emotional content is expressed on the face. You will learn how to use facial expressions to stress your thoughts and feelings, for example, “Toilet – where?” Can be asked in a relaxed fashion with a slightly questioning face or, “Quick, Please tell me where the toilet is. I’m desperate”– would be signed in a more urgent fashion using frowning eyebrows, pursed lips and intense eye-gaze. These are grammatical markers and replace inflection in voice. Sign language is a lot more than merely using your hands!

    You would be encouraged to use a wide variety of learning methods to assist your learning, such as practical course-based sessions, reading relevant literature, watching signed DVDs, watching clips on BSL and most importantly, mingling with the Deaf community.

  • How long does it take to become an interpreter?
  • How long it takes to become a fully qualified BSL Interpreter depends on the individual and the route they choose. On average, it takes about seven years to become a fully qualified interpreter although you can achieve fluency and start work as a less-qualified interpreter before this. One of the routes that you can access via BSL College is obtaining Signature qualifications, which are widely recognised in the UK. The website for the national register of interpreters (NRCPD) explains the different routes available.  BSL College offers courses including:

    Level 1 – Basic sign language, normally one academic year
    Level 2 – Intermediate, normally one academic year
    Level 3 – Advanced, normally one and half years
    Level 6 – This leads to much greater fluency and allows the student to pursue Interpreter Qualifications if they wish. This course is normally a one and a half year duration.

    Basic BSL and level 2 would be sufficient to have a conversation with friends or colleagues and can introduce you to the Deaf community.

    Level 3 is a higher level of fluency that acts as a gateway to further study or can simply be a way to improve your skills and confidence when conversing with Deaf people.

  • Can I do the course without taking exams?
  • Yes, you can.  You make the decisions yourself but with advice from the teachers, you are under no pressure.  If the reasons for learning to sign are work-related, we would strongly encourage you to take formal assessments towards the end of the course, as that would hold you in good stead. Levels 1 and 2 are not NVQ qualifications whereas Level 3 and 6 are. We would be there every step of the way!

    Levels 1 and Level 2 consist of 3 formal assessments.  For levels 3 and 6, the student compiles a portfolio, which would contain evidence of signing skills in different scenarios. This digitally recorded form of assignment captures the natural flow of the student’s communication whereas the first two levels are more ‘snap-shots’.

    If it is a ‘Taster Session’ you are after, we can offer that too. A 5 hour day would be sufficient for you to get the gist of BSL and decide whether you would like to pursue further learning.

  • Are there any short courses, focusing on one particular area, such as ‘role-shift’ that I could attend?
  • We offer any number of short courses and are always open to creating tailor-made tuition, if there is sufficient demand. We offer one-day learning as an option, where, for example, you could learn the correct etiquette for interpreting telephone calls with a Deaf person, or a half-day workshop to brush up on your role-shift skills.  Simply let us know what you need.

    If you wish to learn basic sign language, then we encourage you to have 20 hours of lessons to start you off.  This can be offered either in 3 full-day sessions (consecutive or interspersed), or by attending shorter 2 hours slots, in a class, weekly, for an academic term.  With either option, you will obtain a formal certificate entitled Introduction to BSL.

  • Is British Sign Language for everyone?
  • BSL is a language that most people can learn. The only hurdle tends to be the reservation inherent in the British character. On our courses, in order to really take sign language on board, you will need to use your face including eyebrows, cheeks and mouth along with your hand movements. Although this may seem odd at first, you will quickly acclimatise and we will help you develop confidence in this area.

    You may want to learn BSL because you have a Deaf friend or you may wish to work with Deaf children/people.

    If your speciality is Education, you may consider becoming a Communication Support Worker (CSW) for a Deaf student(s) in school or college. You do not need to be a fully qualified interpreter to work as a CSW.

    If you want to go all the way and become a sign language Interpreter, you would also need very good English skills with a wide-ranging vocabulary. When qualified you could end up working in any arena, including television or Law Courts if you so wished.  The options are endless.

  • What is the right way to communicate with Deaf people?
  • When you communicate with Deaf and HOH (Hard of Hearing) people, there are various communication strategies that you need to remember.  For communication to flow naturally and smoothly, be aware that a signer needs space for making his/her own signs and needs to be able to see other signers from the waist upwards to get the full visual message.

    Communication can be affected by ‘visual noise’ like bold wall patterns and anything or anyone moving in the background. Other distractions would be dim lighting, or, conversely glare from lights.  To a Deaf person this feels like trying to speak to someone when others are talking loudly in the background.

  • What are some simple strategies to help communication?
  • Always get the attention of the Deaf person before you start communicating. Gently tap them on the shoulder or arm, or wave your hand in their sight-line if you are further away. If there are a lot of Deaf people in the room, it is appropriate to turn the lights on and off so that everyone turns around to see what’s happening or you can even stamp on the floor with your feet.