Can I use British Sign Language To Communicate With Deaf People Abroad?

Hands with global map on them with the words: "Can I use British Sign Language in other countries"

Q: Can I use British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate with Deaf people in other countries?

A: You can, and how much you are understood depends on the country you are in!

Much like spoken languages, countries have their own sign languages. There is not one global sign language.

Deaf people who are fluent sign language users are visual communicators and will tend to be better at understanding someone using different sign languages than people using spoken language. They will naturally adapt their signing to include more visually based signs, universally understood gestures and facial expressions.

Like spoken languages, British Sign Language (BSL) has, and continues to evolve. A few hundred years ago in the UK, deaf people wouldn’t have had a full language, just basic signs used to communicate with family and friends. As deaf people gathered in towns and cities, sign language developed. This accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries with the introduction of schools for the deaf.

There are differences between signed languages in different countries because they developed independently of each other. In the past there was no television, Facetime, Skype etc for visual communication across continents!

Within the UK there are also regional variations in signs because deaf people needed to physically travel to meet up and sign. Many still exist today and add to the richness of BSL.

Many similarities exist between BSL and Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and New Zealand Sign language (NZSL) because of historical links between the countries. They share the same manual fingerspelling alphabet, grammar and many signs. All have descended from the same parent language.

In contrast, American Sign Language (ASL) is not related to BSL. ASL shares similarities with French Sign Language (Langue de Signes Francaise, LSF.) The most noticeable difference is that ASL, LSF and ISL (Irish Sign Language) have the same single handed manual alphabet, whereas BSL uses a 2-handed alphabet.