Frequently Asked Questions about British Sign Language (BSL)

On this page I answer some of the frequently asked questions about British Sign Language.

If you have a question you would like me to answer please contact us:

Q: I have noticed my hearing declining. I am 70. Do you have many people my age learning sign language in your classes?

A: You are definitely not alone. In the UK more than 40% of people over 50 years old are affected by hearing loss, increasing to over 70% of people age 70+. Hearing loss can lead to a reluctance to take part in social activities, to feeling left out of conversations, isolation and loneliness.

If you haven’t already, see your GP and ask for a referral to an NHS audiologist. Currently fewer than half of people who could benefit from hearing aids have them. There is also the option of visiting a private audiologist.

You would not be the only person your age who has studied with us. At Dot Sign Language we are contacted by more and more people who alongside wearing hearing aids, want to learn British Sign Language (BSL) to aid communication. Often this is when they know their hearing will continue to decrease and they want to prepared.  BSL is the language of the British Deaf community. It is a visual language using handshapes, facial expressions and body language which has evolved over hundreds of years. Not only does learning BSL enable communication, classes are a social place to meet other people in the same situation. Many students meet up to practice and form new friendships.

A Level 1 course will enable you to sign and understand BSL in everyday situations with family and friends such as shopping, ordering food and discussing interests. There is the option to take assessments and gain a qualification, but this is not compulsory; you can learn for interest. Click here for Level 1 course information.


Q: What part does Fingerspelling play in British Sign Language?

A: We have recently created a Fingerspelling poster which you can download. We introduce Fingerspelling whenever we teach Deaf awareness sessions, when we visit schools, cubs, Scouts etc; and it is part of the BSL Level 1 course.

The BSL Fingerspelling manual alphabet uses 2 hands and was taken from the English alphabet. Some sources say manual alphabets originated in silent religious settings where monks used them to communicate. They have also been used in Deaf education.

These days in BSL, Fingerspelling is used for names of people and places (often then replaced by a sign name once the name has been introduced,) for new technology (as the technology becomes common place a recognised sign will often develop e.g. Ipad,) for medical terms such as medications; and it is also used when the signer does not know or forgets the BSL sign for something.

Fingerspelling tends to be used more by the older generation of BSL signers due to teaching methods in the past, and will be used more in formal situations whereas in relaxed settings the signer might create a sign.

Not all Fingerspelling alphabets are the same, American, Irish and French sign languages all use a 1 handed alphabet; so take care when searching online that the alphabet is BSL.

This is our BSL website where you can practise Fingerspelling.


Q: How do you show past, present and future in BSL?

A: In BSL signs do not have ‘endings’ to show tense. Instead BSL uses signs that move through space to show time. These movements are called timelines. Follow this link to the website we created in collaboration with The University of Surrey for video clips demonstrating the different timelines.


Q: What do you find the most challenging thing about being Deaf?

A: For me personally it is doctors appointments. In my experience doctors tend to expect me to be able to lipread everything. I could try to book an interpreter, but that would often be a 2 week wait and of course I can’t always predict when I will be ill! I have Deaf friends who feel the same way. If they have hearing family members it isn’t ethical to expect them to be the interpreter. Many doctors surgeries now have systems to book appointments and view test results online which is extremely helpful; but the face to face with the receptionist, doctor or nurse is often frustrating. I am quite patient at finding other ways to communicate such as writing notes, but it is why one of our organisation’s goals is Deaf Awareness and BSL training for GP surgeries.


Q: Do all deaf people sign?

A: No. I was born Deaf and grew up signing, as do many Deaf people in families with Deaf relatives. We know around 95% of deaf babies are born to hearing parents, some of these parents may choose to learn British Sign Language (BSL) with their children, others may prefer for them to learn orally (by lip-reading.) Most deaf people have some residual hearing and with the help of hearing aids or cochlear implants, some can communicate using lip-reading and the hearing they have. Some deaf children learn BSL later, either at school or as adults; others do not. It will depend very much on the type of school the deaf child attends as to how much exposure to signing they have.

People who have lost their hearing later in life, maybe suddenly e.g. through meningitis, or gradually, will vary in their signing ability too. Some will embrace BSL, others choose not to. The important thing when meeting a deaf person is to ask how they would like to communicate. If you have learnt some sign language you will be well equipped if they sign in reply!


Q: I am learning British Sign Language (BSL), but in the school where I work with deaf children we have to do Sign Supported English (SSE) and speak as we sign. I am getting confused about whether to speak or not and what sign order to use!

A: A couple of my hearing colleagues are also in this situation. They recommend learning and practising British Sign Language sign order, without speaking, with deaf BSL users. Follow the topic / comment structure, adjective after noun, question signs at the end of sentences, use classifiers etc…. Watch fluent signers in real life, online, television BSL interpreters, and try to copy their sign order. This is what you will need to do to pass BSL exams. The examination boards are very strict about not allowing speaking, so practice turning voice off.

When in school using Sign Supported English, the signs you use will be mostly the same (maybe you will be required to add some signs such as ‘and’ and ‘if’,) and you will speak. It might help you to think of BSL and SSE as separate languages that you switch between depending on the situation. That said, it isn’t black and white. There is variation between what people think of as SSE e.g. depending on whether their first language is BSL or spoken English. Some deaf people follow of an English order, so don’t assume every deaf person is doing BSL!

I know it is confusing. My best advice is to get as much practice of both as possible and try not to get too tied up in the sign order, or be nervous about getting it wrong. Have a go.


Q: I am interested in doing Level 3, I passed Level 2 last year. I read that I need 150 hours of home study as well as the time in class, but I’m not using BSL at work. I don’t know if I am ready for the course.

A: The recommended 150 hours are advised by Signature – the examination board, so that students are confident when they do the Level 3 assessments. There is quite a jump in the amount of vocabulary you would be expected to know in Level 3 compared to Level 2. I start Level 3 teaching Linguistics, and students take this assessment after the first term. After this we focuses on the other units. We will teach you lots of signs in class and you will have lots of receptive and productive signing practice, but you will need to study. There are great online BSL resources such as Signworld and BSL Signbank, but I strongly recommend also practising with deaf BSL users. I am happy to assess your signing and tell you if I think you are ready for Level 3, alternatively we have a Pre-Level 3 course. This is a ‘bridging’ course with no exam to give students confidence in vocabulary, syntax (sign order) and conversational skills.


Q: Will I be able to use British Sign Language (BSL) in other countries?

A: It depends on which country you are in. Much like spoken languages, countries have their own sign languages. BSL has gradually developed over hundreds of years in the UK. Before schools, 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 (the first established in 1760 by Thomas Braidwood.) Being visual, and without the television, Skype, FaceTime etc we have today, signs had regional variations because deaf people needed to physically travel to meet up and sign. Many regional differences in signs within the UK still exist today.

There are differences between signed languages in different countries as they developed independently of each other. 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 (around 82% the same.) All have descended from sign language used in Britain in the 19th Century. The sign language used in South Africa also shares similarities with BSL. In these countries you would be able to communicate with deaf signers fairly easily.

In contrast, American Sign Language (ASL) is not related to BSL. It shares similarities with French Sign Language (Langue de Signes Francaise, LSF.)  This is because the American teacher Gallaudet approached British headmaster Thomas Braidwood and asked for help teaching deaf American children how to fingerspell. Wanting to keep his teaching methods secret, Braidwood refused. The French however, agreed to help. ASL, LSF and ISL (Irish Sign Language) have the same single handed manual alphabet, whereas BSL uses a 2-handed alphabet.


Q: I have learnt some Makaton, is it the same as BSL? And what about Sign Supported English? Also, should I speak when I sign?

A: Makaton was devised in the 1970s and uses signs and symbols alongside speaking. It is not the language of the Deaf community, rather it is used to support spoken English for people with communication difficulties, such as Down syndrome, cognitive impairments, people who have had strokes etc. Key words are signed, and many of the signs are taken from BSL so if you learn BSL you will recognise a lot. Other signs are created to be more visually linked to what they represent and be easier to remember. Unlike BSL, Makaton does not have regional variations, the signs are the same all over the UK.

British Sign Language (BSL) is the language of the British Deaf community that has developed over hundreds of years. It is the first or only language of approximately 90,000 deaf people in the UK. It uses the hands to create signs, facial expressions and body language. It has a grammar, and a sign order which is different to spoken English. You do not speak as you sign BSL, and because of the different sign order it would not be possible to except for very short sentences. BSL has regional variations, this is particularly noticeable with numbers and colours.

There are other signed languages linked to BSL. Signed English uses basic BSL signs but in English order using English grammar. It is used in schools to help deaf children learn to read and write English. Signs are created to replace English words which do not have a sign in BSL e.g. yes, no, and. It’s not always possible to give a direct translation between the English word and a BSL sign. Signed English varies a lot depending on whether the signer’s first language is English or BSL.

Sign Supported English (SSE) is also used when teaching deaf children. This is a spoken language. A person speaks in English word order and uses BSL signs for key words. A benefit is that it is quite easy to learn which is important for hearing parents of deaf children (90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents) who have never signed before, and teachers.

Baby Signing uses signs for key words in a sentence, often taken from BSL but sometimes modified so easier for babies hands to form. They are taught to hearing babies alongside spoken English to encourage communication before the baby is old enough to speak.


Q: How long does it take to learn British Sign Language?

A: I am asked this a lot. There is no set answer as it depends on a person’s situation and how much they use BSL in their daily life between classes. Like any language, the more you are immersed in it and practise, the faster you will learn.

If someone was to start a Level 1 course with Dot Sign Language with no prior knowledge of BSL, the courses are usually 20 weeks (although Summer 2018 we are planning a condensed course over a month.) Level 2 is usually a 30 week course. Level 3 including Linguistics is usually taught over an academic year from September to July. Level 3 is considered to be equivalent to A-Level standard, so by this time they would have a good standard of conversational BSL. While studying Level 3 students are expected to do an additional 150 hours of study, so would need to have deaf family or friends too practice with regularly, or be working with deaf people. Lots of our students also meet up and practise together between classes, and there are great online resources to help home study. The resource we have created is great for Level 1 A lot of students also use SignWorld or BSL SignBank

If someone wanted to study further, Level 6 is the standard required to then go on and train to be a BSL interpreter. This is equivalent to degree level. It is important that interpreters are a very highly qualified because of the responsibilities they have, especially if working in medical or legal situations. Because of the jump from Level 3 to Level 6, we now offer a Level 4 qualification.