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The BSL Fingerspelling Alphabet.
British Sign Language (BSL) is the sign language used in the United Kingdommarker (UK), and is the first or preferred language of deaf people in the UK; the number of signers has been put at 30,000 to 70,000. The language makes use of space and involves movement of the hands, body, face and head. Many thousands of people who are not Deaf also use BSL, as hearing relatives of Deaf people, sign language interpreters or as a result of other contact with the British Deaf community.

Relationships with other sign languages

Although the United Kingdom and the United Statesmarker share English as the predominant spoken language, British Sign Language is quite distinct from American Sign Language (ASL). BSL fingerspelling is also different from ASL, as it uses two hands whereas ASL uses one. BSL is also distinct from Irish Sign Language (ISL) (ISG in the ISO system) which is more closely related to French Sign Language (LSF) and ASL.

It is also distinct from Signed English, a manually coded method expressed to represent the English language.

The sign languages used in Australia and New Zealandmarker, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language, respectively, evolved largely from 19th century BSL, and all retain the same manual alphabet, grammar, and similar lexicon. These three languages may technically be considered dialects of a single language (BANZSL) due to their use of the same grammar, manual alphabet, and the high degree of lexical sharing (overlap of signs). The term BANZSL was coined by Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri.

In Australia Deaf schools were established by educated Deaf people from London, Edinburgh and Dublin. This introduced the London and Edinburgh dialects of BSL to Melbourne and Sydney respectively and Irish Sign Language to Sydney in Roman Catholic schools for the Deaf. The language contact post secondary education between Australian ISL users and 'Australian BSL' users accounts for some of the dialectal differences we see between modern BSL and Auslan. Tertiary education in the US for some Deaf Australian adults also accounts for some ASL borrowings found in modern Auslan.

Auslan, BSL and NZSL have 82% of signs identical (using concepts from a Swadesh list). When considering similar or related signs as well as identical, they are 98% cognate. By comparison, ASL and BANZSL have only 31% signs identical, or 44% cognate. Further information will be available after the completion of the BSL corpus is completed and allows for comparison with the Auslan corpus and the Sociolinguistic Variation in New Zealand Sign Language project . There continues to be language contact between BSL, Auslan and NZSL through migration (Deaf people and interpreters), the media (television programmes such as See Hear, Switched, Rush and SignPost are often recorded and shared informally in all three countries) and conferences (the World Federation of the Deaf Conference - WFD - in Brisbane 1999 saw many British Deaf people travelling to Australia).

Makaton, a communication system for people with cognitive impairments or other communication difficulties, was originally developed with signs borrowed from British Sign Language. The sign language used in Sri Lankamarker is also closely related to BSL despite the spoken language not being English, demonstrating the distance between sign languages and spoken ones.

BSL users campaigned to have BSL recognised on a similar level to Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish. BSL was recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government on 18 March 2003, but it has no legal protection, so therefore is not an official language of the United Kingdom. There is however legislation requiring the provision of interpreters such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Usage

BSL has many regional dialects. Signs used in Scotlandmarker, for example, may not always be understood in southern England , and vice versa. Some signs are even more local, occurring only in certain towns or cities (such as the Manchester system of number signs). Likewise, some may go in or out of fashion, or evolve over time, just as terms in spoken languages do.

Many British television channels broadcast programmes with in-vision signing, using BSL, as well as specially made programmes aimed mainly at deaf people such as the BBC's See Hear and Channel 4's VEE-TV.

BBC News broadcasts in-vision signing at 07:00-07:45, 08:00-08:20 and 13.00-13.45 GMT each weekday. BBC One also broadcasts in-vision signed repeats of the channel's primetime programmes between 00.30 to 04.00 each weekday.

BSL is used in some educational establishments, but is not always the policy for deaf children in some local authority areas. The Let's Sign BSL and fingerspelling graphics are being developed for use in education by deaf educators and tutors and include many of the regional signs referred to above.

Learning British Sign Language

British Sign Language can be learnt throughout the UK and three examination systems exist. Courses are provided by community colleges, local centres for Deaf people and private organisations. Most tutors are native users of sign language and hold a relevant teaching qualification.

Signature excellence in communication with deaf people is accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and provides awards at the following levels:

  • Level I – Elementary
  • Level II – Intermediate
  • Level III/ NVQ 3 – Advanced
  • NVQ 4 – Required as part of the NVQ 4 BSL/English Interpreting


The British Deaf Association has formed the BSL Academy to provide an official British Sign Language curriculum and tutor training.

In Scotland, there is a Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) system for students learning British Sign Language. Currently there are 3 levels in the SQA system (continuing assessments):

  • SQA: Introduction to British Sign Language
  • SQA: British Sign Language Level 1
  • SQA: British Sign Language Level 2


Becoming a BSL / English Interpreter

Deaf Studies courses with specific streams for sign language interpreting exist at several British universities. Course entry requirements vary from no previous knowledge of BSL to NVQ level 4 BSL (or equivalent). Courses are often mapped against Signature's (previously CACDP) language qualifications and/or the National Occupational Standards for Interpreting; mapping ensures completion of a course gives eligibility to register with the National Registers of Communication Professionals with Deaf and Deafblind People (the NRCPD).

Applications for Junior Trainee, Trainee or MRSLI (Member of the Register of Sign Language Interpreters) status are considered and vetted by the NRCPD. To be eligible candidates must have the relevant qualifications and must pass a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check. Interpreters must have an advanced knowledge of English and BSL and must be able to process information quickly and accurately.

Interpreters may apply for the status of "Junior Trainee Interpreter" after completing the Level III/ NVQ 3 BSL assessment (they must also be enrolled on a recognised interpreter training programme, have completed some initial training and have professional indemnity insurance to register). They may then undertake work in restricted settings. Once registered with an approved course and having demonstrated their BSL is NVQ 4 standard interpreters are then eligible for the "Trainee Interpreter" title and can work in a wider variety of settings.

After completing an approved course and once the interpreter has been assessed for the NVQ 4 in BSL Interpreting (or equivalent), Trainees can apply to become a "Member of the Register of Sign Language Interpreters" (MRSLI). This status allows an interpreter to work in all settings. Even once MRSLI status is achieved, however, an interpreter is required to undertake Continuous Professional Development and when available, specialist training is required to work in specific domains. Some settings have policy guidelines (e.g. the Criminal Justice System) that require registered MRSLI status or, 'the yellow badge' before a sign language interpreter can work in those settings.

The Association of Sign Language Interpreters provides a network of regional groups, professional development opportunities and a mentoring scheme. It represents the sign language interpreting profession in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sitting on advisory committees and having strong links with the NRCPD. Membership is available as Student, Associate and Full levels. The latter two categories provide the interpreter with professional indemnity insurance. Other interested parties can also subscribe as either Individual or Corporate Supporters.

Communication Support Workers

Communication Support Workers (CSWs) are people who support the communication of Deaf students in education at all ages, and Deaf people in many areas of work, using British Sign Language and other methods. Association of Communication Support Workers ACSW is the National Association that supports and represents the interests and views of CSWs, encourages good practice and aims to improve the training standards and opportunities for current and future CSWs. The Association provides a professional network; improving information exchange, professional standards and support.

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