10 Facts About British Sign Language And Deaf Culture You Probably Didn't Know

Vicky Gayle
Jan 29, 2024 By Vicky Gayle
Originally Published on May 05, 2020
A woman making a conversation with sign language
Age: 0-99
Read time: 5.1 Min

British Sign Language (BSL) has a long and rich history, potentially going back to 1927 when researchers say the earliest known film of an English man signing was captured on camera. Statistics don't tell us the exact number of BSL users across the UK but the British Deaf Association believe it's in the region of 151,000 people.

Here are 10 facts about British Sign Language and deaf culture you ought to know.

No Legal Status

BSL was recognised as an official language by the British government in 2003. Irish Sign Language (IRL) and BSL were recognised the following year in Northern Ireland as well as in Wales by the Welsh Assembly Government. However, Scotland and Ireland are the only UK nations where sign language is legally protected. This means their governments must promote the use and understanding of BSL, and a deaf person's right to communicate in their language.  Deaf charities, activists and political allies are campaigning for the same in England and Wales.

Signing Was Once Banned

Generations of deaf people across the world were denied the basic right to use BSL because it was frowned upon and thought to be a primitive language. This attitude is rooted in the Oralism approach that devalued sign language in favour of teaching deaf children to speak like hearing kids so they could "compete and conform as an adult".  The suppression of sign language in schools was largely down to the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in 1880 where resolutions were passed to ban sign language.

Sign Language Isn't Universal

There are regional dialects in sign language just as there are in spoken languages. How someone signs a word in London won't necessarily be how they sign it in Birmingham and there are usually several signs for one word just how the English language has synonyms. What this means is BSL vocabulary constantly evolves. Older, less politically correct signs are replaced for newer ones and new signs are created as the need arises such as with Coronavirus.  There's even an International Sign Language (ISL) to help bridge the language gap at major events where they'll be people meeting from all over the world.

BSL, SSE And Makaton Aren't The Same

People often confuse BSL with sign-supported English (SSE). BSL is a visual language with its own linguistic rules and grammar, separate to written English. SSE uses sign language alongside speech in the order of spoken English. For "How are you?" there's just one sign in BSL, for example, not three separate signs. Makaton is a much newer form of sign language developed in the 70s to support communication with people who have physical or learning difficulties. Some signs are borrowed from BSL, but Makaton is comprised of visual prompts which follow the same grammatical structure as spoken English.

Sign Names

Just as nickknames are used to create familiarity, deaf people christen each other with quirky sign names. Not only does it make signing their name quicker (the alternative is to fingerspell it) it initiates a person into the deaf community and becomes part of their identity. So how does a sign name come to be? Well, it will either reflect their personality, mannerisms, hobbies, job, physical appearance or be a play on their name – something like that. For example, my BSL tutor must have her nails painted so her sign name is the action of daintily painting one's fingernails.  

Deaf Culture Exists

Culture is made up of social beliefs, behaviours, art, stories, history, values, and shared language – everything deaf culture has in abundance. What also unites deaf people is their shared experience of being oppressed by hearing people and having to defend their language and culture. There are deaf music and arts festivals like Deaffest and Deaf Rave; plenty of deaf performers and theatre productions (just Google Deafinitely Theatre); deaf TV and entertainment platforms are long-running and we've not even got onto sports institutions like Deaflympics and UK Deaf Sport.

Big D, Little D

Have you ever seen D/deaf referred to in this way? The differentiation between the uppercase D and  lowercase d is rooted in deaf culture and self-identity. Sign language users who were born deaf, so BSL is their first language, will often identify themselves as being culturally Deaf with a big D rather than deaf with a lowercase d, which tends to refer to someone who lost their hearing later on after acquiring a spoken language so the person identifies culturally with the hearing community. When you see D/deaf it means there's an acknowledgement of all persons.

No To 'Hearing-Impaired'

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Deaf people don't regard themselves as disabled or damaged which is why the phrase 'hearing impaired' can cause offence. It's likely the phrase began as a medical way to describe someone who developed hearing loss later in life or has only partial hearing loss, but they don't consider themselves to be deaf. As with any group of people, it's best to identify them in the way they identify themselves and that is usually 'Deaf' or 'deaf'. Hard-of-hearing (HoH) is still used but avoid 'the deaf' and 'deaf-mute'. Ask the individual if you're unsure  because everybody is different.

Thomas Braidwood

The first deaf school, Thomas Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf, opened in Edinburgh in 1760. According to research done by UCL's Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL), this was considered to be the first school in Britain to include sign language in education. This laid the foundations for BSL as it's used today because he introduced the 'combined system' rather than relying on lip-reading and Oralism, which was the norm elsewhere in Britain and Europe at the time.

BSL GCSE

While British schools have the choice to include sign language on the curriculum, it's hoped a BSL GCSE could be created soon for deaf students to gain a qualification in their native language. Examination body Signature had piloted a secondary school qualification back in 2015. In 2018, schoolboy Daniel Jillings launched a campaign to introduce a BSL GCSE before he took his exams. Last year, schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed Department for Education officials were “working with subject experts to develop draft subject content” for the GCSE.

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Written by Vicky Gayle

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Vicky Gayle

Vicky is an avid explorer living in Birmingham and is an auntie to four nieces and nephews. She believes in being a tourist in her own town and enjoys discovering new experiences. She has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Central Lancashire. Vicky loves to share her finds and regularly sends event ideas to her friends. As many of her friends are parents, she is always on the lookout for child-friendly activities to recommend. Vicky is open-minded and willing to try most things at least once.

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