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British sign language in the United Kingdom

Language designations:

  • In the language itself: British Sign Language (BSL)1)


Language vitality according to:

Linguistic aspects:

  • Classification: Sign language → British Sign Language family. For more information, see brit1235 at Glottolog
  • Script: No script

Language standardisation

Since there is no script in the British Sign language, there is no standardised orthography.


Language Area

BSL is spoken in the United Kingdom (Great Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). There is some regional variation in Scotland and Wales. Another dialect is Signed English. Signed English makes use of the BSL vocabulary, but with the grammatical construction of spoken English. BSL has some similarities with Australian and New Zealand Sign language, but it differs a lot from Americian Sign Language 3).

Speaker numbers

There are 327000 users in total, of which 77000 are first language speakers. Some 250000 speakers have British sign language as a second language 4). See Ethnologue for more information.

Education of the language

History of language education:

The term for British Sign Language has not been used for a long time. Until the end of the 1970's, sign language was seen as bad for children and most people did not see it as a language at all 5). However, the language has existed for a longer period. The first notions of a sign language can be found in the 15th century, when a marriage certificate was signed in sign language 6). The first school was opened in 1760 by Thomas Braidwood. The Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb used signed language in their classrooms. However, this school was only for those who could afford it. It lasted until the end of the 18th century, when a public school where deaf children from all backgrounds could go to was opened 7) 8) 9). Until the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan in 1880, sign language was used to communicate with and teach deaf children. After this congress, the use of sign languages was forbidden 10) 11). As a result of this, the British Deaf Association (BDA) was founded in 1890 (first it's name was The British Deaf and Dumb Association, but the word Dumb was dropped in 1971) 12) 13). The BDA was founded to keep the rights for deaf people. In 1944, a new school act again states the importance to speak and not sign to all children. However, since the 1970s more and more attention is being paid to sign language and in 1975 it gets its name: British Sign Language 14). Afterwards research projects into British Sign Language were set up in the University of Edingburgh, Univeristy of Bristol and University of Newcastle 15). Since then, there have been new research projects in the University of Central Lancashire and University of Wolverhampton (1990), City University London (1995) and a new research center (the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre) at University College London (2006). The first Professor of Sign Language and Deaf Studies became Bencie Woll, in 1995, at City University London 16). From the 1990s onward, BSL was again allowed in education. A study that gave greatly improved the standing of BSL was the Linguistics of British Sign Language by Rachel Sutton-Space and Bencie Woll, published in 1995 17) 18). Today there are between 22 and 25 special schools for children with hearing impairment and deaf children, as well as possibilities to enroll in a mainstream school with support 19) 20) 21). In addition, there are multiple (online) courses to learn BSL (see Online learning resources).

Legislation of language education

Protection and recognition

The British Sign Language is not protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but it is officially recognised as a language in its own right, as an indigenous language by the British Government on 18th March 2003 22). From January 2004 onwards, it is offically recognised as a language in its own right in Wales and in March 2004 it got formal recognition in Nothern Ireland23). BSL was offically recognised in Scotland in 201124).

Next to that, the British government signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009. This convention views sign language on a par with spoken languages. Together with the Equality Act from 2010, it aims to protect people who speak BSL 25).

Teaching of BSL

According to the Equality Act from 2010, a school should not discriminate a student and should accept everyone. It should also provide the student with education 26). However, the BDA is still campaigning for more recognition and better access to, among other things, education 27).

However, since there have been cuts in school budgets, specialist teachers have been reduced by 12% and councils have been closing specialist units in mainstream schools for deaf people. As a result, there is less and less support in school. In 2014 a new reform passed to give more attention to children with special needs, but so far no improvement apparent 28).

The language is not taught in mainstream schools or used as medium of instruction. There is support for individual deaf students, for instance teachers that teach or understand BSL, but BSL is not used as medium of instruction for a whole group in education. It can be used in special education29).

Support structure for education of the language:

There are two organisations who are in charge of educating BSL, of developing materials and offering courses: Signature and IBSL. Signature is currently developing materials and arranging instruction for secondary education. This to make sure that students can do a so-called General Certificate of Secondary Education in sign language 30). For more information on BSL in secondary education, see BSL in secondary education, a pilot program. Not everything is subsidized, but Signature sometimes gets funding for research projects from the Department for Education or from charity funds. IBSL also received charity funding for research on deafness 31) 32).

Next to that, Signature and IBSL keep track of teacher qualifications and offer teacher training programs to improve teachers' skills 33) 34). They also offer qualifications for different levels of proficiency and for teacher training 35) 36). Some of the qualifications are funded by the Skills Funding Agency (since April 2017 replaced by Education and Skills Funding Agency), a governmental organisation offering fundings for different purposes. However, not every qualification or training is (automatically) funded, as IBSL says “Unfortunately, the new criteria mean that some ‘specialist’ qualifications, for example the Level 3 Deafblind Communication, may not meet the eligibility rules for funding. How flexible the SFA will be regarding qualifications that contribute to the economy and the health and well-being of the nation (our emphasis) remains to be seen.” 37). The BATOD is the professional association for teachers. They try to contribute to policy development in the field of deaf education. See more on the BATOD website.

The qualitiy of education in Great Britain is controlled by Ofsted. However, there aren't reports on BSL only, because Ofsted publishes reports of the schools in Great Britian, not of subjects thought in school38).

Education in practice

BSL is taught using a bilingual approach at two special schools: the Elmfield School for Deaf Children 39) and Frank Barnes school for Deaf Children 40). Both schools serve pupils ranging from 2 to 16 years old. In regular education, such initiatives are not found yet. The schools aim to allow pupils to reach the highest level possible. Of course, these schools can only serve the part of the British population that lives nearby.

BSL is also taught in special education and extra-curricular, via courses offered by Signature or IBSL, for more information see BSL courses at every level with Signature and BSL courses at every level with IBSL. These courses are intended for everyone, child or adult, who wishes to learn BSL.

British Sign Language is taught and studied in multiple universities, for example University of Central Lancashire which offers a BA in British Sign Language and Deaf Studies 41) or University of Dundee in Scotland which offers a short (6 weeks) and long (26 weeks) course in BSL 42) and York St John University which offers a complete curriculum to learn BSL 43). Heriot-Watt University in Scotland also offers a four year MA program for British Sign Language (Interpreting, Translating and Applied Language Studies) 44)

Online learning resources

British-Sign, What is British Sign Language? (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Danachos. (2016). BSL Name [image]. Wikimedia.
3) , 4)
Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2017. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
David Nield, A brief history of British Sign Language (2014), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
University College London, The Beginnings (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
University College London, Thomas Braidwood, The Braidwood School (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017
8) , 13) , 17)
David Nield, A brief history of British Sign Language (2014), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
9) , 11) , 12)
Deaf Solutions 3, A Brief History of British Sign Language 1, 2, 3 (2017) pp. 1-13, <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
10) , 14) , 15) , 16) , 18)
University College London, BSL Timeline (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
BATOD, Schools for deaf children in the UK (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]]
National Deaf Children's Society, Choosing a deaf-friendly school (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Special Needs UK, Schools for the deaf and hearing impaired (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
British Deaf Association Charter for British Sign Language (2014) p. 7, <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
British Deaf Association Sign Language Regional Legal Status Wales (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Dan Hull, Rosie McDonald & Megan Ward, Legislation and policy on sign language in the UK and Ireland (2014) p.4, <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Dan Hull, Rosie McDonald & Megan Ward, Legislation and policy on sign language in the UK and Ireland (2014) pp. 1-3, <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
26), Equality Act 2010 (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Dan Hull, Rosie McDonald & Megan Ward, Legislation and policy on sign language in the UK and Ireland (2014) p. 3, <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Nicholas Try, Landmark report is a damning indictment on the state of special educational needs services in England (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017
National Deaf Children's Society. (n.d.). Getting additional support. National Deaf Children's Society.
Signature, BSL in Secondary Education (2017), <> [accessed 7 December]
Signature, Funded Projects (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
iBSL, News (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Signature, Who we are (2017), <> [accessed on 7 December 2017]
iBSL, About IBSL (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Signature, British Sign Language (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
36) , 37)
iBSL, Intro To Qualifications (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Babs Day, Welcome to Elmfield School for Deaf Children (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Frank Barnes school for Deaf Children, Welcome (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
University of Central Lancashire, British Sign Language and Deaf Studies (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
University of Dundee, British Sign Language Certificate (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
York St John University, British Sign Language (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
Heriot-Watt University, British Sign Language (Interpreting, Translating and Applied Language Studies), MA (Hons) (2017), <> [accessed 7 December 2017]
languages/british_sign_language_in_the_uk.txt · Last modified: 2023/03/01 11:22 by ydwine

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