According to the British Museum, BSL is the primary language of 70,000 Deaf individuals in the United Kingdom, many of them children. However, only recently have Deaf children learnt BSL as a first language, as many hearing people in the 20th century discouraged BSL in favour of lip-reading and speech. Recently, the benefits of learning sign language have inspired many parents to teach their deaf and hearing children BSL, as signing teaches children communication and fosters literacy skills.
Deaf education used speech and lip-reading instead of BSL until around 1980--although deaf children used signs with each other when teachiers weren't looking, according to BSL author Cath Smith's article "The History of British Sign Language." In 1992, the British Deaf Association published the Dictionary of British Sign Language, standardising the language so deaf children across the U.K. could learn a language that gave them the best opportunity for success. Today, many schools for the deaf teach children BSL.
Hearing children also benefit from learning BSL. Some parents teach their babies sign language to foster early communication in the home, as infants learn to control their hands before their facial muscles. Speech therapist Diane Ryan, founder of KinderSigns, says research shows children who learn to sign develop more advanced verbal and literacy skills and have higher IQs than their non-signing peers. Using sign language is also an outlet for babies who cannot yet communicate their needs verbally.
Children may enjoy learning BSL with games. Alphabet matching games teach children to fingerspell the alphabet. Websites such as signplanet.net have posters and colouring pages for children to learn the alphabet, numbers, and basic signs. You may also choose to make your own games, such as writing English words on cards and having children sign the words in BSL to win. Websites like forestbooks.com sell videos that will entertain your children as they learn BSL; for instance, Jerry Hanifin's video "World of Animals" teaches children classifiers, body posture and facial expressions in BSL.
Common First Signs
If you are interested in teaching your children BSL, some common first signs include more, milk, eat, and drink. To sign "more," hold one hand sideways in front of you with your palm facing in toward your chest and pat the back of the hand with your other palm. To sign "milk," make two thumbs-up signs and rub your knuckles together. For "eat," put the tips of your fingers together on one hand and tap them to your lips, as if feeding yourself small bits of food. For "drink," mime holding a cup to your lips. If you want to teach your child more advanced signs, visit itvbabysign.com for a short dictionary of common signs.
The United Kingdom has several schools for the deaf that teach BSL. Interested parents can find lists of schools and links to their websites at schooltrain.info/deaf_schools/. Many schools, such as St. Vincent's in Glasgow, use Total Communication, meaning they employ BSL, lip-reading, speech and Signed Supported English, which is sign language based on English that encourages deaf students to learn English syntax and grammar while signing.