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How to Learn Sign Language in the UK

Updated April 17, 2017

Different countries have different sign languages, so it is no surprise that the best way to learn British Sign Language (BSL) is in Britain. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) estimates that 50,000 to 70,000 people in Britain use BSL as their preferred language. (See Reference 1.) BSL is a language in and of itself, with regional variations and a grammar independent of spoken English.

Visual Resources

To a certain degree, BSL can be self-taught using books, videos, computer programs and the Internet. The first step in learning BSL is to learn the two-handed fingerspelling alphabet. Books such as the "Let's Sign Pocket Dictionary: BSL Concise Beginner's Guide" by Cath Smith have an alphabet chart for you to study. The BSL alphabet can also be seen online at www.british-sign.co.uk/fingerspelling.php, or downloaded from the RNID website. Study and practice the alphabet until you can sign it comfortably from memory.

After learning the alphabet, proceed to fingerspelling words and learning basic vocabulary. Fingerspelling is the act of spelling out a word letter by letter, and is often used when no vocabulary sign exists for a word. To pick up signed vocabulary, see www.british-sign.co.uk or http://www.britishsignlanguage.com. BSL books will also give you illustrations of vocabulary signs. These usually cover topics such as introductions, colours, family and numbers. Practice until you have memorised each sign.

In-Person Instruction

If you do not practice BSL and use it in conversation, you will lose what you have learnt. The best way to become fluent in BSL is to take a course taught by a qualified BSL teacher. These teachers are often deaf themselves, and serve as an excellent resource for learning about the culture of the deaf community in Britain.

In class, you will interact with the teacher and other students, applying what you learn as you go. The other advantage of taking a course is that you will have someone to guide you and make you aware if you are doing something incorrectly. It is possible to learn more complicated vocabulary, phrases and sentence structure in a class, something that would be difficult to learn from a book or website.

BSL courses are available all over the United Kingdom in varying degrees of difficulty. Classes are taught at adult-education centres, in universities and by individual tutors. For example, the Aberdeen City Council runs a 25-week evening class for beginners. (See Reference 2.) The RNID also offers "Start to Sign" courses, tailored for employees of businesses with deaf customers. This course ranges from one to three days long. British universities even offer classes, certificates and degree programs in BSL and Deaf Studies. To find out about a BSL course near you, contact the RNID's Information Line at +44 0808 808 0123 or via e-mail at informationline@rnid.org.uk.

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About the Author

Lauren Fitzpatrick was the official blogger for Busabout Europe in 2008, and has contributed to Transitions Abroad. Her subjects of interest include international work and travel, fitness, and deaf culture. She holds a Master of Arts in travel writing from Kingston University and a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Indiana University.