What is sign language?

Mum and her son chat at home using British Sign Language (BSL).

What is sign language?

Sign language is a visual language that uses hand shapes, facial expression, gestures and body language.

In Britain the term sign language usually refers to British Sign Language (BSL). BSL is a complete language with a unique vocabulary, construction and grammar. In Britain there are over 70,000 people whose first or preferred language is BSL.

Other sign systems, such as Signed English or Sign Supported English (SSE), use signs from BSL but follow the word order of spoken English.

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Why do families learn sign language?

For many children with a profound to severe hearing loss, who get little or no benefit from hearing technology, sign language provides vital access to language and communication. For many deaf children it is the language through which they are educated.

Some families choose to take an approach that uses lots of different ways to communicate, which includes BSL or another form of signing, to give their children the opportunity to communicate in as many ways as possible.

Even when their children are not deaf, families may choose to introduce sign language early to support language and speech development. Hand-eye coordination develops earlier than speech skills and babies are able to use simple signs such as milk, eat, sleep, nappy and teddy, before they are able to say these words.

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Is British Sign Language right for my child?

Many children will be fitted with hearing aids or cochlear implants soon after they are identified as deaf, giving them the opportunity to develop spoken language. However, using BSL can help with understanding speech and can also be particularly useful at times when a deaf child is not using hearing aids or cochlear implants such as:

  • before their hearing aids or cochlear implants are fitted
  • whilst establishing consistent use of them in the early years (for example, younger children may take their hearing aids out to begin with)
  • at times when their equipment is not used such as bedtime, bathtime and when swimming.

For some deaf children it may be natural to stop using sign language as their spoken language develops. However, for many deaf children sign language remains their primary means of communicating, or retains an important role in their lives.

Learning BSL will enable your child to communicate with other children who use it and help enrich their experience and understanding of Deaf culture.

Will using sign language affect my child’s speech development?

A common concern about using sign language is that it will delay or prevent speech development. There is no evidence that shows this is the case provided that a rich spoken language environment is still available for the child.

For detailed information about choosing a communication method for your child, see our Communicating with your deaf child page.

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Video: a family using sign language at home

Watch how mum uses everyday activities to learn and practise signing with baby Rosa.

This video and more clips of real families using sign language as part of their everyday routines are available in our Family Sign Language section.

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