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‘Bilingual’ means being able to use two different languages successfully. A Sign Bilingual Approach means children learn two languages at once, at least one being sign language (usually British Sign Language (BSL) in the UK).

Key features of Sign Bilingualism

  • In the UK children usually learn written and (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the child’s level of hearing) spoken English and also BSL, plus any additional languages spoken at home, later.
  • Learning English as a second language is essential for children to develop reading and writing as there is no written form of BSL.
  • BSL is a language in its own right with its own unique structure and grammar rules.
  • Parents will need to develop a good level of BSL to help create a good Sign Bilingual environment at home.

Many professionals who support this approach believe that the only way deaf children can have complete access to language and communication is through sign language, as however good amplification through hearing technology is, hearing is not the natural sense through which deaf children learn about the world around them.

Underpinning the Sign Bilingual approach is a philosophy that sees deafness as a positive identity and culture.

Professionals who support the approach believe that if you choose Sign Bilingualism your child will need to be in an educational setting where both the staff and other children can sign and where there are deaf people on the staff, if your child is to get the best possible access to education. This might be in a specialist school for deaf children, or a mainstream school with resourced provision.

When a Sign Bilingual approach is used for teaching deaf children from hearing families it is often called ‘Bilingual-bicultural’ (‘bi-bi’) education. This means that although most deaf children come from hearing families, they will be taught about and experience Deaf culture. A bi-bi education provides the opportunity for your child to both experience the ‘hearing culture’ of their home (if that is the case) and the ‘Deaf culture’ of the Deaf community.

Going to a school for deaf children might mean that your child will need to be away from home, as there are not many across the country. It is more likely that you will have a mainstream school with resourced provision closer to you but not always in your own neighbourhood.

Being able to communicate effectively is vital for children to make lasting friendships, so it’s important that if you choose a Sign Bilingual approach your child can be around others who use British Sign Language (BSL), and that other children in the family also learn some BSL.

If your child is at a specialist or residential school for deaf children, or a mainstream school with resourced provision it is likely they will make strong friendships with their classmates there. Outside of school and in social settings, it will be important, where possible, to encourage children in the neighbourhood to learn BSL so that your child can enjoy local friendships too.

Because the main aim of Sign Bilingualism is to allow a child to communicate fully without relying on hearing, professionals who promote Sign Bilingualism believe the use of hearing aids or hearing technology is not essential.

Many families of deaf children who use hearing technology will continue to use BSL as part of their communication approach even if spoken language becomes the main way they communicate. Doing so may help to ensure that your child is able to communicate successfully when not wearing hearing technology or in difficult listening conditions. It may also allow your child to communicate and play with deaf friends who use sign, and help them to feel connected to the Deaf community, for many of whom BSL will be a first language.

Deaf children who use BSL can also benefit from the use of hearing technology. You might find our information on hearing aids and hearing implants helpful in explaining the different types available, how each works and whether they may be appropriate for your child.

Over the past ten years the number of children with English as an additional language in UK schools has more than doubled. If your family has recently moved to the UK, or you would like your deaf child to be able to understand and communicate in BSL and English as well as your home language, then it is recommended that your child is exposed to each language as soon as possible. Use the ‘mother tongue’, as well as English and BSL with your child at home, and use the techniques and approaches as agreed with your teacher of the deaf, Speech and Language therapists and other professionals working with your child.

If available, see if you can access professionals with experience of families with English as a second language (ESL), including speech and language therapists and interpreters. This person may be able to help you in meetings to put you on equal footing with others if your own English language skills are still being developed. It is also beneficial to take advantage of the hearing technology available to your child.

Whether you use your home language to support understanding in English, or vice versa, the priority should be to support the child in developing a rich and fluent language to provide a solid base for learning other languages.

There are many different ways you can access accredited BSL courses — through local colleges, private businesses, charities or voluntary groups.

Often local authorities offer support for families wishing to learn BSL. You will need to check your local authority’s Local Offer, usually available on their website, to find out what support you can get in your area.

You may find it helpful to view our information on learning BSL, which explains in more detail the different options available to parents of a deaf child wishing to learn BSL.

Also, you may find it beneficial to view our Family Sign Language information which aims to introduce families with a deaf child (0–5 years) to ways they can make signing part of their everyday routines. It also has lots of practical suggestions for deaf-friendly activities that everyone can join in with.

You should expect to be supported by professionals who are skilled in using British Sign Language (BSL) such as your Teacher of the Deaf (ToD).

If you are hearing and have no deaf people in your family, you may also want to learn about Deaf culture and make sure that members of the Deaf community are part of your wider contacts – including young people who use BSL as their first language as well as those who use hearing aids or implants.

This can help enrich your experience and understanding, and improve your own signing skills. Our family events often offer opportunities to meet deaf role models and members of the wider Deaf community and you can find out where these are happening in your area.

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