How can I learn British Sign Language (BSL)?
The British Deaf Association estimates that British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language of 87,000 deaf people in the UK. BSL has a different grammar and word order to English and doesn’t have a written form. For many deaf people, BSL is an important part of their deaf identity.
Although BSL has existed for hundreds of years, it wasn't recognised as a language in the UK until March 2003. However, at that time, it didn't have any legal status. BSL was legally recognised as a language:
- in Scotland in October 2015, under the BSL (Scotland) Act
- in England, Wales and Scotland in April 2022, under the BSL Act.
Learning BSL is a great way to learn more about Deaf culture and communities, and can also be lots of fun.
For most people, the best way to learn to sign is through a BSL course taught by a qualified BSL teacher. Learning BSL in a class allows your teacher to watch you signing, spot any mistakes or habits, and help you to improve. You'll get to practise real conversations and may have the opportunity to get a qualification at the end of the course.
There are different types of BSL courses available, from basic introductory courses through to recognised qualifications like NVQs and even honours degrees. You can find out more about different courses through Signature, the recognised awarding body for BSL qualifications. The Signature website has a search function, which you can use to find a BSL course near you. You could also look up local colleges and deaf clubs online to find out what's available in your area.
If you're the parent of a deaf child, check your local offer or speak to your Teacher of the Deaf to see what's available for you and your family locally.
Like any spoken language such as French or Spanish, it takes time and practise to learn and use BSL fluently. The time it takes for you to become fluent will depend on lots of things, including the way you choose to learn and whether you sign in your daily life.
If you want to gain a qualification in BSL, you can find out how long each course will take on the Signature website. For example, Signature recommend that a Level 1 course should include around 64 hours of guided learning.
Introductory or Family Sign Language courses are usually free. However, these courses will only teach you a very basic level of BSL. To develop your skills further, the cost of an accredited Level 1 course varies, ranging from free to more than £500. More advanced courses usually cost more.
Some local authorities offer funding for places on accredited courses from local providers. However, funding does not always cover assessment fees.
If you live in England and your child has an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan you may be given the option to use a special educational need (SEN) Personal Budget to pay for the support you need. This could be used for sign language tuition, for example. However, at present, there are few examples of deaf children receiving Personal Budgets.
If you're struggling to access BSL courses, either because of the cost or because there aren't any courses in your area, the National Deaf Children's Society may be able to help. Visit our Family Sign Language webpage or contact our free Helpline.
Some local authorities offer BSL courses as part of their Local Offer or provide financial support for parents for learning BSL. The type and level of support provided by local authorities vary, but can include:
- BSL lessons at home for the whole family, from a Teacher of the Deaf, sign language tutor or deaf role model
- introductory BSL courses aimed at families
- introductory courses for parents of young deaf children
- free Level 1 or Level 2 classes for families
- lending BSL resources such as books or flash cards
- family support workers
- groups for families and children to practise BSL
- liaising with other local organisations who can provide BSL lessons.
Deaf children and parents or carers of deaf children are entitled to an assessment of their needs by children’s social care if they request one.
The Children Act 1989 allows children’s social care to provide almost any services to a disabled child or their parents and carers if the assessment has shown that a service is necessary to “safeguard and promote a child’s welfare”. This could include paying for parents, carers and extended family members to access sign language classes or communication support.
Our webpage, Rights and support from your local council provides information specific to each UK nation about how to approach your local authority or social services for support.
Family Sign Language classes are designed to teach basic BSL to the whole family. This can be a great way for deaf children to learn BSL alongside their siblings, parents and other family members. Learning BSL together allows the whole family to learn the same signs at the same time, so that everyone can communicate.
Family Sign Language classes usually focus on teaching specific signs and phrases which are useful to the family, such as 'milk' or 'cuddle', rather than structured BSL lessons.
To find out more, check your local offer to find out whether your local authority offers Family Sign Language lessons, or sign up for our Family Sign Language courses online.
There are lots of websites and apps available which offer online BSL lessons and tips. These can be a great way to practise the BSL you've learned in your class, or learn some basic BSL if you can't join a BSL class just yet. However, the standard of online BSL courses and BSL apps vary widely. If you're thinking of signing up for an online BSL course, try to find out:
- if the course is designed or taught by a qualified BSL teacher
- if the course is accredited (officially recognised)
- if the video clips used in the course are signed by deaf people whose first language is BSL, or by qualified BSL translators or interpreters.
Some examples of online BSL courses are:
Some examples of apps to help you learn BSL are:
As well as websites and apps, there are lots of books, games and toys which can support your learning. Read reviews from other families to help you decide which products are right for your family.
We also have posters, postcards and videos to help you learn to fingerspell.