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What is a sign system?

If you're considering different communication options for your child, it's important that both you and the professionals who work with your child understand the differences between sign languages and sign systems. 

What's the difference between a sign system and a sign language?

Like spoken languages, sign languages such as British Sign Language (BSL) or Irish Sign Language (ISL) evolve naturally, often over hundreds of years. Sign languages have their own grammatical structure, cultural identity and heritage, and use a combination of facial expressions, hand movements, body language and lip patterns.

Sign systems such as Makaton or Signalong are communication programmes, usually produced by speech and language therapists. They are designed for people with speech and language difficulties, speech delays or learning disabilities. They may incorporate a combination of speech, hand movements and symbols. Sign systems don't have a grammatical structure and are designed to support speech, with signs and symbols signed or shown at the same time as the user is speaking.

Can BSL users understand sign systems?

In the UK, most sign systems use or adapt signs which are taken from BSL. However, sign systems are not languages. They rely on the user being able to hear the spoken language along with watching the signs to understand what’s being communicated. British sign systems follow English grammar, not BSL grammar. This means that, although the signs used in a sign system might look the same as BSL signs, they're used in English word order, not BSL. It can be exhausting for a BSL user to work out what a sign system user is trying to express!

In some sign systems, a sign which means one thing in BSL is adopted and used to mean a different thing in the sign system. This can make communication between BSL users and people using sign systems very difficult. 

Sign Supported English (SSE)

SSE is a way of speaking and signing at the same time, using BSL signs for key words while speaking English. When signing SSE, you don't need to sign every word. SSE can be useful to support lip-reading for deaf people whose first language is English, or to teach English to people whose first language is BSL. It can also be useful when communicating informally with a group of people who use both BSL and English. However, many BSL users find SSE hard to follow. 

Signed English (SE)

Signed English is an exact representation of English where a sign is used alongside every spoken word, including fingerspelling words which don't have an equivalent in BSL, such as 'to' or 'the'. SE is sometimes used in education to develop written and spoken English skills and English grammar. 


Makaton is a communication programme which uses signs, symbols and speech to support communication. 

In Makaton, parents and professionals speak and sign or point to symbols at the same time. The signs and symbols provide visual support for the key words being said. The signs and symbols are used until the child has learned to speak and understand English.

Makaton symbols have been designed to support the written word in the same way that the signs support speech. Makaton aims to support the development of spoken and written language and literacy. 


Like Makaton, Signalong is a communication system which was designed for use with people who have language and communication difficulties mainly due to learning disabilities. Signalong requires users to sign while they speak, using simplified English.