BSL is a language equivalent in complexity to any other language and can be used to:

  • educate
  • entertain
  • give information
  • . . . and do anything else that other languages do.

The British Deaf Community is a network of deaf centres and organisations of deaf people who share the BSL language and also similar educational experiences. Most deaf adults who use BSL learned it at school from friends in the playground and it became their preferred and stronger language.

Not all severely and profoundly deaf young people grow up to be members of the Deaf Community later in life. Some deaf children who are educated using speech and lip-reading (orally) never have contact with BSL and think of themselves as being in the hearing world.

Some teachers of deaf children and parents discourage contact with BSLbecause they think it will limit the opportunities of deafpeople. They think that BSL could have a negative impact on deaf children's writing and speaking skills.

Many school services for deaf children use a combined approach called Total Communication. This uses a range of methods including fingerspelling, Signed English, Sign Supported English and spoken English (Sutton-Spence and Woll, 1998). The most commonly used communication method in schools is Sign Supported English: the teacher speaks in English and uses signs from BSL in English word order. In some English classrooms teachers use Signed English; this is an exact visual representation of English with sign markers for past tenses, and for all English words or parts of words such as -ing, -ly.

BSL in basic skills classes

BSL can be used in the basic skills classroom to teach deaf learners, but the standard of BSL use is an important issue. Deaf people are agreed that the tutor must be fluent in BSL. Alternatively, a qualified Communication Support Worker (CSW) could work in the classroom to translate the teacher's voice to BSL and to interpret the learner's sign into spoken English.

Fluency in BSL is reached when tutors or CSWs have achieved stage 3 in Signature (formerly the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People - CACDP) BSL or NVQ 3 BSL standard. Staff with signing levels below this level cannot adequately move between the two languages. If you decide to work with an interpreter, try to book a registered or trainee interpreter. However, at present there are only 150 registered, qualified interpreters nationally, and few work in education.

There is no doubt that BSL sign order does sometimes affect the written English of deaf learners, but there are many other factors affecting deaf learners' writing skills: lack of exposure to English is a major factor leading to grammatical errors in deaf learners' writing. This limited exposure to English is experienced both by deaf people who use BSL and by deaf people who have had no contact with BSL.

Learners enjoy using learning materials that relate to their own lives and cultural experiences. If you have a deaf learner who uses BSL in your class, try to use some reading materials from Deaf Community publications and websites (see Further reading, organisations and websites). The learner will already have the cultural knowledge required to understand the issues, so the process of decoding the text will be easier.