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Beginner's guide to British Sign Language (BSL)

Nedia El Wahabi and Andrew King
27 Jun 2023
5 min read
Beginner's guide to British Sign Language (BSL)

BSL – which stands for British Sign Language – is a visual means of communicating, used mainly by deaf people. It is an invaluable skill to learn for communicating in Teaching Assistant roles.

The key components of BSL are not just limited to hand gestures – other aspects include movement of the shoulders, head, eyebrows, cheeks and mouth, known as body and facial grammar. BSL also has its own syntax and lexicons, and varies from region to region with different dialects and signs.

While BSL became a recognised language by the UK government in 2003, until the BSL Act 2022 it had no legal protection. This act gives government departments and public bodies a set of guidelines on how to meet the needs of people who use BSL as their first or preferred language.

With attention on BSL growing, it's exciting to see there are plans to introduce a GCSE qualification in British Sign Language in the near future!

Is BSL the same as Makaton?

No – the differences between BSL and Makaton are vast. Whilst Makaton is used as an aid or building block to spoken language, BSL is a language and as a means of deaf people and hearing people to communicate.

How do I learn BSL?

There are many courses available if you’d like to learn BSL. For remote learning, our pick is Deaf Unity’s excellent online offering, but if you’re in London we suggest this in-person course from City Lit.

Zen's free online webinar, Talking Hands, is also a great place to start.

Inclusion in our classrooms and schools is essential. We need to think about how we can enhance and extend our knowledge as practitioners to better provide an environment that is suited for all children in our care. Learning BSL is not as difficult as you might think, as Nedia El Wahabi from Zen’s Daily Supply team can tell you:

‘As I was learning BSL, I was based in a school and decided to teach some of the signs to the children I was working with. They learnt the signs with ease which confirmed my suspicion: teaching basic BSL in schools is not only achievable but is something children thoroughly enjoy!’ - Nedia, Zen Educate

What BSL signs should I learn first?

Any words or phrases you use in conversation is a good way to kick off – but here are our 10 words to get you started!

1. Hello

Watch how to sign 'hello' with Zen Educate

2. Good morning

Watch how to sign 'good morning' with Zen Educate

3. Good afternoon

Watch how to sign 'good afternoon' with Zen Educate

4. Yes

Watch how to sign 'yes' with Zen Educate

4. No

Watch how to sign 'no' with Zen Educate

6. Please

Watch how to sign 'please' with Zen Educate

7. Thank You

Watch how to sign 'thank you' with Zen Educate

8. Classroom

Watch how to sign 'classroom' with Zen Educate

9. Settle Down

Watch how to sign 'settle down' with Zen Educate

10. Teacher

Watch how to sign 'teacher' with Zen Educate

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