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Thinking about learning British Sign Language?

Starting to communicate

I started learning British Sign Language (BSL) in 2005. I’m not fluent but I can communicate with most d/Deaf people because they are accepting and meet you half way or three quarters of the way. Like any language the key to BSL is confidence and a desire to communicate.

So, what is BSL?

Well, it is a language. BSL was recognised as a language in its own right in 2003 and as a language of England, Wales and Scotland in 2022. It took Deaf people and allies, decades of campaigning to get BSL recognised. If you want to read about the elements of BSL I would direct you towards, The Linguistics of British Sign Language, An introduction [1]

BSL, like English, is a living language that is constantly evolving. New signs develop over time for new words and concepts. Such as, covid, twitter, Facebook, and the list goes on.


Fingerspelling is what it says, it’s a way of spelling out words on your hands. Not all words have a sign. People may fingerspell if a sign doesn’t currently exist or they don’t know the sign. There isn’t a sign for everything and generally people and place names are fingerspelled. Some places have signs as well but there can be regional variation in this. Deaf people also have sign names, Charlie Swinbourne has explained that really well [2] so I will leave that to him.

When you meet a d/Deaf person you will introduce yourself by fingerspelling your name. Using both hands you spell out the letters. BSL has two handed fingerspelling while American Sign Language (ASL) has one handed fingerspelling. Make sure you learn the right one. I have heard of a few people who learnt the wrong alphabet. And yes, sign language is not universal, different countries have different sign languages.

It takes about half an hour to learn fingerspelling. It’s easier to fingerspell something rather than reading it back and understanding it. A good way to practice is to use a book or magazine and fingerspell a few pages. You can also practice with these two sentences which use every letter of the alphabet.

  • Queen Elizabeth’s proxy, waved off Mick Jagger
  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

There are many free videos on YouTube if you Google ‘fingerspelling BSL’. To be good at fingerspelling, both producing and understanding, you need to practice.

Fingerspelling can be slow but it’s a basic of communication. If you only learn fingerspelling and don’t continue to learn BSL, it will still help to communicate with d/Deaf people.

Can’t deaf people just lip read?

A common myth is that everything can be lip read and there are super lip readers. Lip reading helps but is not a complete form of communication.

  • Some letters look exactly the same, some letters are invisible.
  • Lip reading is tiring. It takes concentration and guessing between possible words. Is that ‘puddle’ or ‘muddle’? Do you mean ‘sheep’ or ‘jeep’?
  • Some people are difficult to lip read, beards, regional accents with reduced lip patterns.
  • Regional accents are often challenging for deaf people. If you’ve struggled to understand a person from another part of the UK, you will appreciate that this is more difficult if you are deaf.
  • You can’t lip read in the dark or through the back of some one’s head. That might sound obvious but if you are moving around not facing the person this can happen.

If you rely on a d/Deaf person lip reading you, you are expecting them to do all the work. It’s a bit like travelling abroad and speaking English in a very loud voice expecting people to understand you.

Learning fingerspelling is a starting point

Fingerspelling supports easier communication for a d/Deaf person who knows fingerspelling.

If someone doesn’t understand something you say, you can fingerspell the first letter and repeat the word. If it’s still not clear you could fingerspell the whole word.

When you are learning BSL, some signs use fingerspelling or an element of fingerspelling.

One of the beauties of fingerspelling is it means that even if you are only 2 weeks into your BSL course you can still have a conversation. If you don’t know a sign in BSL you can say it in English and fingerspell the word or the first letter. It may be a bit slow but it’s a start. As you learn more signs and grammar, conversations will become more fluid and fluent.

I found I could communicate after a few weeks of starting to learn BSL. I couldn’t have discussed quantum physics but I can’t discuss that in spoken English either. To be good at fingerspelling, both producing and understanding, you need to practice.

If you want to start off with fingerspelling there are lots of good videos on YouTube. I like Commanding hands, [3]

Where do you learn sign language?

Like any spoken language the best approach is to learn and practice with real people. In the UK go to Signature, [4] put in your postcode to find BSL classes in your area. Scotland has its own qualifications, [5] you can find a course in your area on the SQA website.

I would encourage you to join a face-to-face class to learn BSL. You can’t learn a language in isolation. You may meet people you can practice with outside your class as well. In the meantime, here are a couple of websites and apps that are helpful.

Sign BSL

Sign BSL[6] is available as website or an Android or iPhone app. Sign BSL is an English to British Sign Language dictionary. If you are wondering why there are several different signs for the same word it’s because:

  • In BSL there are regional differences.
  • Some words in English having several meanings but are spelt the same, for example bark could mean a dog bark or tree bark.

Bright BSL

Bright BSL [7] is available as an Android or iPhone app, the basics are free which is a great way to get started.

Next Steps

Fingerspelling is a basic to communicate with deaf people. You can learn this in half an hour. If you have kids, they may have learnt fingerspelling in Scouts, Guides, Woodcraft Folk or at school. Don’t let your children show you up!

Find a class near you preferably face to face but online training is also available if it’s difficult for you to get to a face-to-face class.

Making an effort to learn some BSL makes communication more equal. You are not putting all the responsibility on the d/Deaf person to understand you.


[1] The Linguistics of British Sign Language, An introduction by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll.

[2] What's your Sign Name? but Charlie Swinbourne

[3] Commanding hands

[4] Signature, BSL awarding body

[5] Scotland BSL Awards

[6] Sign BSL website and app

[7] Bright BSL

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