Learning a sign language online? You might want to reconsider that…


Learning another language is a superb use of time with more benefits than I can name here. Learning a language online is now an extremely popular method, and there are (probably) hundreds of services out there that provide this service.

But it needs to be remembered that there’s only so far you can go, especially if you’ve ever thought of learning a sign language online…

First of all, this is not a post to discourage anyone learning any language online. I think it’s a great tool to get you going, and it can get you to a certain point. To progress further, you need interaction with other (ideally native) language users to get the nuances of the language you’re studying, and to understand some of the culture and history behind the language. It’s not all vocab lists and conjugation tables!

When it comes to sign languages, however… that’s a different story. When learning a language that operates solely in the visual-spatial modality (i.e. it’s all movement; there is no written version), there is a lot than can be lost by just watching a video, or in some cases, reading about how to sign. This isn’t to say that some of the resources out there aren’t useful; there are many out there that are fantastic, but only as a supplementary learning tool, not as a main source of learning.

Introducing the “Centre of Excellence”

This post was spurred by an advert that was promoted to me on Facebook: a “British Sign Language Course” by a website known as “Centre of Excellence” (I’ll gloss over the fact that this website sounds like one of those institutions parody news websites use to quote their studies)*. The course is just shy of £150, around half the price of a Signature Level 1 qualification in BSL, but still more than what a postgrad student such as myself can afford to fork out just to have a look at it. Nonetheless, I was still able to access the course overview, and what really drew my attention to this was their almost boastful attitude to the fact that they now have video content on the course…

…surely that would be a requirement for a visual-spatial language(?!). Surely a centre of excellence would know that in the first place?

While I could easily annotate the whole overview, you’d probably become bored very quickly. So I’ve cut this down to some of the more interesting/bizarre quotes.

Extracts from the overview

The British Sign Language Course introduces students to BSL and helps them to become fluent enough to use it in basic, everyday conversation

Right off the bat, we’ve got the notion of fluency being used against the idea of basic communication. If you are using only very basic communication, you are not fluent. Simple as.

This course also gives students a more thorough knowledge [of] how it is used (not solely as a form of communication the hearing and speech impaired)

Sign language is often considered to be used exclusively in communication with the hearing and speech impaired; this misconception is cleared up

Questionable terminology and levels of English aptitude aside, BSL is a natural language that developed within Deaf communities. I’m intrigued as to how else it is used, if not for communicating with other BSL users…

[The course explains] the grammatical structure of the British Sign Language, called the Topic Comment Structure and how it differs from its spoken counterpart


The topic-comment structure mentioned here is part of the grammar of BSL, more specifically, one of the possible ways to organise discourse. The grammar itself is extensive and goes far beyond what this is talking about.

Also… *the* British Sign Language? Seriously?

To give students visual demonstrations of the signs discussed, the course is accompanied by video tutorials

Or, you could get a Deaf BSL user to record BSL videos and caption them/have transcripts for learners. Also, they’re not “visual demonstrations of the signs.” They are signs. They are the language.

Details of the correct hand movements and visual cues to use are given, to give a better understanding of how to replicate the signs

Hand movements and “visual cues” (?) are part of the full sign. We also need to consider handshape, hand orientation, hand location, and any associated mouthing. And, again, wouldn’t these “details” be much better understood if they were just shown via video in the first place?

Food and drink is the topic being taught in the fifth module […] The module starts by explaining signs used to represent food and then moves onto drink

Well I’m glad they cleared that up.

Being a course in British Sign Language, module 6 covers the great British pastime of discussing the weather

‘lolthatsthejoke.jpg’ (Can you tell I use imgur sometimes?)

BSL is an emotive language, and the seventh module of the course discusses how to express feelings […] as well as how to assess the feeling of another person

Technically, all languages are emotive. I think they may be looking for something along the lines of ‘more overtly expressive when it comes to producing emotionally-laden language.’ And “how to assess the feeling of another person” sounds more like what you’d learn in a psychiatry course, not a BSL course!

Module 10 of the course is dedicated to the important area of grammar […] with the actual grammar rules used in BSL, relating to plurality, questions, tenses and qualities

Pluarlity and questions? Okay, I can see how the grammar can be discussed here.

Tenses? Debatable, but alright.

Quality? Nope, you’ve lost me there.

The course comes with a course assessment in the form of quizzes, written questions and short essays

That’s right, the assessment of a visual-spatial language via written English. That’s completely legitima… I’m sorry, I mean, ridiculous.

This course is registered with the Complementary Medical Association […] This course also is certified by the International Association of NLP & Coaching, and the International Alliance of Holistic Therapists

I have never heard of any of those in my 28-ish years on earth, and certainly never in the context of anything language-related or linguistic. Alarm bells should now be ringing so hard they actually catch fire.

In review…

Ever heard the adage “if it looks too good to be true, it usually is?” While ~£150 (or even ~£30 via a coupon) may look appealing, you will certainly get what you pay for, which in this case is not a lot. At all.

Services like the one I’ve effectively slated above are all too quick to scam people into thinking that they’re learning something useful. In taking a half-assed, unverified approach to language teaching, not only are these people probably making money hand over fist, but the things that you will ‘learn’ are probably wholly unsuitable. It makes a mockery of teaching, and even worse, it makes a mockery of the language.

If you’re determined to learn BSL, take one of the MANY face-to-face courses that are out there, accredited by Signature, iBSL, or by a college or University that offers such courses. You might pay a little more, but you will learn far more in terms of content, culture, and appropriate usage.


* You can find the website through a search easily enough; I don’t really want to provide them with more traffic.