Sign Language – Facts and Fallacies


It came to my attention recently that people are interested in Sign Language. Many more, in fact, than I had anticipated. And I think that’s worthy of a cap-dothing to you all. But there are a few things that need to get cleared up.

For those of you who read this (bonjour and such) and also work with me, you’ll probably be aware that I recently had the opportunity to teach a little of my BSL* knowledge to a few of my colleagues. This was great, and it provided me with some surprising feedback. Not only are people really wanting to learn *cap-doth cap-doth* BUT there are a lot of things that people don’t know about BSL, yet it is aaaaaall around you. Well, it is if you’re in Britain. If you’re reading this from further afield then you’ll be hard-pressed to be surrounded by many BSL users.

But I digress.

I’ve compiled a few points down yonder page, detailing some (hopefully) interesting facts about this speechless language, along with some common misconceptions that I hope to oust quicker than a drunk football hooligan in a maternity ward.

There are over 10 Million Hard of Hearing/Deaf members of society in the UK

It doesn’t need to be stated explicitly about just how big a proportion of the UK that is. However, it would be interesting to know how many people use BSL either as a first or other language. I am yet to find an exact number, perhaps due to there being a lack of research in the area. However, be aware that not everyone who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing will know how to sign or indeed sign at all; just like not all visually-impaired people can read braille.

BSL is a natural language.

Unlike computer programming languages, BSL is, like English, French, Tagalog, Icelandic, a natural language. This means it is open to forces of nature and human creativity in terms of evolution. Just as the English don’t pronounce knight as /kǝnıxt/ anymore, so too does Sign language change over time in terms of how signs are produced, how the language is structured, etc. This also means that there are not only other varieties of Sign language across the globe**, but there are even dialects. BSL, for instance, has around 30. The dialects can have similar signs or completely different signs; take a look at the videos below demonstrating colours in BSL to observe this difference (I’m not entirely sure of which dialects this are; if anyone could tell me in the comments, that would be great!):

BSL has only been a recognised language for 9 years.

At the time of writing this, BSL had only celebrated its 9th “birthday.” In other words, it’s been 9 years since the UK government officially recognised BSL as a language. Crazy, right?! Despite this language dating back to as early as the 1500s (according to this fact sheet) it is still a “young” language in the eyes of the government. Not only this, but attempts to increase the recognition and learning of BSL in mainstream education have been scuppered time and again. Whilst many campaigners, myself included, would love to see a GCSE in BSL and have collaborated to create an entire curriculum, its latest brick wall has been presented in the form of a statement. To paraphrase a friend of mine who is far more active that I in this campaign, “as BSL is not an aural language, it cannot be classified under the general heading of Language Learning at GCSE, and thus it cannot be brought into mainstream education.” Boohissboo.

Those who communicate in BSL rarely look directly at each others’ hands.

As unusual as this may sound, it’s true! When using Sign Language, the non-manual features of the language (eyebrows, mouth shape, head tilt, etc) play an enormous part in getting a message across. For instance, the sign for I’m sorry and I’m pleased have the same hand shape and motion (a clenched fist moving in a circular motion in the middle of the chest), but the way in which you modify your facial gesture is the key to the real meaning (e.g. lowered eyebrows for the former, smiling for the latter). Have a look at how this BSL user uses both manual and non-manual features to produce a coherent message:

Granted ,when it comes to fingerspelling and there are no other clues, you don’t really have much of a choice. For those who know BSL fingerspelling or are curious, try out this video below:

Remember that sentence you learned in school?

You know, that sentence in BSL? The one that goes “Why don’t you f*** off?” With all the complex handshapes and things?

No. It’s not real.

I could go on for much, much longer with more points of potential interest, but I have other things to do and the glare from my screen is dissolving my eyes. Please, if you’d like to know anything, post it in the comments and I will try and find out an answer for you =]


* For the purposes of clarity and self-restraint, I have focussed here on British Sign Language as that is my main strength. There may be similarities in other dialects or languages, but I cannot be certain of this.
** Some have been quite shocked to learn this fact, perhaps as they thought that words such as you and me which can sound VERY different in many languages, would be the same no matter what Sign Language you use. While this may be true (I’m imagining a point of the finger to the relevant person to indicate either of the terms) there are still going to be terms with arbitrary signifiers, for instance, what in BSL is performed by shaking your extended index finger, where as in ASL (American) it is signified by running your index finger down the opposite front-facing open palm.


3 thoughts on “Sign Language – Facts and Fallacies

  1. WOW, that BSL fingerspelling quiz is fantastic! I’ve always wondered what it looked like in action. In fact, it looks real cool.
    I use a web-based drill platform to increase my receptivity to fingerspelling. It has four speeds; slow, medium, fast, and deaf. I suspect even the “deaf” speed doesn’t reflect the lightspeed of native Deaf signers.

    • lukear

      Fingerspelling is one of those things that I look at and think… how on *earth* can anyone understand something that quickly and with so much obscurity?! I guess it’s like pattern identification when reading, i.e. we don’t read each individual letter, we just go by some key letters and the shape of the word. Nevertheless, when proficient Deaf SL users go at native speed (I’m thinking Marlee Matlin-esque!) then it becomes a blur!

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