You may be already aware of British Sign Language (BSL) and is curious as to how it works. In this article, I’ll try my best to describe what BSL signing is all about. Let’s go through some Frequently Asked Questions about BSL.



Is BSL really the same as a spoken language?


Answer: Not exactly. This is because BSL is based on the visual understanding of reality or imagination rather than sound (though English vocabulary is additionally part of it). Every country has its own sign language which corresponds to its national written vocabulary, including: British Sign Language (BSL), French Sign language (FSL), American Sign language (ASL), and so forth. This is why many signers who are hearing impaired take full advantage of sign language rather than the corresponding spoken languages.



Why is BSL incompatible with English grammar?


Answer: Because BSL's principles are very different. In fact, there are two types of British sign language: BSL and Sign Supported English (SSE). BSL itself is, in my opinion, much more fun and allows much more independence. SSE, on the other hand, is still useful, especially for those signers that want to improve their English grammar. There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing between them, as long as two people can understand one another.


In a way, BSL can be compared to a foreign spoken languages that do not use conjugation when it comes to verb tense. Only the auxiliary verbs like should, must, may, or will can be used. Not even elements like plural / singular rules or definite / indefinite articles are necessary for BSL.



What are the principles of BSL?


Answer: The four common rules are expression, movement, space, and attention.



1) Expression


Expression is a very important rule of BSL. Expression helps to convey our feelings, and this means to speak from the heart and/or mind. Generally, there are two types of expressions: positive and negative. Positive feelings can be happy, kind or fulfillment, etc. While negative reflects feelings like sadness, anger, and frustration. The corresponding hand signals will interact with the signer's facial expressions to fine-tune meaningful BSL.


Most novice signers seem to think that expression comes only through sound, but this isn’t entirely true! Expression can be felt from the signer’s heart and/or mind. I think this is probably one of the hardest elements when it comes to converting spoken English to BSL. From my experience, roughly 70-80% of learners can demonstrate successful BSL based on their grasp of expression.


For example, everyone used to ask my deaf aunt what her secret was for keeping such an attractive face. She replied that using BSL expressions constantly is a very healthy way for exercising her facial muscles -- and is much better than using make-up!



2) Movement


Movement is the wonderful feature of BSL that makes signing even more fun and exciting, and can represent anything that moves in real life. Most novice signers, like yourself, will start with the action of driving a car, a plane flying or other common actions such as walking or swimming.


Any hand movements that you make while looking backwards (i.e. move your hands from "in front of" to "behind" you) denote something that happened in the past (i.e. last year, recently, last night, or 5 minutes ago etc).


Any hand movements that you make while looking forward (i.e. move your hands from "behind" to "in front of" you) denote something that will happen in the future (i.e. next year, soon, next night, later on, etc).


Any hand movements that you make while focusing on one spot (i.e. keep your hands pointing to the same location repeatedly) denotes the present tense (i.e. this year, now, today, at the moment, etc).



3) Space


Space is a sophisticated feature of BSL that requires imagination, but there’s no reason for this to be difficult. Think of it rather like painting to demonstrate what you are visualizing by using either two or three dimensions. The dimensions being height, width and sometimes depth.


The space is useful to identify the located objects you wish to describe freely. If you’re describing scenery, for instance, this could consist of mountains, lakes, forests, and a wooden hut. You can represent this by “painting” an invisible picture in front of you.


The use of space is also useful when representing pronouns and nouns such as “I, you, we, books, shops, etc”. It is very common to describe, for example, that a first object is located on on the left with another located on the right. Take, for instance, the example sentence "He gave his daughter a present". "He" will be the first one on the left side, "his daughter" will be the second one on the right side. "The present" is the movement since the verb "give" is the action.


Most novice signers will start with two located things, persons, or animals to describe. So you don’t need to repeat that signing by simply pointing the desired located area as much as you please. Please also be aware when learning BSL that your teacher may skip this concept until he or she thinks you’re ready to learn it. This usually takes around 10 or more lessons and practice.



4) Attention


Attention is important in ensuring that both signers and onlookers are fully aware of what they are conversing about. In addition to this, both need to know the appropriate mannerisms of how to: interrupt, maintain eye contact, to clarify, to nod politely, and more.


Most novice signers will occasionally get stuck. This is natural and normal. In fact, it is your BSL tutor's responsibility to prevent embarrassment when this happens. You should be encouraged to interrupt at any time by means of saying "again please" in BSL. You should also be able to feel comfortable signing after your very first lesson.



Does BSL include lip-reading/speaking & lip-patterns?


Answer: Yes, but this issue is only confusing because both English and BSL can get mixed up. The clarification below may help you distinguish between lip-reading / speaking and lip-patterns.


Lip-reading/speaking strictly corresponds to English words and sentences; this is particularly useful for Signed Supporting English (SSE). It can also be useful for BSL, especially when it comes to things like personal names, the names of places, or occasions when you need to demonstrate an exact word without using a full sentence.


Lip-patterns are only useful for BSL and are characteristics of the signing. Lip-patterns are wonderful and exciting when used to create expressions in BSL. Every signer loves to use this tool to add extra expressions their signing. It is not related at all to the English vocabulary.


Most novice signers will find lip-reading/speaking easier than lip-patterns because you are likely a native English speaker. BSL tutors will try to show some simple BSL lip-patterns (meaning things like pain, anger, and excitement). As a result, you might start to get confused while, at the same time, find this whole exercise to be very funny. It’s serious business, however, lip-patterns are a very good practical method for BSL and you will eventually recognize how useful it can be.


Which parts of your body can be used for BSL?


Answer: Your face, hands, shoulders, and chest. Remember that if you want to say "leg" or "foot" you do not simply show your leg or foot! Instead, you should explain these through your hands.



Tips - How to learn BSL from scratch


Here are a few various tips for those of you that are just getting started.


  • Copy some basic signing phrases from BSL tutors in your very first lesson. Then, you will get the initial feeling of your BSL hands "wiring up” to your facial expressions, particularly when it comes to positive and negative emotions.
  • If you are having difficulties signing phrases like "don't want" or "can't eat", please do not skip them until you have learned to sign these phrases comfortably. This is important.


Positive expressions are generally easier than negative ones to sign; and in fact, even a simple nod can be a very common way to affirm positivity.


Negative expressions, however, are somewhat harder to link to facial expressions. The easiest way is just to simply shake your head when something is very negative. At first, it may be awkward but, once you discover how, you will have no problem.


By understanding all of the tips and insights that I wrote above is crucial to learning the principles of BSL. Keep focusing on being able to sign positive and negative expressions before you move on to other BSL exercises.


That’s all for today! I appreciate your kind attention to this article about British Sign Language (BSL). If you have any questions that I have failed to answer or feel that I have omitted something above, please do not hesitate to contact me at any time.


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