Linda Day: The best kept secret when it comes to learning BSL

Posted on September 5, 2017

This article is by Linda Day, the Director and founder of Signworld Learn Ltd, which provides online BSL learning, and is a supporter of this site. Find out more here.

This article has been written based on our experience of teaching British Sign Language (BSL) and the most common questions asked by language students.

We also are interpreter training providers, so we have a complete overview of the language journey from level one to registration as an interpreter.

September is fast approaching, the first academic term is looming, the summer bank holiday has just gone, and people are now starting to think about going back to study.

One of the common questions any sign language teacher is asked by new students is: ‘What is the sign for this?’.

However, it is impossible to capture the sign for something without knowing the meaning and context in which it sits.

One of our team teachers has a simple way to explain the difference.

Imagine English being like an automatic car and BSL being like a manual car.

Now, we all know that an automatic car selects the most appropriate gear depending on the speed of your car.

This is what English language is like. For example, we have a word such as ‘row’, – we know it is impossible to explain the meaning without knowing the full sentence.

A row of houses

The couple had a row

We need to row fast

The sentences above change the meaning of ‘row’ automatically.

Now, the idea above cannot apply to BSL; the meaning has to be changed ‘manually’ in the same way a manual car works – only the driver can select the right gear and if the wrong gear is selected, the car will simply stall..

It is the same for BSL – you cannot just take out an individual sign without knowing the overall meaning. Often, the ‘meaning’ is what would be the most appropriate sign. Without knowing the meaning, there is a very high chance that it will be a sign of a word, not the intended meaning.

So, if we choose the most common sign for ‘background’ (using the automatic car theory) used by people (where your dominant hand waves behind the index finger of the other hand to indicate ‘something behind the person), this might initially be fine for the ‘behind the person’ situation.

However, a richer version of this specific meaning would be using the ‘spread fingers sign’ above and slightly behind your shoulders, rather than out in front of you (but that is a whole different discussion!)

But, if your intended meaning for ‘background’ is actually ‘your childhood upbringing’, then the wavy hand sign you initially opted for conveys entirely the wrong meaning.

Our advice for all of learners is: find out the meaning and apply that meaning. This is usually the best way forward and ensures your language use is as close to BSL as possible.

There is also another factor of language we need to consider in this equation…

In all languages, all over the world, there is something called ‘Non-equivalence’.

This is caused by various factors, such as cultural differences (such as those that exist between Deaf and hearing cultures, English and BSL etc), or simply the word doesn’t exist so the person who uses the language has to find an alternative equivalent (similar to our manual car theory).

For example:

“Discourage: has an Italian “equivalent”: ‘scoraggiare’; however, ‘disbelieve’ does not. Two words are required in order to express the same meaning: ‘non credere’

The popular English buzz words ‘prescription culture’ wouldn’t work in BSL, as there is only one sign for ‘prescription’ which is medically related.

In BSL, we would have to expand the meaning, which might involve up to ten signs of more.

Likewise, in BSL there is one regional sign that can mean any of the following: ready made, prepared in advance, completed in advance, fixed, pre-set, pre-arranged, automatic etc. Imagine you had to say all this in one word. Impossible in English, but certainly possible in BSL.

It goes to shows that you simply cannot manufacture language into something else to make it easier. There are many complicated factors to consider including language context and meaning, grammar, culture and heritage.

Let me end this article by sharing the best kept secret when it comes to learning BSL: let go the confinements of trying to work out the equivalent sign of every word (if there is one). Instead, embrace meaning, learn the grammar and capture the real essence of what you really want to say.

This gives you a head start in developing your language skills effectively. If there is one thing you should always remember, it’s the car theory we mentioned above. You cannot use the ‘automatic car theory’ in BSL as it will not work, simple as that.

We hope that this article is helpful and gives you some insight into how to learn language effectively, which, for many, is like a cipher!

All the best in your studies; we are here to help if you need to develop your language skills further at home.

Linda is the Director and founder of Signworld Learn Ltd, which was established in March 2012. She was the former Director at the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol. Involved in researching and teaching BSL, training BSL teachers, Sign Language Interpreters and others for over 20 years. Specialist in e-learning for sign language learning. One of the first Deaf Sign Language interpreters in the UK and registered as a qualified Interpreter with NRCPD.

Nationally and internationally recognised for her role in the development of teaching BSL, she has led her field in adapting the curriculum to match learner’s needs. Linda feels that combining classroom teaching with the Signworld online learning resources can prove invaluable to any learner, as well as teachers.


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