Yesterday I finally finished the British Sign Language (BSL) course I’ve been working on for the past year – if other things didn’t keep distracting me I would have finished it sooner. The course consists of just seven unit but manages to fit quite a lot in them, including numbers, colours, time, money, describing people, tenses, hobbies and interests, and food and drink. It also shows you how to construct sentences, and provides background information about sign language and the deaf community. I’ve found it fascinating and would like to learn more. Unfortunately there aren’t any sign language courses available in this area, but I do have a few books on BSL and a CD-ROM.

BSL is a bit simliar to Chinese languages in terms of structure – eg it’s an isolating language which uses time expressions to indicate when things happen rather than conjugating verbs. So you sign things like “Yesterday I eat cake” or “This morning I go to work”. Unlike Chinese or other spoken languages, sign languages can modify signs (words) to add nuances to their meanings. The amount of movement in a sign might be increased and/or its direction changed: for example instead of signing the equivalent of “she’s jumping high” you could sign “she’s jumping” with the sign for jump going higher than usual. Or if you’re describing someone’s hair you can modify the sign for hair to indicate whether it’s straight, curly, long or short hair.

One thing I plan to do with BSL is to link signs to words in the languages I’m learning. This will give me something extra to help me remember the words, and will help me to link words in different languages without using English. I think the physical nature of signs helps me remember them better than spoken words – my auditory memory is good, but my physical memory seems even better.

Have you studied or are you studying a sign language?

4 thoughts on “BSL

  1. “Unlike Chinese or other spoken languages, sign languages can modify signs (words) to add nuances to their meanings.”

    I would say that we can do this in spoken languages too (but only a bit):
    ‘It was really good’.
    ‘It was reeeeally good’. – could translate as ‘It was extremely good’.

    So, the sentence ‘she has long hair’ could be modified in this way to show that she has very long hair (by emphasising ‘long’) but it can’t of course be modified in this way to show that she has long curly hair.

  2. Certainly BSL, like other sign languages in general, is isolating in part of its morphosyntax, but this is a bit of an oversimplification. In other areas of the grammar (e.g. in so-called classifier constructions) it is heavily polysynthetic, verbal agreement morphology is highly productive, and derivational morphology in the verbal and nominal systems involves compounding (simultaneous and sequential) and modifications of the prosodic (syllabic) structure of signs, like in Semitic languages.

  3. The best book for you on this subject, and with your love of languages is ‘The Linguastics of British Sign Language’ by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll.

    It is totally invaluble for anyone with an interest in Sign language, linguistics or both.

    I am currently in the last phase of training to be a BSL/English interpreter. The subject still fascinates me after all this time!


  4. I second KTJazz’s recommendation. It *is* a very good book.Rachel also put out a book a couple of years back with Paddy Ladd (whose name sign, JESUS, I share by chance) about BSL poetry that you might like to take a look at. (Rachel and I both contributed articles, mine coauthored with Marion Blondel in France, to a Sign Language Studies number with a thematic poetry segment.)

    The Sutton-Spence et al poetry book is carried by Forest Books, a British outfit, but the US Macmillan site below gives a better synopsis. WH Smith online also sells it, apparently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *