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  • Louise Colechin

A Brief History of British Sign Language

British Sign Language (BSL) is the primary language used by the Deaf community in the UK. It is a visual means of communicating through use of gesture, facial expression and body language. It has its own grammatical structure and syntax, and is the preferred language of around 150,000 people nationwide. BSL was recognised as an official minority language by the UK government in 2003, which has led to increased funding and awareness. BSL now has a similar status to that of other minority languages like Gaelic and Welsh. This article explores the rich history of the language and its developments over the years.


Since BSL is not a language that can be physically written, its history is very much unknown. Almost all accounts written on BSL are exclusively by the hearing community, which raises questions as to whether we can regard these views with full faith. But there is some evidence that Deaf people in the UK were signing as early as the sixteenth century, with some scholars citing even earlier periods. Many of the signs were catered to the individual, and only used at home with familiar people.


In the eighteenth century, schools for the Deaf were established which gave a platform for Deaf individuals to interact. However, the systems used in these establishments were very limited and lacked standardisation. The first of these schools was the Thomas Braidwood Academy for the Deaf and Dumb, established in Edinburgh, in 1760. Braidwood aimed to educate Deaf students and help them communicate. He focused on speech and writing in small class sizes. Braidwood began incorporating manual signs into his teaching, laying the foundations for BSL itself. The school also contributed to the formation of a Deaf community and culture.


The twentieth century saw a major turning point in the history of BSL. A rise in activism and advocacy allowed Deaf individuals and their allies to campaign for the rights of Deaf people. The British Deaf Association (BDA) played a significant role in this, as well as contributing to increased awareness and understanding of the language.


Technological advancements in the twentieth century, such as the development of television and video recording, provided new opportunities for showcasing BSL. Many programmes now have the option to add subtitles, and some shows even have a live interpreter who can sign along with speakers. Many live concerts, such Coldplay’s ‘Music of the Spheres’ world tour, have sections of the stadium where a BSL interpreter is available to view.

A striking turning point in the representation of BSL and the Deaf community was when BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing welcomed their first Deaf participant. Rose Ayling-Ellis was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss at a young age and communicates primarily through BSL and lipreading. Her participation in the show was widely celebrated for breaking barriers and increasing representation of the Deaf community on mainstream television. She went on to win the show with her professional partner, Giovanni Pernice, eradicating beliefs that the Deaf community are limited in their achievements and skills.

댓글 1개

3월 21일

Learning sign language has been an eye-opening experience for me…I think everyone should try it :)

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