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How to Learn British Sign Language Alphabet

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According to the British Deaf Association, more than 151,000 British Sign Language users are there across the UK. This figure does not include the users outside the UK, especially Northern Ireland, England and Wales. And, it does include professional BSL users; so it’s primarily made up of BSL users, interpreters, translators. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll never come across a person who can’t communicate with you because you don’t know BSL. This person could very well be a close friend or a colleague, or even a family member. Now, more than ever, we all have a very compelling reason to learn BSL here in the UK. You’ll be thankful to yourself that you knew the language when you’d need it to communicate. Besides, the language is not that hard either.

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If you want to learn BSL, an excellent place to start would be the British sign language alphabet. Most people who use BSL started their sign language journey by learning the A-Z or alphabet equivalent in sign form. In fact, if you don’t interact much with deaf persons and deaf children, you can still learn BSL at home; formal learning isn’t necessary here.

Otherwise, it may prove challenging for you to make any progress in learning the language. I created this guide to familiarise you with BSL and fingerspelling, which will jumpstart your overall BSL learning process.

I’ll go into the details about the BSL alphabets. But first, let’s give you a concise history of BSL. I’ll also go briefly into the linguistic structure of BSL and how it differs from other sign languages.

Interestingly, most countries that share the same spoken language do not always share the same sign language. English, for example, has two varieties: American Sign Language (ASL) and British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language (BANZSL). British Sign Language, Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and New Zealand Sign Language share the same alphabets.
All three of these sign languages descended from the same parent language and are part of the BANZSL language family. Unlike ASL, BANZSL alphabets use two hands instead of one. Since ASL descended from Old French Sign Language, it has its own unique linguistic structure and visual nature.

History of British Sign Language

Although officially recognised as a language in 18 March, 2003, British Sign Language alphabets were used as far back as the 1570s. The language became more standardised when a Scottish teacher called Thomas Braidwood set up the first private deaf school in Edinburgh in 1760. He thus laid the groundwork for deaf education in Great Britain.

The UK’s first public school for deaf people was also set up by a teacher, Joseph Watson, from Braidwood’s academy. The name of the school was the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Bermondsey.

On 6th September 2017, to celebrate Braidwood’s achievements, Google’s team designed a special Google Doodle. They also created a short, colourful video to help anyone learn the British Sign Language alphabet.

Linguistic Structure of BSL

BSL is a combination of hand signals, lip patterns, facial expressions and body movements. It doesn’t follow the language structure of spoken English. The order of words is set up in a manner to communicate efficiently.

You start with a subject and then say something about the topic after that. For instance, if you want to ask someone’s name, you sign “name, what?”.

Lip patterns are also a crucial part of BSL. For example, the signs for ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’, ‘nephew’ and ‘niece’ are the same. Lip patterns are the only differentiator here.

One notable thing here is that, just like spoken languages, facial expression and body language are equally important for sign languages.

BSL Alphabet Skill Levels

Qualifications in British Sign Language are split into different skill levels, from Level 1 to Level 6. The alphabet is a Level 1 skill. British Sign Language courses also correspond to these levels. You can’t jump to the next skill level if you haven’t finished the previous one.

Now, let’s get into the meat of this content piece—namely, fingerspelling and how to sign the alphabet in sign language.

BSL Alphabet and Fingerspelling

The use of the “hand signing” to represent individual letters of a written alphabet is called ‘fingerspelling’. However, fingerspelling alone is not sign language.

Most words have a sign in BSL, so you would typically sign the word rather than individual letters. But it helps signers manually spell out names of people, places and things that don’t have an established sign. So the alphabet has its uses in some scenarios-

● There are no signs for names, so you have to fingerspell them.
● Spell out words that don’t have a sign. For example, most sign languages have a specific sign for the word tree but may not have an oak sign, so o-a-k would be fingerspelled to convey that particular meaning.
● Fingerspell words you are unsure of the sign for. If you don’t know the sign for a specific word, you can fingerspell it to communicate.
● The British Sign Language alphabet can be useful for spelling out acronyms such as “BSL” (British Sign Language) since they can’t be signed.
● Many words in British Sign Language use letters of the alphabet, such as Monday, which is signed “M day”.

How to Sign the Alphabet (A-Z) in BSL

It does not matter which hand you use to sign, but we typically use our dominant hand. It would be the right hand for most people. The other hand is called the base hand.

You can use your left hand as your dominant hand to sign too, but keep it consistent. If you use your left hand as the dominant hand, your right hand would be your base hand. Swapping dominant and base hands in the middle of a sentence will confuse the person you’re conversing with.

Imagine that your dominant hand is the pen, and your base hand is the paper. It will help make you master the method of signing faster. The images I used are for a right-hander. If you’re a left-hander, just mirror the process.

The images used for every alphabet below are from Lead Academy’s BSL level 1 and 2 courses. The course instructor, Steve Hurley, is a qualified BSL teacher working in the industry for over 19 years, helping countless people. You will acquire BSL level 2 equivalent conversation skills once you finish the course. BSL level 2 mastery doesn’t really prepare you for a professional job. Still, you’ll gain plenty of fluency to converse in BSL signs with a loved one, a colleague, even a client or a customer. I’ll link the page to the course down below.

You can check Lead Academy’s BSL course to strengthen your knowledge about the BSL alphabet. Click the below-mentioned link:

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Are you looking best British Sign Language Courses?

The British Sign Language Alphabet is relatively easy to learn and with Lead Academy. This course is so easy to follow and gave me the essential basic to advance skills in British Sign Language! The lessons were easy to follow and really fun to complete.

Now let’s get into the alphabet.

1. Signing the letter A and the vowels

Signing the letter A
Touch the thumb of your base hand with the index finger of your dominant hand to sign A.
Each of the fingers on your base hand represents a vowel in this order: A (thumb), ‘E’ (index), ‘I’ (middle), ‘O’ (ring), ‘U’ (pinky). Only touch the finger that you need to touch and fold the rest.

2. Signing B

B Signing
Make ‘O’ shape with your fingers in both of your hands separately. Put your hands together to make a binocular shape.

3. Signing C

C Signing

Make the pattern exactly like the letter ‘C’ with your dominant hand’s index finger and thumb. Fold the other fingers inwards.

4. Signing D

D Signing

Point the base hand’s middle finger upward. Touch the tip of this finger with the index finger of your dominant hand. Touch the knuckle of the base hand’s index finger with the dominant hand’s thumb to sign D.

5. Signing E

E Signing

Touch the tip of the index finger on your base hand with your dominant index finger to sign E. Fold the other fingers of the dominant hand.

6. Signing F

F Signing
Put your dominant hand’s index and middle fingers on the ones on your base hand. Keep other fingers of both hands folded.

Is it hard to learn British Sign Language?

Signs vary across the UK & BSL has it’s own grammar and sentence structures. Everything different from general language and grammar & normal sentence.

7. Signing G

G Signing
Make both of your hands into fists with your thumbs tucked in, and place your dominant fist on top of your base fist to sign G. It will look as if you’re holding a pepper grinder.

8. Signing H

H Signing
H Signing
Open up the base hand’s palm facing up. Put your dominant hand’s palm on the base hand’s one. Stroke the right hand in the forward direction, from your wrist to your fingertips. It’s like wiping dust off of your palm.

9. Signing I

I Signing
Spread up your base palm and place your dominant index finger on the middle finger of your other hand to sign I. However, if you want to sign the word ‘I’, simply point towards yourself.

10. Signing J

J Signing
J Signing
Spread your base palm open, facing up. Move your right index from the tip of the left middle finger down to its thumb. Trace it as you are writing the letter ‘J’ on your hand.

11. Signing K

K Signing
Point upwards with your base hand, make a bent shape with your dominant index finger and hold it against the base index finger.

12. Signing L

L Signing
Open and face your base palm upward. Dominant index finger rests on the middle of your base palm with its other fingers closed.

13. Signing M

M Signing
Hold your base palm out and place your dominant ring, middle and index on the palm of your base hand.

14. Signing N

N Signing
Hold your base palm out and place your dominant index and middle finger in the middle of your palm.

15. Signing O

O Signing
Hold your base palm out and place your dominant index finger on the tip of the base ring finger.

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16. Signing P

P Signing
Create a circle with your dominant index finger and thumb. Touch the tip of the base index finger to make a ‘P’ shape.

17. Signing Q

Q Signing
Put your base thumb and finger together to make a circle, then hook your dominant index finger to your base thumb.

18. Signing R

R Signing
Curl the index finger of your dominant hand and place it on the palm of your base hand.

19. Signing S

S Signing
Spread your base palm and lock the base pinky finger with the dominant one.

20. Signing T

U Signing
Keep your base hand open, palm facing up. Press the palm with your dominant index fingertip.

21. Signing U

U Signing
Place your dominant index finger on the tip of the base pinky finger.

22. Signing V

V Signing
Make a ‘V’ symbol with your dominant hand. Rest the victory shape on your open base palm.

23. Signing W

W Signing
Interlock the fingers of your both hands and point them up diagonally.

24. Signing X

X Signing
Curl in all the fingers of your both hands except the index fingers. Make a cross with the index fingers, pointing diagonally up.

25. Signing Y​

Y Signing
Extend your base thumb and index finger and place your dominant index finger between them.

26. Signing Z

Z Signing
Open both your palms. Point your base palm upwards and touch its middle with the fingers of your dominant hand. Try to keep your dominant hand relatively parallel to the ground.

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Suggestions

● Keep a steady, consistent pace when you sign. It will help people understand you easily.
● Don’t mouth individual letters. Instead, mouth the whole word for easier communication.
● Sign in front of your chest, so the person you’re signing to can easily see your face and hands.
● Use fingerspelling quiz videos. It will help you master the language faster.
● Be careful that your signing isn’t misread as something offensive.

Concluding Remarks

I hope this article helped you with your fingerspelling. By learning BSL alphabets, you will take your first step towards mastering BSL.

A guide covering every aspect of the BSL alphabet is all you need to get a comprehensive understanding of it. Here, you only need to go through the steps patiently and imitate them as described. It would be best to keep a regular practice to ensure that you don’t forget the hand gestures.

Feel free to come back to this guide anytime you need some help recalling a letter or two. Thanks for sticking so long.

Au revoir and all the best!

If you want a qualified instructor to show you BSL alphabet fingerspelling as well as the words, we have a nifty course for you here. The course starts with all the basics, such as an introduction to British Sign Language Alphabet in Level 1, and it goes on to explain complex words and communicative phrases in Level 2.

FAQ

Can I teach myself British Sign Language?

Taking an online course is the quickest and easiest method to start learning British Sign Language. This option allows you to study BSL on your own time and at your own pace.

Is the BSL and ASL alphabet the same?

No, they are entirely unrelated languages. In fact, they only share 30% of their vocabulary despite having a common spoken language.

Does England use ASL or BSL?

ASL stands for American Sign Language. BSL stands for British Sign Language. You may have already guessed that BSL is exclusive to Britain.

How quickly can you learn BSL?

It depends on your pace and your linguistic capability. However, we can give you a rough estimate. For example, suppose an average person takes 3 hours of training each week. In that case, they usually take 3-4 years to be fully fluent (Level 6) in BSL, where they can use it as a professional qualification and teach others BSL or work as an interpreter.

However, basic level BSL will take only months to learn.

Is it difficult to learn BSL?

No, the language is as hard as any other spoken language. Sign languages don’t have any caveat in them except for the fact that it’s visual. You will quickly pick up the language if you can see as well as any other average person.

How many levels are there in BSL?

In total: 5. Level 1-4 and then Level 6. The higher the level, the more challenging it becomes.

What is used more ASL or BSL?

ASL, as the USA has more people in it than Great Britain. So the number of people who need to use sign language is also greater.

Where do I start learning BSL?

Start with BSL Level 1. It’s the most basic level, and it’s very easy. You can easily learn it all by yourself.

What can I do with BSL Level 1?

Learners will be able to comprehend and utilise a restricted range of simple words and phrases in BSL at the conclusion of Level 1. They can participate in easy, ordinary BSL discussions, offer and follow simple directions or instructions, and deliver and follow basic common phrases or descriptions.

Should I learn BSL or makaton?

Makaton is less difficult to learn than BSL. Makaton is extensively used for very young infants who are not yet speaking, as well as children who have speech, language, or learning issues.

Is BSL an official language?

Yes. It has been Britain’s official sign language since 2003.

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