How to Learn British Sign Language Alphabet

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There are many reasons for you wanting to learn sign language. According to the UK government, around 11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. People with disabilities, including Autism, Apraxia of speech, Cerebral Palsy, and Down Syndrome, also often find it challenging to communicate through spoken languages.
If you work with people who belong to these groups or have a loved one with any of these disabilities, learning sign language may prove very useful for communicating. Professionals like sign language interpreters and scuba divers, or people who work in extremely noisy environments may need to know sign language.
The most common form of sign language in the UK is British Sign Language (BSL). To learn BSL, an excellent place to start would be the British sign language alphabet. Most people start their sign language journey by learning the A-Z or alphabet equivalent in sign form. I created this guide to familiarise you with BSL and fingerspelling, which will jumpstart your overall BSL mastery learning process.

Table of Contents

What is British Sign Language

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 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 first public school for the deaf in the UK was also set up by a teacher, Joseph Watson, from this academy. It was the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Bermondsey.

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

Linguistic Structure of BSL

BSL is made up of 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 their name, you would 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.

British BSL Alphabet and Fingerspelling

British Sign Language is split into different skill levels, from Level 1 to Level 6. The alphabet is a Level 1 skill. The use of the hands to represent individual letters of a written alphabet is called ‘fingerspelling’. 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 in BSL

There are no capital or lowercase letters in BSL. You also need to make sure that consistency is maintained between your hands. It does not matter which hand you use to sign, but we typically use our dominant hand. This 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.

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.

1. Signing the letter A and the vowels

Signing 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

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

3. Signing C

Signing C
Make the pattern exactly like the letter ‘C’ with your dominant hand’s index finger and thumb. The pattern will look mirrored to a right-hander. Don’t worry about that though. Fold the other fingers inwards.

4. Signing D

Signing D
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

Signing E
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

Signing F
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

Signing G
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

Signing H
Signing H2
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

Signing I
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

Signing J
Signing J 2
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

Signing K
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

Signing L
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

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

14. Signing N

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

15. Signing O

Signing O
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

Signing P
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

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

18. Signing R

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

19. Signing S

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

20. Signing T

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

21. Signing U

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

22. Signing V

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

23. Signing W

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

24. Signing X

Signing X
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​

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

26. Signing Z

Signing Z
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. Honestly, just for British Sign Language Alphabet, a guide like this is all you need. Every aspect of the BSL alphabet is covered here. You just need to go through the steps patiently and imitate them as described.
You also need to keep a regular practice to ensure that you don’t forget them. 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.

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