A language for your eyes: BSL*

Juan had originally published this article on 22 September 2013 on the blog IdeasdePapel. He wrote the article while he worked as a courses coordinator at the Sussex Centre for Language Studies. This article is dedicated to his then teachers and colleagues, and always friends, Parveen, John and Marco.

To my Dad.

‘And this one? What is it about?’ I ask Marco showing him one of the EuroSign Interpreters brochures from the pile I’m placing on the table. ‘That one is a similar project to EUROSIGNS 1 and 2, the project aims to bridge the barriers between different Sign languages across Europe.’(1)

I am at the Language Learning Centre of the University of Sussex helping to set up the main meeting room for the celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the recognition of BSL as an official language in the UK. There are around 8 of us helping to get the room ready for the event, among them are BSL interpreters, technicians, and academics responsible for organising language courses. 

But, what is BSL? You may be asking yourself, as I did the first time I saw those three letters printed on a brochure advertising evening language courses at the university. BSL, it turns out, stands for British Sign Language and is the official Sign language used by the Deaf in the UK.

And yet, while everyone labours setting up the chairs, computers and the projector, having some food and drink at the small reception, I can’t help but to notice that everyone does so in silence or in whispers. I wonder if they haven’t yet realised that this is an event about the recognition of BSL and its culture and not a liturgy involving a taboo for having conversations. Whispers, and the overuse of the sound ‘s’ make me impatient.

More people arrive and the place now gets lively and chatty. People talk in English, in French, in Spanish, in Italian, in German. Languages, I think to myself, are pretty covered today. But most of us marvel at the groups of Deaf people signing and the work of the interpreters who, like bees searching for pollen, zoom in and out from one group to another to help everybody communicate and understand each other. Amongst the attendees I find Parveen Dunlin who has come with her husband Dave and some other friends, all of them Deaf.  ‘Reading’ I sign to them when asked about my nick name. 

‘In Sign language we use nicknames to identify friends and people we know. We use hobbies, jobs, origins, facial or body characteristics. Whatever helps to identify someone and not to have to fingerspell their name every time we refer to them’, Parveen explains during one of my first BSL classes.

Mother to two daughters, both bi-lingual in BSL and English, Parveen Dunlin is a regular attendee of the Our Space meetings, held once a month at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton. She is very involved with the local Deaf Community; besides having over 20 years’ experience as a BSL tutor, she also teaches family signs for the NDCS (the National Deaf Children Society) in Brighton and is about to start teaching baby sign classes in Lewes; ‘this encourages new parents to think of different visual ways to communicate with their baby rather than relying on the spoken word’ Parveen explains.

The room gets busier and there are now around 30 people including research fellows in Deaf studies, BSL teachers and students, various language tutors, a speech and language therapist and someone from the Brighton and Hove City Council. The event is about to start.

OK, that’s all great, but… what am I doing here?  It has been a year now since I began to coordinate language courses at the University of Sussex. My job requires me to be in constant contact with language tutors, and that’s how I met Parveen, who teaches the two BSL evening courses. Parveen is Deaf and when I first joined the centre a year ago, I thought that a nice and practical way to communicate with her and make my job easier would be to learn the language. 

So I enrolled in the BSL course, but as the weeks passed, I learned that BSL was much more than a language of accessibility; it is about a language and a culture. With this in mind I thought the event of BSL recognition would be a great opportunity to find out more about the BSL language and the Deaf community. What first began as mere approach to facilitating my job soon became a door to another reality.

The event starts with a brief introduction on the history of BSL studies at the University of Sussex by Professor Ray Satchell, the director of the Sussex Centre for Language Studies. This is followed by John Walker who gives a presentation about the campaigns that led to BSL recognition, a brief history on BSL research in the UK and the issues of then, now and tomorrow. 

The teaching of BSL at the University of Sussex was first introduced in 1995 when the (now sadly closed-down) Centre for Community Engagement (CCE) offered a course on creative writing and creative BSL. The course ‘created an interest for several members of staff to learn the language’ John Walker tells me. ‘In turn, the tutors, who were teaching elsewhere, approached Pam Coare’, then CCE’s director, ‘to set up a BSL course there. That is how it started.’ It was around 2006 when John joined Sussex; ‘it was soon after that that I struck a conversation with Maria Greco to set up evening courses for BSL’. 

Today John Walker is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Brighton for the Community and University Partnership Programme and also convenes and teaches the new BSL elective module at the Sussex Centre for Language Studies. While his research focuses on British Sign Language linguistics and sociolinguistics, much of his career is devoted to the professional development of sign language interpreters and deaf people as well as the development of oral history approaches to recording life histories from the Deaf community and their cultural identities.

Research on Deaf studies at the University of Sussex began in 1969 with the establishment of the Reginald M. Phillips Laboratory and Research Unit. Working in collaboration with other educational institutions, the Reginald Research Unit led to important changes in the curriculum, developed new learning materials and novel approaches to Deaf education. Though now closed, the works and achievements at the Reginald Research Unit were liberating because for the first time they intended to depart from the old doctrine of oralism; ‘a time when children were punished for using their hands to express themselves’, as John Walker states.

Despite more than 35 years of research in the UK, BSL became recognised as an official language only 10 years ago. I can’t help but to ask why? The answer is not clear. Despite repeated calls from the EU to promote the use of Sign languages in the fields of education and employment, there had been little advances in the UK to give BSL official status. The lack of recognition led to a campaign initiated in April 1999 led by the Federation of Deaf People (FDP) which led to BSL being recognised as a language in its own right by the British Government on 18th March 2003. (2)

The event continues. A performance of visual vernacular and a marvellous piece of BSL poetry, interpreted jointly by John Walker and Sue MacLaine, one of the interpreters, follow. The poem, entitled Language of the Eye and originally composed in BSL by Dorothy Miles at the University of Durham, is first read aloud without signing for the hearing attendees to understand. Another poem nothing less nothing more, I think to myself. I’m not a fan of poetry but if people like it…fair enough. And then they read the poetry once more. This time, John signs the poem with the interpreter reading the poem in the background so that both hearing and deaf attendees can follow it. Like a book or a film, when we are presented with the original we don’t just understand it but we also feel it. Now everyone in the room is in awe, me the first. 

‘Please, try not to speak to each other during classes. I can’t hear you and I can’t lip read. If there is something you don’t understand try to sign or write it down on the board. Take all the time you need’ Parveen tells us through Marco, the interpreter, during the first class of our BSL course. The classes last two to three hours and take place once a week. During the lessons everyone is in silence. Nobody talks, and this we do in part for respect to the tutor who is deaf, in part because it helps us get into the language, to feel it, experience it more. Without the platform of speech and resource of hearing, we find out a whole new reality of expression through manual gestures, facial expressions; the intensity and pace of our body language become essential. 

But it is not only about discovering that you can communicate without your voice and hearing. It is also about learning a system of communication. BSL is a language with a particular grammar, syntaxes, lexicon. Nuances of speech, abstract concepts and subtleties like time, tone of voice or someone’s mood are bridged with manual and non-manual gestures, facial expressions, hand-shape, placement and word orders. Sign languages also vary from country to country, and within countries they vary from region to region; there are regionalisms and dialects, as in spoken languages. 

My contact with BSL through the classes with Parveen and this event has made me realise that it is more than just a language of disability. I wonder; does one need to embark on a BSL course to appreciate the wider picture? Does this help to explain why it took so long to recognise BSL as an official language? 

After the BSL Poetry, Marco Nardi introduces something that most of us have never experienced before: Sign singing. Again, everyone is fascinated, although we cannot completely transport ourselves into that dimension in which the Deaf experience music, and how they experience it, because we can hear.

‘Against popular belief, deaf people do enjoy music’ John tells me when I ask him about the Sign singing phenomenon after the event. ‘Our perceptions of music may differ slightly because we rely on a heavier bass to ‘feel’ the music rather than ‘hear’ it.’ ‘There are many versions of Sign singing, some led by deaf people themselves. Signmark, from Finland came third in the local Eurovision contest.’ There are even a Deaf Raves and Sign signing is present during events such as the opening and closing ceremonies for the Deaflympic games, and in theatre plays where interpreters translate songs in musicals into a form of sign singing. 

As John says ‘There is one epithet about Deaf life; being deaf doesn’t make sound unimportant, only that sound is not the most important aspect of life. Deaf people may have heard more music in the past, or enjoy a particular experience of music. Sign singing gives that exposure.’

The event finishes with the screening of a short film, Coming Out, which turns out to be a hilariously funny family parody in which a boy tries to explain to his mother that he’s deaf; and while he signs she speaks. For many of us present today BSL has become more than a language and a culture, it has also become a path for artistic expression, creativity and fun, communication and participation. John Walker closes the event thanking everyone who has helped to make it happen. The Deaf rise their arms up in the air and wave their hands, the hearing clap. John Walker sees this and signs something to Marco who explains ‘Thank you, thank you. Just a note, that in Sign language we don’t clap but raise our hands and move them instead.’ So we all do likewise.  

A different reality is often ignored until one comes into contact with it. That of BSL and the Deaf community is one of them. I now reflect on the fact that I used to think of sign language as part of a disability or condition. When I was living back in Córdoba, Argentina, I only thought of Deaf people when I saw children on public buses who gave us a little piece of paper with the hand alphabet when they sold something for a few pennies. ‘This is common’ John comments. ‘Not so much in the UK but in other countries I have visited where deaf people find it hard to gain employment. So, they resort to ‘begging’ to receive an income. It is a big problem.’

During the past 10 years, there has been an increased popularity of sign languages in the non-deaf population through phenomena such as the baby sign movement, the increased diversity of BSL interpreted and subtitled TV programmes or the inclusion of BSL as a language of tuition in some local councils such as Bristol and Leeds. UK’s long research tradition in sign language linguistics and the ratification of the UNCRPD (the United Nations Convention of Rights for Persons with Disabilities), are also important developments which provide a legal background to push through changes in support of BSL and the Deaf community.

However, BSL is still a language without political clout, perceived as an ‘access need’ rather than a ‘minority language’. A language that lacks a clearly defined political and legal framework faces serious challenges; John tells me that ‘there is no single law that specifies what services Deaf people will receive in BSL’. For example, after ten years of recognition, there still isn’t an equitable and modern telecommunications provision and ‘Deaf people, who use BSL, are still unable to make a telephone call in their own language.’(3)

Reading and writing in English is also a problem for an important part of the Deaf community as this is not their first language, which in turn leads to difficulties in getting acquainted with important information such as pieces of legislation, access to public services or even filling in a job application. One of the most serious gaps is in the field of education where, John explains that, ‘no child has the right to learn the language of their parents in schools. The majority of deaf children attend a mainstream school whereas only a few thousand would receive a specialist education. While sign language is a useful tool for communication, access and life in general, there is no mechanism for children to learn the language, least of all their families. In fact, it is easier to learn sign language if one is a hearing child than a deaf child (baby signing phenomenon).’

It’s been only a year since I started my job and joined my first BSL course. While loss of hearing is a limitation in many aspects of someone’s life, we would do wrong to conceptualise it solely as a problem to be fixed. Not all the Deaf perceive their condition as a disability – ‘There is a grand narrative that disabled people should be part of society and be equal. In many cases, this is an important argument to have. But there are times when disabled people would like to come together and have their own identity’ John explains. ‘Normalisation is an agenda that serves mainstream society, it doesn’t always serve the needs of the disabled person. There is a growing movement of disabled people who would like to be perceived as a “person where their condition shapes who they are” which is a stark contrast to “a person who suffers from their condition”.’

There is a language, BSL, and behind that language a community with its culture, its own identity. The reality of BSL and that of the Deaf community today is perhaps better than it was 10 years ago, but it remains a challenging one. The lack of a clearly defined legal framework from which to implement changes has serious consequences for the lives of deaf people. Any language, including BSL, is more than a tool for communication. There is a whole creative side to BSL that remains invisible to many of us and which includes poetry, music, films, sports, etc. These are the spaces where the Deaf come together as a community.

* Thanks to John Walker for his conversations which inspired this article and to Elona Hoover for her proof reading. Special thanks as well to Parveen Dunlin for teaching me this wonderful language. 


1.    The conversations with Marco Nardi, Parveen Dunlin, and John Walker quoted in this article are reconstructions made by the author from discussions and written correspondence held before, during and after the 10th Anniversary Event of BSL Recognition on Wednesday 20th March 2013 at the Language Learning Centre. Any mistakes or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
2.    In 1988, the European Parliament had passed a resolution which called for the European Commission and the Member States to promote the use of Sign languages in the fields of education and employment as well as to introduce measures on deaf awareness training for officials working in EU institutions. This resolution, reiterated in 1998, also included a call for framework legislation to ensure compatibility of telecommunications text and videophone equipment for deaf people across Europe. The full text of the 1998 EP resolution can be accessed here.
3.     An recent article published in the The Limping Chicken, a deaf news and blogs website, revealed that British Telecom was trying to launch a new generation text relay service to enable deaf people use their phone. The system which is supposed to start from April 2014, would link the BT land line to a device connected to internet (computer, smartphone, etc.) through a free application. While the internet connection will enable the deaf to type text on one side of the line, the land-line would ‘translate’ the message into voice, and vice versa.


Dear Juan,
I really like the article. I commend you on the level of detail and you have connected the themes well. It is also enjoyable to read and can be understood by many, who might not have access to Deaf people.
At the same time, the article raises a lot of questions and I can see that you don’t have the ‘answers’, or rather the concepts that might help you arrive at an ‘understanding’, and I think you will with time. I would most certainly ask you to revisit this article in a year’s time just to see if you see the Deaf community in the same way or if other conversations come into play.
I enjoyed the fact that you have centred the article around your personal experience as a colleague, student and member of staff. As a reader, I would love to know more about how BSL has enabled you to understand yourself, and your relationships with your own community. I think this is another article you could write, in time.
[…] I think it would be good to find a way for SCLS to promote this article in some form, at least to put it into the Language Learning Library.
A great article.

John Walker, Senior Research Fellow at University of Brighton, Teaching Fellow at University of Sussex in Deaf studies and British Sign Language (email, 17 September 2013)

Great article, v thought-provoking… Will share with other BSL students!

Lauren Harris, volunteer communicator at National Deaf Children’s Society (Facebook, 22 September 2013)

Stunningly well written, perceptive, descriptive & comprehensive – it deserves wider publicity. Try a national newspaper.

Sarah Playforth (Facebook, 22 September 2013)

Hello Juan. A very interesting article and well written. I’ve never been that interested in BSL but you have given me, the reader, a lot of insight into all the various elements of what I had previously thought was just signs to people who can’t hear. Thank you.
Mel x

Melanie Suppel, former Welfare and Accommodation Officer at SCLS (email, 10 October 2013)

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