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British Sign Language vs American Sign Language: What Makes Them Different?

Penelope Turner

Publish Date: 14 June 2024

Are you confused between British sign language and American sign language? Well, look no further; our blog will clear up all your confusion and queries regarding ASL and BSL. ASL and BSL share almost the same characteristics. However, there are some other factors that make them different from one another. ASL and BSL aim to promote sign language for deaf people in America and Britain, respectively. Now, let’s go deeper into British Sign Language vs American Sign Language.

Origins and Distribution

British Sign Language, as the name suggests, originated in Great Britain and is the primary sign language used in the UK. ASL, on the other hand, has a slightly more complex history. Its roots can be traced back to French Sign Language (LSF), brought to North America by Thomas Gallaudet in the early 1800s to establish the first school for the deaf in the United States. Over time, ASL evolved into a separate language distinct from LSF. Today, ASL is the dominant sign language used in North America.

Key Differences Between ASL and BSL

As mentioned before, ASL and BSl share some similarities as they aim to help deaf communities. However, they are distinct languages with unique features. Here’s a breakdown of some key differences you can explore:

  • Manual Alphabet: Spelling out words looks very different in ASL and BSL. ASL uses a one-handed alphabet, where each letter is formed with a single hand. BSL, on the other hand, employs a two-handed alphabet. Moreover, the dominant hand points to specific configurations made by the non-dominant hand to represent letters.
  • Grammar and Syntax: Just like spoken languages, ASL and BSL have their own grammatical structures.  Moreover, word order, facial expressions, and body positioning all play a role in conveying meaning.  While there are some similarities, the specific ways these elements are used differ between the two languages.
  • Signs: Many signs for common concepts will completely differ between ASL and BSL.  For example, the sign for “family” in ASL involves placing your hands together like a picture frame, while the BSL sign involves interlocking fingers in a specific way.
  • Number Systems: Even representing numbers can be different! ASL uses a one-handed system with various handshapes, while BSL uses a two-handed approach.
  • Facial Expressions and Body Language: Facial expressions and body language are important aspects of ASL and BSL grammar. However, the specific nuances of how they are used may be different.

Similarities Between BSL and ASL

While BSL and ASL are distinct languages, they have some common ground. Some of the factors that make them similar include:

  • Visual Language: BSL and ASL are full-fledged languages that use handshapes, body language, facial expressions, and movement to communicate. Moreover, they rely on visual cues to convey meaning, making them perfect for Deaf communities.
  • Non-manual Signals: Beyond handshapes, both languages utilise facial expressions and body posture to add depth and nuance to communication. A raised eyebrow in ASL might indicate surprise, while a furrowed brow in BSL could convey confusion.  However, the emphasis on these non-manual signals differs slightly between the two. Moreover, ASL leans more on facial expressions, while BSL incorporates broader body movements.
  • Grammar Structure: BSL and ASL follow a topic-comment sentence structure. This means the main idea (topic) comes first, followed by additional information (comment). As a result, this structure allows for clear and concise communication.
  • Classifiers: Both languages use classifiers, which are handshapes that represent the size, shape, and movement of objects or people.  For instance, a classifier might be used to depict a cup or the action of walking.
  • Shared Signs: Due to historical connections and the influence of French Sign Language, a small percentage of signs are actually identical between ASL and BSL. However, it’s important to remember that even these signs might have slightly different execution or meanings in each language.

Why should you choose BSL? 

Depending on your circumstances, opting for BSL over ASL can be a smart choice. Here are key reasons to choose BSL:

Living in the United Kingdom

  • Primary language of the UK Deaf community
  • Facilitates effective communication and cultural engagement

Cultural Integration and Community Engagement

  • Opportunities to practise and connect through Deaf clubs, events, and organisations
  • Provides insight into British Deaf culture
  • Enables participation in cultural and social activities

Educational and Professional Opportunities

  • Important for careers in education, healthcare, social services, and interpreting in the UK
  • Improves job prospects and ability to work inclusively
  • Recognised as an official minority language since 2003
  • Increased support and accessibility for BSL users

How to learn British sign language: Available resources

There are numerous websites, apps, and online courses dedicated to teaching BSL and ASL. You can visit the Unified Course to learn BSL. Moreover, our courses are CPD certified in the UK, which validates the certificate you will receive. Furthermore, we are available 24/7 to help you with any issue. Hence, you can enrol in our e-learning course and start your career as a sign language interpreter and many other jobs.

How long does it take to learn BSL and ASL?

The time it takes to learn BSL or ASL depends on several factors, including:

  • Are you aiming for basic conversational skills, fluency, or professional interpreting?
  • How much time can you dedicate to studying daily or weekly?
  • Do you prefer structured courses, independent learning, or a combination?

Here’s a general timeframe to help you understand:

  • Basic Signs and Conversation (BSL Level 1 & 2 / ASL Beginner): This level might take 6 months to a year with regular practice (a few hours a week).
  • Conversational Fluency (BSL Level 3 / ASL Intermediate): Reaching this level could take 2-3 years with dedicated study (several hours a week).
  • Advanced Fluency & Interpreting (BSL Level 4-6 / ASL Advanced): Advanced fluency and interpreting require several years of intensive study and immersion in the Deaf community.

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