When raising a deaf child, you will at some point come to make a very important choice – to sign or not to sign? Trying to strike a balance and avoid paying money to learn on a course, you may choose to use free online resources to learn BSL, or to buy books or videos instead. But there can be large differences in learning on your own to participating in a course to learn BSL and it’s important you make the right decision to get what you need out of learning British Sign Language in order to best support your child with hearing loss. So here’s some of the fundamental differences and issues to consider, and how to overcome them and achieve the best possible learning experience.
If you’re trying to learn British Sign Language to teach your deaf child but are trying to avoid booking a course and spending a lot of money, the first thing you may think (if you’re like me, anyway) is ‘I’ll buy a book to help me.’ Books and free online images and PDFs are great but some of the signs (such as letters of the alphabet) may not be represented particularly well on paper. Joining a course means that you get a 3D real life view of each sign but on paper, a shoddy picture can be misinterpreted and you may get a sign wrong. For learning from home, it’s ultimately best to use not only pictures but also videos (even from YouTube) to reconfirm a sign, especially if it’s one that includes movement.
Another issue with learning British Sign language at home to teach your child with hearing loss is that when and if you do get a sign wrong, you effectively have no one to pick up on it and tell you where you are making a mistake. Feedback is really important in any kind of learning, not least because it helps to stop you from repeating and emphasising your mistakes over time. If you’re learning BSL from home, and you don’t have a partner to practice with for feedback, watch videos online and copy the signs but don’t just stick to one video – try to watch a few, to cross reference so that you get as many angles on a movement as possible, to make sure you get it right!
British Sign Language is an officially registered language in its own right, and with different dialects. A struggle when learning independently without tutoring can be that you will see conflicting versions of the same word, signed differently. This makes learning independently very stressful and can even put you off entirely. Even in a tutor led course, this problem can exist. A personal experience was in a course, we were occasionally given pictures to convey each sign but the tutor would tell us a completely different sign to the one on the resources. If you are learning independently, try not to get too hung up on which is the ‘right’ sign. Different tutors can teach different signs and there will always be differences by region, whether small or large, so try not to feel overwhelmed.
When enrolling in a BSL course, you will have other students alongside you, who you will be able to practice with so you not only learn to ‘read’ another’s sign language, but you get a chance to properly practice your own. Practicing sign language with someone else is really important as it will highlight any mistakes you are making, and also give you practice at being on the other side of the conversation. If you are learning British Sign Language at home to teach your child with hearing loss, make sure you involve the rest of the family, so it becomes a habit and you and your child get in practice using sign language.
In a course, you will learn about British Sign Language grammar, which can be really important if you are not going to be using Sign Supported English but communicate completely using sign. If you are learning BSL at home, the temptation will likely be to learn words and then use them sporadically during everyday speech, but full BSL has its own grammar and does not rely on the grammar of spoken English. If you want to learn British Sign Language fully, you will need to read resources to understand not only the signs for each word, but also the correct structures and grammar to string them together in intelligible BSL sentences.
Sign language relies heavily on facial expression as an alternative to ‘tone’ in speech, and you should mime words in BSL grammar, rather than use full English sentences, if you are not using SSE. In a course, participants will likely be encouraged to use facial expression during sign language practice role plays, but when learning at home, it can be easy to forget to add in facial expressions and to mime words, so maybe try using a mirror whilst you sign, to remind yourself not to forget the face!