Unlike German, French and Spanish or even Mandarin Chinese, the second languages of choice in our schools, sign language is a less obvious choice for becoming bilingual.
Yes, you would be considered bilingual, with all of its advantages and benefits, if you learned sign language.
Why do people learn sign language?
The obvious answer is that they are deaf or hearing impaired or someone in their life is. Maybe they have a deaf child or want to work with deaf children. Or maybe they discovered the joys and benefits of a career as a sign language interpreter.
Whatever reason you have for learning how to sign, we applaud you. Now, on to help you achieve your goal of learning sign language.
First, you should be specific about which sign language you would like to learn. British sign language would be the clear choice; after all, you live in the UK, right?
You might also be interested in French sign language; many of us like to hop the channel for a holiday in Provence or Brittany.
American sign language is fairly popular; most of the online resources are for ASL, as it is called. You might focus on American signing if you have friends and family across the pond, or if you regularly communicate with deaf Americans in the course of your business.
This article focuses on British sign language and where, in the UK, you can learn how to sign in that language.
Our sources tell us that now is a good time to get into a sign language class. The year has just started and many of those courses are about to start, ready to tackle the basics before moving on to complex conversations.
What are we waiting for? Let’s get to it!
Sign Language Classes in the UK
Before we can lay out any courses, we have to make clear that, even though sign language is largely grouped into British, American, French, Mandarin… and so on for every spoken language of the world, there is no ‘one sign fits all’ in sign language.
That is because signing grew out of the deaf community itself.
Contrary to popular thought, it is not a language devised by hearing people so that the deaf can communicate with them. There are no universal signs save for perhaps general ones such as waving, nodding one’s head and ‘thumbs up’, indicating ‘good’.
In British sign language, ‘good’ can be signed either by showing one thumb up, two thumbs up or by rotating the palms upward, similar to how a hearing person might gesture when saying ‘what?’.
The word ‘hungry’ can be signed in several different ways in BSL!
Each sign is fairly homegrown and may even be region-specific. So, with few unifying factors – other than the consensus that that signing is a visual language and is very expressive, you might think it difficult to find class offerings at the national level.
Still, there are a couple, and Signature is such an enterprise.
Formerly known as the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People or CACDP, this organisation was founded in 1980 and became a registered charity in 1982 to promote the role of the deaf or hard of hearing in society.
In 2009, CACDP became Signature, one of the few awarding bodies of deaf language services in the UK.
They provide education and certification in the areas of:
- British Sign Language (Levels 1 through 6)
- International Sign Language
- Sign language interpreting
- National Vocational Qualifications or NVQ (now Regulated Qualifications Framework)
- Deaf Awareness and Communications
- Communication with deaf people
- communication with Deaf-blind people
- Facilitating communication with deaf people – lipspeaking skills
- they also provide Level 3 certification in note-taking
- Level 3 certificates for Language Service Professionals in lipspeaking and note-taking
Signature has training centres all over the UK; you only need to find their web page to find the location closest to you.
The only other national training service we found that teaches British sign language, that offers online courses as well as other resources such as a signing dictionary and fingerspelling challenges is British Sign.
We featured them in our companion article that lists resources for learning sign language.
Now, let’s look at individual cities and what sign language courses they have to offer.
Learn Sign Language in London
As you might suspect, our capital city hosts a wealth of classes intended to teach the deaf and anyone who wishes to learn how to communicate visually.
Merton College and Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College both offer 5-week introductory courses while, in Stepney, at Sign Say, you might take a night course or an intensive-study course in sign language.
In North London, in Camden, you’ll find the Frank Barnes School. It is a campus for deaf children but they also offer accredited BSL courses, including NVQ certification all the way to Level 6.
Remark!, in central London, promotes their services by offering a free taster course after which you may continue your studies, ultimately earning your Level 6 certificate. As for making a career out of sign language, you may go on to take their interpreter courses…
City Lit (Covent Garden) offers the mother-lode of all BSL courses!
From fingerspelling to receptive skills workshops, you can gain all of the practice and instruction you need in these intensive, one-day courses. If you are looking for something more durable, you may check out their full BSL curriculum, from Level 1 through Level 6.
The only downside to City Lit’s classes is that they tend toward the pricey; you might consider free offerings if you are not sure whether pursuing full certification in signing is right for you.
Learn Sign Language in Manchester
Madchester provides two major outlets to learn sign language; one is at Manchester College and the other at the University of Manchester, the latter being open only to university students.
However, The Manchester College offerings are open to the public and you needn’t have any experience with sign language to take their part-time course. It is recommended that you start with Level 1; additionally, they offer a Level 2 course to expand your knowledge of signing.
If you’d rather not attend college, you might enjoy BSL classes at the Manchester Deaf Centre.
Located in Crawford House on Booth Street, they offer deaf awareness training as well as sign language courses up to Level 3. All of their classes are taught by a qualified BSL teacher with more than a decade of teaching experience.
You'll surely pick up some tips for learning sign language there!
Leeds Sign Language Learning
Loiners have nearly as many choices for learning to sign as Londoners do!
You may, for example, drop in on the courses at Swarthmore College. There, you will learn about deaf culture and become deaf-aware, learn basic sign vocabulary, body language and facial expressions.
As you might expect from such a friendly, inclusive city as Leeds, there is a long-standing society for deaf and blind people; they offer courses in sign language as well.
Under the rather clever name they’ve adopted, CoHearentVision, you can find introductory, Level 1 and Level 2 classes in sign language, as well as other classes, including deaf-blind awareness classes and tactics for communicating with deaf and hard of hearing people.
These are long-term offerings; for example, the Level 2 BSL class lasts for 25 weeks. Oh, the things you’ll learn!
Deaf culture, often overlooked by the hearing, is a very pertinent aspect of learning sign language. These courses will delve deeply into the deaf experience, ensuring you will come out with a more refined, more positive attitude towards deaf people and being deaf.
If you don’t have quite that much time, you might be interested in Signability’s short course offerings.
You cannot learn how to sign in a day but you can gain an awareness of the challenges facing the deaf community in a hearing world, take part in their BSL Bootcamp and take a taster course in signing.
You may even get an introduction to the deaf community in Leeds, where you could learn more about the advantages of knowing how to sign.
As we mentioned before, there are plenty of BSL classes on offer in Leeds and throughout West Yorkshire; you only need to look a little to find the course you want.
Sign Language in Glasgow
Like other great cities, Glesga has more than one venue for learning how to sign.
Especially if you were approaching sign language as a future career prospect, you would benefit from taking BSL classes at Deaf Perspective. They teach signing to levels 1, 2 and 3; also up to Level 6 NVQ.
If you are only just starting to learn how to sign, you might go for classes at Glasgow Clyde College. They offer both weekend and night classes; each course is eight weeks long and, if we daresay, very reasonably priced.
Naturally, once you get a bit of experience signing, you will want to join the Sign Language Society at Glasgow University. This is an informal group who gets together every so often to talk together and sharpen receptive skills.
They also have BSL Level 1 classes available… or maybe you would join them when they visit with hearing dogs.
There are so many great people and agencies that teach sign language in the UK!
If we’ve not mentioned the resources for learning sign language in your city, please list them in the comments section; doing so will help others near you who wish that they too could sign.