British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language of deaf people in the UK. There is approximately 125,000 adults using BSL in the UK, including more than 80.000 deaf people, plus an estimated of 20,000 children. The language involves coordinate movement of the hands, body, face, and head. Many hearing people also use BSL, as relatives of deaf people, sign language interpreters or as a result of other contact with the British deaf community.
Sign language within deaf communities in England existed from the XVI th century with constant evolution. Thomas Braidwood, founded the first school for the deaf in Edinburgh, the “Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb” in 1760. Braidwood developed a combined system for deaf students, including a basic form of sign language and the study of articulation and lip reading. This early use of sign language was the forerunner of British Sign Language
In 1783 Thomas Braidwood moved with his family to Hackney on the eastern outskirts of London and established the Braidwood Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Grove House, off Mare Street.
Joseph Watson, a nephew of Braidwood, began working with him in 1784. In 1792, Dr. Watson went on to become the first head teacher of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, which was established on Old Kent Road in Bermondsey : Watson's pupils included England's first deaf barrister, John William Lowe.
Until the 1940’s British Sign Language was not official. Skills were passed between deaf people mainly in residential institution. Signing was often forbidden in schools forcing deaf children to learn to lip read and finger spell. From the 1970s some schools started instruction in BSL. The language continues to evolve as any language with increase of tolerance and technology impact. For example, in 2019, over 100 signs for scientific terms were added to BSL, after being conceived by Liam Mcmulkin, a deaf graduate from University of Dundee.
BSL users campaigned for years to have BSL recognised on an official level. BSL was recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government on 18 March 2003, but it has no legal protection even if there is legislation requiring the provision of interpreters such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Protection against discrimination also improved position of BSL users in private companies.
American Sign Language today has a 60% similarity to modern French Sign Language and is almost understandable for users of British Sign Language, having only 31% signs identical, or 44% cognate. The reason is in 1815, an American Protestant minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was rebuffed by Braidwood schools to learn their methods. He travelled to Paris and learned at the French Royal Institution for the Deaf, a combination of old French Sign Language and the signs developed by l’Abbé de l’Épée, and brought back the method in America.
BSL has many regional dialects (like Scotland, for example), may not be understood immediately, or not understood at all, by those in Southern England, or vice versa. Some signs are even more local, occurring only in certain towns. Some may go in or out of fashion, or evolve over time. Families may have signs unique to them to accommodate for certain situations or to describe an object that may otherwise require fingerspelling.
Some British television channels broadcast programmes with in-vision signing, using BSL, as well as specially made programmes aimed mainly at deaf people such as the BBC's or Channel 4's. BSL is used in some educational establishments, but is not always the policy for deaf children in some local authority areas.