Status of British Sign Language in Britain

A recent announcement by rail company led me to a bigger piece of news that I’d missed.

Small news

The UK train operator TransPennine Express announced in December 2022 that it would start providing departure boards in British Sign Language (BSL). TransPennine Express launches British Sign Language departure boards – Rail UK

In that announcement was a comment that BSL became a ‘recognised language in the UK’ in 2022. Following this up, I discovered that this statement is correct, though not fully accurate.

Bigger news

The British Sign Language Act received Royal Assent on 28 April 2022. The Act:

  • recognises British Sign Language (BSL) as a language of England, Wales and Scotland— though the Act also states that this recognition ‘does not affect the operation of any enactment or rule of law’.
  • places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to report on the promotion and facilitation of British Sign Language by ministerial departments in England.
  • places a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the general promotion and facilitation of British Sign Language in England.

The Act does not:

  • place any duty on the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland to report on the promotion and facilitation of BSL or to issue guidance on its promotion and facilitation.
  • apply to Northern Ireland, where 2 distinct sign languages are used: BSL and Irish Sign Language. The Act does not address Irish Sign Language.

The Parliament website contains the text of the Act https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2022/34. Also available there are explanatory notes (from the tab with that name) and a BSL version of the Act and explanatory notes (from the tab ‘more resources’).

BSL

According to the explanatory notes released by the Government:

  • BSL is the primary form of communication for nearly 90,000 UK residents, with around 150,000 signers in total.
  • In the Act, BSL does not only refer to the visual form of British Sign Language used by Deaf people. It also refers to a range of forms of British Sign Language used by Deafblind people in the UK. Those forms include tactile signing (eg ‘hands-on’ signing or ‘Deafblind manual’ fingerspelling) and ‘visual frame’ signing.
  • The vocabulary and syntax of BSL do not replicate spoken English.
  • Particularly where individuals have been Deaf from birth or early childhood, subtitles or written English are not an adequate alternative because British Sign Language is not a signed version of written or spoken English.
  • BSL is a rich, visual-gestural language with a distinctive grammar using handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning. It helps to build a sense of community and belonging for Deaf people and highlights Deaf culture, identity, community and history, reflecting unique characteristics found amongst the population of Deaf people.

For more on BSL: https://www.british-sign.co.uk/what-is-british-sign-language/

Comment

The passing of the Act seems a step forward, though only a modest one. Although ‘recognising’ BSL is an important symbolic step, this step seems to have no direct practical implication. Indeed, the explanatory notes state that the Act imposes no new costs on ministerial departments other than minor administrative costs.

The Act places a duty on the Secretary of State to produce and publish guidance. The explanatory notes state that:

  • the guidance will focus on the use of BSL in the public sector.
  • there could also be general information of wider interest, including a description of the grammatical form and linguistic approach to BSL, alongside descriptions of challenges experienced by BSL signers.

This step of ‘recognition’ does at least seem to be an advance on where we were before. The explanatory notes claim that BCL ‘was recognised as a language in its own right by a written ministerial statement to the House of Commons on 18 March 2003’.

The text of that statement is below. It seems no more than an acknowledgement that BSL exists and is a separate language. It does not confer any kind of official status.  

Statement by Secretary of Statement for Work and Pensions

The Government recognise that British Sign Language (BSL) is a language in its own right regularly used by a significant number of people. For an estimated 70,000 deaf people it is their preferred language for participation in everyday life. BSL is a visual-gestural language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

The Government understand that people who use BSL want their language to be protected and promoted in the same way some minority languages are by the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Council is considering how that might be achieved for indigenous sign languages. The Government will give careful consideration to any proposals which the Council might make.

The Government have already taken action to improve access to BSL, for example by identifying situations where it might be reasonable for employers and service providers to engage the services of a BSL/English interpreter.

The Government will be funding a discrete programme of initiatives to support this statement.

House of Commons Hansard Written Ministerial Statements for 18 Mar 2003 (pt 2) (parliament.uk)

On the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, please see https://rm.coe.int/1680695175

Language in the UK

The explanatory notes also contain some background on language in the UK:

  • there is no ‘official’ legal language of the United Kingdom.
  • the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 gives the Welsh language official status in Wales.
  • the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 established a body for promoting the use of the Gaelic language in Scotland.
  • the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 requires Scottish Ministers to promote and facilitate the promotion of BSL.

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