Schoolchildren will soon be able to study British Sign Language (BSL) as a GCSE. The target is for schools to be able to teach it from September 2025.
As part of the GCSE, students will be taught at least 750 signs and how to use them to communicate effectively with other signers in work, social and academic settings. The GCSE assumes no previous knowledge of BSL.
People generally take GCSEs around the age of 16, but can take them at any age.
Status of BSL in Great Britain
BSL was recognised in law as a language of Great Britain in the BSL Act (2022). Status of British Sign Language in Britain – Language Miscellany
A document British Sign Language: GCSE subject content, setting out the subject aims and content coverage required for GCSEs in British Sign Language (BSL) is available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/658065736113b6000d194cb2/British_Sign_Language_GCSE_subject_content.pdf. The document sets out specifications for the exam boards (‘awarding bodies’) that will develop the GCSE syllabuses and exams.
In summary, GCSE specifications in BSL should allow students to demonstrate that they, among other things:
- understand that BSL is a language with a distinct grammar (syntax and morphology, including the productive lexicon), semantics (sign meanings/vocabulary) and pragmatics (rules of use);
- can recall, understand and produce commonly used vocabulary from the established lexicon;
- can use BSL accurately (including non-manual features: facial expression, eye contact and body position); and
- can construct grammatically appropriate sign sentences to communicate and interact in a range of scenarios.
Interestingly, students will be able to use regional variation that fulfils task requirements, as appropriate.
Students will be expected to learn at least 750 signs, as well as:
- numerals (including cardinals and ordinals). Students will be expected to understand and correctly produce their regional variant form of BSL numerals.
- the 26 letters of the British two-handed manual alphabet (finger spellings) used, for example, in loan signs and in representing English personal names and place names.
The document provides an advisory list of signs that exam boards could use in selecting vocabulary when writing GCSE specifications in BSL. The list gives the English translations of the signs, it does not illustrate or describe the signs themselves.
Established and productive lexicon
Signs in BSL can be divided into those that are part of the established lexicon and those that are part of the productive lexicon:
- the established lexicon of BSL signs that are codified in existing dictionaries. These signs can be self-standing and understood out of context. The established lexicon is smaller than in other languages.
- the productive lexicon uses grammatical (morphological) rules to combine components into new meanings and forms. Elements of sign formation include handshape, movement, and non-manual features.
Students of the BSL GCSE will need to understand the visual motivation (sometimes called ‘iconicity’) for the structure of many BSL signs. Visual motivation also underlies the grammatical use of space to reflect spatial relationships. However, other BSL signs are not visually motivated and have an arbitrary relationship with their referents.
The document mentions something I hadn’t heard of before: list buoys. List buoys are numeral signs used to enumerate entities. They are formed on one hand while the other hand keeps on signing, or while it refers to the digits of the list buoy. They help guide the discourse by serving as conceptual landmarks. For example, in ‘There are 4 people in my family: my father, my mother, my older sister, and me’, the non-dominant hand maintains the handshape of the numeral 4, while the dominant hand enumerates the family members.
This is an interesting example of something that is presumably not possible by using spoken language alone, though it is possible in written language, particularly using accompanying graphics: keeping the signifier for the number of items visible while running through the enumeration. In spoken language, this can only be achieved by either:
- using a visual aid (for example, a slide); or
- saying explicitly in introducing each item in the list where that item sits on the list. I learnt this important rhetorical device nearly 30 years ago from my then boss, who used to use this device to make his speeches much easier to follow.
History of British Sign Language
The GCSE will devote 15% of its content to the history of British Sign Language. Students will also need to show that they know and understand the history of BSL, including:
- how the use of BSL has evolved over time;
- how new vocabulary enters BSL; and
- understanding that BSL is distinctive from other languages, including American Sign Language and English, and has been influenced by them. For example, BSL signed sentences may differ from English in structure and word/sign order.
To enable new learners of the language to engage with the history content, it is not expected that specifications would require the use of BSL in teaching the history of BSL.