Improve your signing and BSL fluency by mastering 9 essential skills. Most learners realise that BSL fluency is more than learning different signs and smashing them together. If you want to be a coherent signer, you will need several skills to become fluent. Fluency doesn’t mean that you need to be proficient in all of the skills, all of the time. It just means you know what skills you need to work on to be considered a competent signer. So, how do you improve your sign language skills?
basic BSL vocabulary and grammar:
BSL consists of handshapes, signing space, lip patterns and mouth patterns, facial expressions with an appropriate signing pace, and sign vocabulary. You could practice these elements individually as some elements rely on muscle memory. For example, facial expressions are often the least used by students, either because you feel silly doing them (we’ve all been there) or just not confident matching the right facial expression with a sign.
However, elements such as appropriate facial expressions are important because they give some signs meaning. In fact, if you don’t do the appropriate facial expression, the meaning of a sign can be lost entirely. The same rule applies to lip patterns, some signs look the same (e.g. please/ thank you) and it is only the lip pattern that enables you to tell the difference between the signs.
Top tip: practice in front of a mirror. You may feel silly making faces in the mirror, but if you want to be fluent, get used to looking at yourself.
Can you communicate with any BSL user?
BSL fluency is like speech, some people will sign at speed with such in-depth, beautiful visuality that to translate it into a spoken language would take you a long time. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words and some signers are so eloquent in their use of BSL, it’s like watching poetry. These are often people we aspire to copy and sign just like them.
Equally, there are other signers who through no fault of their own, do not sign clearly. Unfortunately, our education system has let many deaf children down to such an extent that some experience language deprivation.
If you are fluent, you will be able to communicate with a range of BSL users and be able to modify your signing accordingly.
Solution: Immerse yourself in sign language. You can do this by reading BSL books, watching videos with Deaf Signers, meeting deaf people face-to-face, or connecting via a zoom group. Immersion is the easiest (and quickest) way to become fluent. It takes consistent effort on your part but your effort will pay off in the long run.
As an extra cautionary note: make sure you watch videos featuring native BSL users (i.e. profoundly deaf signers). There are many hearing signers offering videos to help you learn sign language but the videos tend to teach Sign Supported English – it’s really important for your learning to understand the difference between SSE and BSL.
Work in a specialised field? Know your jargon in BSL
If you work in a specialised job e.g. veterinary nurse, you could learn the signs for specialised terms that us ordinary folk might not understand. Knowing the basic signs in your area of expertise can really help BSL users feel at ease until a BSL interpreter attends. It will also helps you feel more confident about BSL fluency.
Top tip: what jargon do you use with customers? Make a list of words you use regularly. If you can’t find the signs online, ask your tutor or the Deaf Facebook groups
Using BSL wherever you are:
Fluent signers can use BSL at work, in group discussions, in presentations or on a one to one basis. Whatever the setting, a fluent signer will be competent in all of them.
Top tip: improve your fluency by practising BSL in different places, at home, at work. If that is not practical, think about how conversations and discussions would be signed. This will help you develop the skill of thinking in a different language and can be a huge step forward in becoming fluent. Practising BSL in different settings can also help with exams. It will help you ‘re-live events in different settings and help you remember the associated signs.
BSL fluency means…Minimal errors:
We all make mistakes when we speak or write. Have you ever written a word and looked at it again because it looks wrong? The same skill applies to BSL – sometimes when you are signing, you know what you have signed is unclear. BSL fluency means being able to subconsciously check your signing and correct your own signing errors.
Top tip: Practice copying native sign language users so you know what natural BSL feels like. This will give you a better understanding of what it feels like to sign correctly and you’ll find it easier to pick up your own mistakes and adjust your signing accordingly.
Don’t understand what is being signed? Ask for clarification
<blockquote class="signbsldata-embed" data-vidref="vpfetgtmo7"><a href="https://www.signbsl.com/sign/what">Watch how to sign 'What' in British Sign Language</a></blockquote><script async src="https://embed.signbsl.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
BSL is a visual language, so you should be able to demonstrate that you understand what someone is signing. Equally, if you don’t understand, you should be able to ask the signer to clarify what they mean. Nodding your head continuously (which many learners do) can actually be really off-putting and can sometimes lead to the suspicion that you didn’t understand anything at all. As Stephen Covey says in his book ‘The 7 habits of Highly Effective People’, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
Top tip: interrupt if you don’t understand what someone is signing and repeat the information back to the person or admit you don’t understand. Deaf people prefer you to be honest and say you don’t understand rather than pretend and allow the conversation to continue. It is also the quickest way to increase your BSL fluency – engage with the language as much as possible.
Show you understand… visually
In BSL, signers use back-channelling. Back-channelling is the use of non-manual (e.g. head nods) and manual (e.g. agreeing or disagreeing signs) BSL features that show you are actively engaged in the conversation. It also shows you understand what is being signed. Fluent BSL signers do this effortlessly and without thinking.
Top tip: practice in the mirror.
As mentioned previously, fluent BSL users make minimal errors (see above) because they can self-evaluate their own signing. For example, if you use the wrong handshape or sign, you should be able to correct yourself. Equally, fluent signers will be able to identify their own weaknesses (e.g. fingerspelling) and develop strategies to improve their weakest skills.
Top tip: watch a video clip of a native Deaf signer and practise BSL by copying their hand movements and facial expressions. After a while, you will learn what feels different (wrong) and change what you’re signing so that it makes sense to a native sign language user.
BSL fluency comes with an understanding and an appreciation of Deaf issues. Many issues are experienced daily by BSL users so you should also be able to discuss issues confidently with native sign language users.
Fluency is a journey and includes learning about Deaf culture, being sensitive to deaf issues, and learning sign language.
how quickly can you become fluent in BSL?
The million-dollar question! BSL fluency is highly dependent on your brain neuroplasticity as is the speed that you can learn a language. Learning Sign Language is no different. However, using psychological tricks to support learning BSL can help improve your proficiency.
Need more support with learning Sign Language? Check out our other study tips that will help to improve your BSL fluency.