sse bsl makaton what's the difference

BSL, SSE, or Makaton – what’s the difference?

To the untrained eye BSL, SSE and Makaton look the same. However, there are  distinct differences between all three communication methods which will be explained below:

Makaton vs BSL:

Learners often become confused about BSL and Makaton because they look similar to each other. Makaton also looks easy to understand. One reason is that we naturally use gestures as part of our daily communication without even realising it. Our brains easily identify universal gestures that we have seen all our life.

You may see terms such as ‘Makaton signs’. However, Makaton is not a language but a communication system that ‘borrows’ gestures or signs from British Sign Language. It is often used by people with learning difficulties because it has been designed to be easy to understand.

Makaton is always used with speech and the gestures are used in speech order. They are usually very simplified gestures. For example to show eating, involves the hand moving towards the mouth and at the same time saying food, hungry or eat. Makaton uses individual hand signs from BSL. You can’t use Makaton for more complex information such as describing a timeline of events that happened in the past or will happen in the future.

Children’s TV programmes such as Mr Tumble use Makaton. This has helped raise awareness of alternative, more visual forms of communication. Makaton is so easy to use, it can even be used with pre-lingual babies to make communication easier.

For further details about Makaton, you can look at the Makaton charity website

SSE vs Makaton vs BSL:

SSE stands for Sign Supported English which is more closely related to Makaton than to BSL. SSE follows written or spoken English so signs are used in English word order. It is not a language in its own right but can make spoken English more visual.

Who uses sign Supported English?

Learners usually start using basic signs with English lip patterns until they understand the linguistic elements in BSL. You may also find deaf or deafened people who learn sign language later in life use SSE.

SSE can be useful in education particularly if specific words or phrases need to be explained and the communicator is not aware of the BSL equivalent.

As mentioned previously, SSE like Makaton can be useful for people who have communication difficulties and do not or cannot use speech.

SSE is also used for signed songs. Many hearing people perform signed songs but incorrectly label them as BSL signed songs. They are nearly always SSE as they follow written English in the lyrics. On rare occasions, signed songs are performed by deaf native sign language users:


British Sign Language ‘is a visual-gestural language that uses hand shapes, space, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning’(BDA). Sign language has a different grammatical structure to English so you cannot speak English and sign at the same time.

BSL is the first or main language of Deaf people in the UK. It is cherished among native sign language users and is the foundation for a rich history and culture. In fact, the earliest recorded use of sign language dates back to the 16th century.

Sign language is like any other language in that it has regional variations. The variations are like accents so there are signs that are specific to areas of the UK that are not used anywhere else.

Sign Language was recognised as a language in the UK in March 2003. Since then Scotland has enacted the BSL Act (2015) which requires public bodies to make information accessible in BSL. Wales and Northern Ireland are also potentially giving BSL legal status through a BSL Act. The BDA is currently campaigning to have a similar law in England. 

Need to learn more?

Did you know there are other communication methods such as Piaget Gorman signed speech system? There are many other communication methods that BSL learners discover along the BSL fluency journey.

So, an easy way to remember the difference is this: both SSE and Makaton use and need English to convey meaning, BSL does not.

You can discover the different elements of BSL in our guides. Perhaps you need to understand how space is used, or why facial expressions are used in BSL. Check out our guides to help you improve your BSL.