differences between asl and bsl

What are the 3 Main differences between ASL and BSL?

What are the main differences between ASL and BSL? At first glance, you know they are both signed languages but how different are they? Can a person using ASL understand someone using BSL and vice versa? We explain the three key differences between British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL). So, let’s dive in!

Sign Language: A Visual-Gestural Language

All sign languages are visual-gestural languages. They rely on visuals rather than sound. Sign languages use elements such as:

  • facial expressions,
  • hand shapes,
  • movement and location of signs to convey meaning.

All languages, like English, have grammatical rules. Signed languages are no different. They also have grammatical rules. But, the rules for visual-gestural languages differ from those for spoken languages.

Beginners often mistake sign language for mime or gesturing. In reality, all languages have gesturing (such as shrugging one’s shoulders). What learners see as a gesture can often be a complete signed sentence full of meaning.

As the saying goes,” A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Differences: ASL and BSL

1. The Manual Alphabet

BSL is the sign language used in the U.K. and has unique characteristics. One noticeable difference between BSL and ASL is the manual alphabet. BSL uses the two-handed manual alphabet, whereas ASL uses a one-handed alphabet. In ASL, one hand creates all the letters, including the vowels.

In BSL, the fingers of the non-dominant hand represent the vowels. The dominant hand then points to each letter on the non-dominant hand.

Since both countries use English, you would expect both signed languages to be similar. Interestingly, ASL is descended from Old French Sign Language. In contrast, BSL has had no significant outside influence. This is probably why the BSL manual alphabet has remained the same for centuries.

2. Iconicity

Iconicity in sign language refers to the ‘image’ chosen as the focus for a sign.

Comparison sign for coffee:

In ASL, the sign for coffee copies the movement of an old coffee grinder grinding coffee beans.

In BSL, the sign coffee copies the movement of drinking from a cup using the ‘C’ handshape.

This example shows the difference in ‘iconicity’ of what is signed. It also highlights how signs are linked to culture. Most Brits have never owned a coffee grinder, but it is likely a common kitchen appliance in the U.S.

Variations in vocabulary also occur within particular sign language communities. BSL users, for instance, have sign variations across regions. There are also variations in ethnic dialects, which add to BSL’s diversity.

The same applies to ASL. For example, there are sign variations created by people of colour. Black ASL has variations in the terms used within the Black community. There are also variations from region to region, even within Black ASL. So, someone in Texas will use a slightly different set of signs than someone in New York.

3. Vocabulary

Vocabulary is different. For example, chips/fries are different words with the same meaning. These differences are in spoken English, so signs would be different too. Other words that are different include biscuit/cookie, trousers/pants, sweater/jumper,

You can check out some other differences in this YouTube clip by Learn How to Sign

Despite the differences, both BSL and ASL possess the same potential for expressing subtle, technical, and complex meanings as spoken languages. Sign language users can convey a wide range of emotions, ideas, and concepts through movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language.

ASL and BSL Similarities: Sign Linguistics

Both ASL and BSL use:

  • Location: changing where a sign is placed will change the meaning of the sign
  • Movement: how fast or slow you move a sign can tell you about the action, e.g. eating quickly
  • Handshape: an essential building block to forming a sign
  • Palm orientation: changing palm orientation will change the meaning of a sign
  • Facial expression (or non-manual features): can act like adverbs

Both sign languages have the same topic-comment sentence structure.

Some other notable similarities include signing emotions. Both ASL and BSL have emotions linked and placed in the chest area.

Embracing the Diversity of Sign Languages

The existence of multiple sign languages, such as BSL and ASL, highlights the rich diversity within Deaf communities worldwide. Sign language is not universal.

It is important to celebrate and appreciate the unique features and cultural nuances of each sign language. This recognition fosters inclusivity and understanding of visual language, promoting a world where Deaf individuals can express themselves freely and comfortably.

International sign

There are so many different sign languages. Each language uses different signs representing standard terms. Unfortunately, there is no universal sign language. Instead, deaf people use International Sign Language (or ‘Gestuno’ as it used to be known).

International Sign Language (ISL) is used for major events. These include World Federation of the Deaf meet-ups, Miss Deaf World events, and the Deaflympics. ISL does not follow any particular sign language. Instead it relies on more gestural signing and a large signing space.

Resources For Learning ASL And BSL

If you want to learn BSL, check out our course lists on our BSL Basics or BSL Level 1 pages. Websites like Signworld offer comprehensive learning materials for beginners and advanced learners alike.

If you want to learn ASL, websites such as Start ASL and ASL University provide a wealth of resources.


Sign language is not universal. Different countries and communities have developed their own sign languages over time. British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are two of many sign languages that have unique qualities.

By appreciating the differences between BSL and ASL, we acknowledge and value the variety and depth of sign languages.


Can BSL users understand ASL?

Yes and no. Some signs are the same. For example, time and car. Signs are likely to be different where there are culturally different words e.g. cookie and biscuit.

how many sign languages are there?

According to the United Nations, there are over 300 signed languages worldwide. English-speaking countries tend to have sign languages that are closely related. For example, BSL is part of the BANZSL group of sign languages. BANZL includes British, Australian (AUSLAN) and New Zealand sign language (NZSL).

Why are there different types of sign languages?

Sign languages are like spoken languages. They have regional and cultural variations because signs were created and used in a locality.

Sign languages also vary in the object, action, activity, or place used to create a sign. In the past, signs that were created would be culturally relevant. For example, the sign in BSL for cutlery (knife and fork) is also the sign for the town of Sheffield.

Sheffield is known globally for making steel. Since cutlery is made from stainless steel, it makes sense that the sign for Sheffield describes a product made there.

Is it better to learn ASL or BSL?

If you live in the UK, learn British Sign Language (BSL). If you live in America, learn American Sign Language (ASL). Find a class or course in your area to make sure you learn the correct regional signs.

Which is used more widely ASL or BSL?

ASL will be more widely used because more people live in the U.S than in the U.K

Does England use ASL or BSL?

The whole of the UK, including England, uses British Sign Language (BSL).

How do you sign sentences in BSL?

What is BSL linguistics?

Deaf Culture and Deaf History