British Sign Language

Fifty years ago British Sign Language (BSL) had no official status, and was not used in education or in any public settings. Today, an estimated 50,000-70,000 people in Britain use BSL as their preferred language.

Linguistic, sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic research beginning in the late 1970s established BSL alongside other sign languages as independent natural human languages, with groundbreaking research carried out at Moray House (University of Edinburgh), the Centre for Deaf Studies (Bristol University) and the Sign Language Linguistics Group (University of Durham).

The BSL research underpinned the campaign by the Deaf community for official recognition of the language, and in March 2003 the UK Government recognised BSL as a language in its own right.

The ESRC-funded Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) at University College London – launched in 2006 and the largest research centre in this field in Europe – has since carried out a wide range of research in areas such as the neuroscience of sign language, early language development in deaf children, and variation and change in BSL. The research also led to the development of sign language assessment tools and the first online dictionary of BSL.

Research on BSL has underpinned developments in bilingual education for deaf children, courses enabling tens of thousands of people to achieve national qualifications in BSL, the creation of the profession of sign language interpreter, and legal requirements for the provision of BSL on television. All these developments have had huge beneficial impacts on the lives of deaf children and the Deaf community.