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Learning sign language

Learning sign languageLike other languages, learning sign language can broaden your horizons and enhance your career.

Who needs to know sign language?

Many people learn sign language for personal reasons, but it can also be useful in a number of careers. For example:

  • Teaching assistants who know British Sign Language (BSL) offer learning support to hearing-impaired pupils
  • Interpreters help hearing-impaired people to communicate in a variety of contexts, such as when in hospital or dealing with legal issues
  • Carers who know BSL can provide better care for hearing-impaired people who need it

Even in roles that don't specifically need BSL, it can be useful if you come into contact with hearing-impaired people.

Which sign language should I learn?

As with spoken languages, there is more than one sign language. Examples include:

  • British Sign Language (BSL): used by deaf people in the UK, and has its own grammar and dialects
  • Sign Supported English (SSE): uses signs for important words to support spoken English, making it easier for hard-of-hearing people to follow speech
  • Signed English (SE): uses signs, but with the same grammar as English, making it easier for hearing people to learn but less practical for everyday use
  • Makaton: combines signs, speech and picture symbols to make it easier for people with learning or communication difficulties to communicate

For most careers using sign language, BSL will be the most useful. Learning enough signs to use SSE may help you to communicate in some situations. Makaton may be useful if you want to work with very young children or people with learning difficulties.

Remember that BSL won't be useful everywhere that English is spoken. While Australian Sign Language is similar to BSL, American Sign Language (ASL) is very different, and has more in common with French Sign Language.

How to learn

As with other languages, you can learn BSL from a taught course at a college, one-to-one tuition, or an online distance-learning course.

Some universities also offer Deaf Studies degrees, which can combine learning BSL with studying other issues around deafness.

Find out more about ways to learn languages.

BSL qualifications

BSL qualifications are available from colleges, universities and specialist institutions. There are three main types of qualification available:

  • Signature qualifications, available at levels 1-3 (roughly equivalent to GCSE and A-level) and level 6 (roughly equivalent to an undergraduate degree). These may also include an NVQ.
  • Institute of British Sign Language qualifications, available at levels 1-4.
  • Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications, available in Scotland at levels 1-3.

Extra skills

Many careers using BSL will require additional skills as well as proficiency in BSL. For example:

  • Interpretation requires extra training, as well as high-level qualifications in both BSL and English.
  • Awareness of Deaf culture will make you better at working with hearing-impaired people.
  • Care and support roles will require additional skills and training, as will working with children.
  • Other ways of helping hearing-impaired people to communicate, such as lip-speaking or note-taking, can help you to work with more people more easily

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