Inclusivity in Life and Leadership- Why I am learning BSL

Lockdown, despite being very restrictive, has proved to be a great time to learn new skills. For me, this has included learning to adapt my research to be lab-free, working on my communication and starting to acquire British Sign Language (BSL), which is what I want to focus on today.

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So, why sign language? For me, there are two key levels- the academic and the practical.

First, the boring, personal stuff. Learning BSL fits in perfectly with a clinical linguistics module that I am looking to take in my third year of university. In it, we study people with speech differences including those in the non-hearing community. Being able to relate to those who I am studying is massively important to me and will definitely help me to get the most out of that module. It's a no-brainer.

This leads me to the more practical reasons why learning how to sign is so useful:

We are living in the information age, a time where obtaining knowledge and communicating with others is more important than ever. By being able to communicate via BSL, we are opening up the opportunity to work, collaborate, and learn the perspective of those who prefer to communicate through sign. As moral leaders, it is our job to accommodate for as diverse a community as possible. We should be doing our best to fulfil this.

Next, the more people who learn to sign, the more normalised it will become to wider society. Since the UK is a largely monolingual population, I see no reason why we should not learn BSL as an alternative method of communication when the majority of the populous does not speak a second language. Some higher education providers seem to agree with me- UCL has done an impressive amount of work into their Signbank initiative, as well as giving students an opportunity to learn how to sign. If other universities followed in their wake, inclusivity would follow. It is awesome to think about.

Finally, BSL is so interesting as an independent language (not just as a version of English). Where the vast majority of languages use speech to communicate, signing is completely based off of gesticulation and facial expression. Sign language is one of the only types of language in the world that does not heavily rely on the spoken word, which is honestly just super cool! What is even cooler is that despite not having a spoken element, BSL has its own forms of regional variation, meaning that signs can vary from area to area depending on where you are in the country or even the world! I genuinely did not even consider how this would even exist until I started learning how to sign.

As a linguist, BSL has not only given me a chance to learn a new language but also consider how the non-hearing community thrive on more than just the signs themselves. There is variation and a deep culture that goes so much further than just making signs. I hope that going into more depth will not only strengthen me academically but also personally and as a leader.

If you want to learn more about BSL or learn how to sign yourself, I highly recommend checking out They an authority on the subject and I really hope that you find something useful on the site!

Credit for the banner image also goes to British Sign :)

Cath Brislane

Subject Lead/ Undergraduate Scholar, University of York

I am a final-year undergraduate scholar pursuing a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Linguistics at the University of York. Besides being a scholar, I am the Arts and Humanities Subject Lead on the Scholar's Network and the 2020-22 Arts and Humanities faculty rep at the University of York! My first summer of research was based in phonetics, entitled 'The untapped potential of human language: Investigating the perception of typologically unattested and rare sounds'. In it, I get to look at phonemes that are not commonly found in speech, if at all!

My Leadership in Action project was based around the experiences of students with disabilities and long-term health conditions when accessing Higher Education in the UK. I'm currently creating teacher training based on the paper I wrote for this project, and working with UCAS to help inform UK university admissions policy.