The Importance of Sign Language

Author: Adam Heppell

Date: Tuesday 4th May 2021

Sign language is a visual means of communicating using gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Sign language is used mainly by people who are deaf or have hearing impairments although SL is also used by those who may have other communication difficulties both long and short term.  Contrary to common belief, sign language is not used worldwide.

British Sign Language

Despite being present several decades beforehand, British Sign Language (BSL) was only recognised as an official minority language as late as 2003. BSL is slowly gaining more traction and recognition. BSL is not a direct replacement for spoken English, in that it has its own vocabulary and sentence structure. 

BSL is the most widely used form of sign language in the UK. According to the British Deaf Association, of the 151,000 BSL users in the U.K, just 87,000 are considered deaf.

Sign Supported English

Sign Supported English is an alternative variation of BSL. It uses BSL signs, but the structure and grammar are based on spoken English. For this reason, it is considered an easier strand to learn as it does not require prior knowledge of BSL grammar. If one is not fluent with SSE then it may also be possible to communicate by clearly mouthing words, although this would rely on the other person being able to lip-read.


Unlike sign language, Makaton involves signs that are used alongside speech and in word order.

It is estimated that 100,000 children and adults use Makaton symbols and signs, either as their main method of communication or as a way to support  underdeveloped speech or as a temporary means while speech is improving during recovery from an accident.

If Makaton is used by extended family and friends, it can be a way of making somebody feel included in a conversation which can often be a source of frustration for those who struggle to communicate for any reason.

Like BSL and more specifically Sign Supported English, Makaton can also be used in schools, to support all children to develop communication, language and literacy skills.  It also supports integration, as children with and without language difficulties can communicate learn, and play. It could also increase the awareness of impairments for other children while giving somebody affected more confidence.

The complete Makaton Language Programme comprises two vocabularies. Firstly a Core Vocabulary of essential words and concepts of increasing complexity, before a larger, open-ended, topic-based vocabulary that expands to include signs and symbols for broader life situations.

All forms of sign language are vital to giving people their voice and making everybody feel included.

Pandemic Effect

According to the RNID, hearing loss can lead to withdrawal from social situations, emotional distress and depression. Research shows that it increases the risk of loneliness.

The ongoing pandemic and lockdown restrictions have exacerbated many issues already experienced by deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users and interpreters. A recent example might be that during the PM’s Coronavirus briefings, there is no sign language visible on set for those that need it.

Due to lockdown restrictions, access to face-to-face sign language interpretation services and BSL provisions have been reduced. According to the charity, SignHealth, a deaf person’s mental health and ability to access basic healthcare have been seriously and disproportionately impacted by measures taken to combat the pandemic.

Research conducted by the National Registers of Communication Professionals in 2015, showed there were just 908 registered sign language interpreters, a further 234 trainee sign language interpreters, and 11 registered sign language translators.

The clamour for basic sign language to be taught in schools is increasing. Online courses are currently available.

Help and Support 

British Sign

The Makaton Charity

Signed Language (SSE)

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