Support for deaf children aged 0 to 5 years: Guide

Hitchins, A. Lewis, S. Holmans, A. Grover, A. Wakefield, T. Cormier, K. Rowley, K. Macsweeney, M. | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

British Sign Language and Bilingualism

BSL is a natural and visual language with its own grammar and vocabulary.  People who use BSL use the hands, face and body to communicate.  BSL users can develop language at a similar rate to spoken language development provided that they are exposed to sufficiently high quality input and interaction.  Therefore if parents are choosing this route they must be able to sign fluently and confidently with their babies.  There are BSL classes available locally for parents wishing to learn..

In order to develop a sign language like BSL, deaf children should be exposed to other peers of the same age using sign language, as well as deaf adult signing models.  It is possible to set these up for your child. The NDCS have a range of family support resources for accessing BSL.  There are many online resources for learning BSL, such as:

Sign World Learn

NDCS Family Sign Language  This website demonstrates some BSL vocabulary, and  has videos of parents sharing stories with their child etc. It is necessary to activate Adobe flash to use this site.

BSL Sign Bank

Some parents and professionals worry that learning a sign language will affect speech development.  A definitive answer as to whether sign language will delay or promote speech development has yet to be found.  There is ongoing research addressing this (for different views, see for example: Humphries et al., 201640; Geers et al., 201741).  Other research shows that having an accessible first language, whatever the modality, provides deaf children with a firm foundation to learn other languages, including spoken languages42,43.

The main communication approach which uses sign is Sign Bilingualism.  ‘Bilingual’ means being able to use two different languages successfully.  In Sign Bilingualism in the UK, the languages are British Sign Language (or Irish Sign Language in Ireland) and whatever is the spoken language of the home.  In families where parents are themselves deaf, BSL may well of course also be the language of the home.  Children learn British Sign Language as their first language, and then learn English later as a second language.

Makaton and Sign Language

Makaton is designed to help hearing people with learning or communication difficulties.  It uses signs and symbols, with speech, in spoken word order.  It is used sometimes with deaf children with complex needs for whom a complete language may be unattainable.

Wherever Makaton is used in the world, the signs from the sign language of that country are used.  Our sign advisors select signs that look like a word and are easy to make.  Once a sign is selected to be used with Makaton this becomes the sign that is used across the whole country.  For more information see

The NDCS Family Sign Language website demonstrates different communication styles in families using sign language.  This website also demonstrates some BSL vocabulary, and videos of parents sharing stories with their child etc. It is necessary to activate Adobe flash to use this site.