Sussex Centre for Language Studies

British Sign Language and Deaf Culture pathway


About the pathway

The pathway comprises two strands: you will learn British Sign Language (BSL) to Intermediate level (B1 or B2 on the Common European Framework of Reference); and you will study aspects of Deaf culture, developing an awareness and greater understanding of the Deaf community.

The pathway is not open to students who have already achieved Level 2 proficiency in BSL.

Pathway structure

A pathway harnesses four or six 15-credit modules over consecutive terms (totalling 60 or 90 credits). Each module is a continuation of the previous module.

All pathways begin in Term 1 of the first year of study and are either completed in Term 4 in the second year of study, or Term 6 in the final year of study.

PathwayYear 1Year 2Year 3
Term 1Term 2Term 1Term 2Term 1Term 2
15 credits 15 credits 15 credits 15 credits 15 credits 15 credits
1 BSL & Deaf Culture 60 credit Pathway BSL 1A BSL 1B BSL 2A BSL 2B    
 2 BSL & Deaf Culture 90 credit Pathway

Fourth year

If you began your studies of BSL and Deaf Culture in the Foundation Year, you might be able to progress to the fourth year of this pathway. There is no change in the title on your certificate but you will progress to B2/+. If your intention is supported by the school of your main study, you will be asked to complete an application for a change of study.

How you'll study

Each BSL module involves a combination of class time and directed study time. You will need to allow a considerable amount of personal study time (around eight hours each week on average) in order to make the anticipated progress, particularly to learn and practise sign language. Your progress is continuously assessed throughout the modules and some assessments will count towards your final grade.


Language modules follow the elective academic calendar and will show on your individual timetable. You will have four hours of tuition every week, timetabled as two sessions of two hours. First year modules within the language pathways are usually timetabled at set times: Monday 9.00-10.50, Tuesday 13.00-14.50 and Thursday 11.00-12.50.

What you'll study

For the BSL strand there are four (or six) stages of study – from ab initio (beginner) to Upper-Intermediate (A1 to B1/+ on the CEFR). All students will start at ab initio level and must begin in term 1 of year 1.

The BSL and Deaf culture pathway aims to help you develop the skills to express yourself in a language that uses your hands and eyes, rather than your ears and mouth. Once you have learnt some of the basic rules and some signs, it is possible to start communicating very quickly: sign language is very much like a movie on the hands.

In common with other languages, assessments will require you to demonstrate your language competency through understanding a signed conversation and practical communication using BSL where, for example, you reply to a question in BSL or re-tell what someone else has signed.

In addition you will have opportunities to encounter sign language poetry, visual vernacular, Deaf humour and possibly even some sign singing.

There will be occasions to observe and engage with a local Deaf community and to carry out a project in relation to British Sign Language and Deaf culture, potentially also linked to your major discipline.

The tutor for the course will be using BSL from the outset so BSL will be the standard language of the class and not English. This approach to teaching is called 'full immersion', where all teaching will be taught in sign language. The Deaf culture lectures/seminars will also be taught in BSL but a voiceover into English will be provided.

What you will achieve

A two-year pathway leads to an award of '... with British Sign Language and Deaf Culture'; for example:
BSc (Hons) in Psychology with British Sign Language and Deaf Culture
BA (Hons) English Language and Linguistics with British Sign Language and Deaf Culture

In addition, students who successfully complete the two-year pathway will reach an equivalent to Level 2 from Signature. This is a recognised stepping stone for further study of BSL.

A three-year pathway leads to a degree award of '... with British Sign Language'; for example:
BA (Hons) Childhood and Youth: Theory and Practice with British Sign Language
BSc (Hons) in Marketing and Management with British Sign Language

Students who are studying for a degree with a Language minor (such as Sociology with a Language, BA (Hons)) will follow the 90-credit pathway.

Learning BSL will enable you to communicate with 156,000 Deaf people in the UK who have their own unique community, culture and heritage. Its history spans thousands of years. BSL goes beyond gestures and sign systems, it is the language of a social cultural minority group ­– Deaf people.

Career opportunities

Where will I be able to use BSL in the future?

BSL is used in numerous contexts and knowledge of BSL and Deaf culture can enhance your prospects in certain vocational fields such as education, child development, social work, and care.

Further study at postgraduate level will lead to qualifications for sign language interpreting or as a bilingual professional.

Additionally, as British Sign Language is similar to languages used in South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand, this can offer further choice and help you to communicate with people who may not share your spoken language(s) but do use gesture.

Frequently Asked Questions

The British Sign Language and Deaf Culture elective pathways offer two strands within the curriculum enabling students to study and begin to master the language of BSL as well as to learn about the customs and cultural norms of the local/global communities who use sign language.

Below are some of the common questions students ask when they consider opting for BSL as a language elective:

Is British Sign Language a language?

Yes. BSL has a 300 year history and was first taught in British schools in 1760. The last 50 years of academic research on sign language linguistics and language studies has enabled us to describe BSL as a bona fide language. BSL was officially recognised as a language in the UK in 2003. It is a Modern Language of the UK, with a status similar to Welsh, Cornish, and Scottish Gaelic.

What is MaKaTon?

MaKaTon is a communication system where BSL signs from the 1960s were borrowed and used with spoken English. It was created for the purposes of communicating with people who have learning disabilities, and not necessarily Deaf people. MaKaTon is not a language.

Is learning BSL easier than learning other languages?

Yes and no. If you are already used to communicating visually, such as using your hands for gesture and expressing your feelings with facial expressions, learning the basics of BSL will come easily to you. Grammatically, sign language is complex because some features do not have a spoken language equivalence.

Does BSL use the same grammar structure as English?

No, it does not. For example, BSL does not use SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT word order (e.g. John eats the apple). Instead, BSL uses TOPIC-COMMENT, where the topic can be the subject, verb or object. In this case, the topic is the apple, therefore APPLE JOHN EAT. More challenging perhaps is that the sign for EAT changes depending on what is eaten!

Can BSL be written?

A written form of the language does not exist. The equivalent to ‘writing’ in BSL is fingerspelling, where the letters are written on the hand.

How can I prepare myself to learn BSL?

There are many resources on the internet that provide courses in self-directed learning, some are free. Additionally, consider some of these strategies:

  • You will need to remember new signs. Make a note of them and practise how you might use the sign in a sentence.
  • Be prepared to practise signing in front of other people.
  • Practise signing outside class time - for every hour you learn BSL in class, you need to spend the same amount of time practising outside class.
  • Extra-curricular activities such as finding a Language Buddy, attending the Language Café
  • Find an activity which interests you and which will motivate you to learn the language, e.g. translate your favourite song or watch a play in sign language.

What about Deaf culture?

Deaf culture is, in part, about understanding the way Deaf people behave and share communication strategies with their peers. Some examples:

  • Making eye contact when you sign;
  • Attracting a Deaf person's attention by 'shoulder tapping'. Be prepared to make appropriate physical contact with peers;
  • Your facial expressions are part of the sign language grammar. Be prepared to express yourself through your eyebrow, eye, mouth, shoulder movements.

Is learning BSL right for me?

BSL is a public skill. You will spent much time in class looking at others, practising with your colleagues and signing in front of a camera as you will be frequently asked to demonstrate what you have learnt. The course is designed to build your confidence gradually but learners need to be prepared to accept this intimate interaction!

What do I do if I have no credits available?

SCLS offers an extensive range of extra-curricular language courses. Look at the courses on the Open Courses/Languages for Life pages.