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What’s the Difference between ASL & BSL?

Your desire to know about the differences between ASL and BSL is quite interesting. But to know the specific answer, you must look into the details. As we can see, there are thousands of languages used worldwide, and sign languages are also not universal. There are between 138 and 300 different types of sign languages used throughout the world today. That is not the end of it. New sign languages are frequently evolving amongst deaf children and adults. ASL and BSL are two of the sign languages. You can also find other languages such as French sign language, Chinese sign language, Irish sign language, Brazilian sign language, Indo-Pakistan sign language. Let’s dive in to know more about these languages. 

Sign language does not represent spoken language

You must be thinking that sign languages are inspired by spoken languages. But the exciting part is, it’s not! Sign languages are developed based on proximity and interaction with others, not the spoken language of a country. For example, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) use English as their spoken language but use completely different sign languages.

Sign languages have their own grammar

Like spoken and written languages, sign language also has its own grammar to make meaningful sentences. There are rules for well-formed sentences in every sign language. For example, sign language uses the space in front of the signer and the right kind of eyebrow position. They use spaces to show who did what to whom by pointing. However, some verbs point to both the subject and object of the verb, some point only to the object, and some don’t point at all. Eyebrows should be down while meaning who-what-where-when-why question and up for a yes/no question. Well, if you use the rules wrong or inconsistently, you will have a “foreign” accent! Every individual takes time to adopt sign languages. And through the time being, they develop various insights. Babies start by “babbling” with their hands. When they first start producing meaningful signs, they replace easier handshapes for more difficult ones, making “cute” baby pronunciations. 

ASL or America Sign Language

American Sign Language, mostly known as ASL, is primarily a visual language used by the Deaf community. It is mainly used in the US and parts of Canada, to a small extent in West Africa and Southeast Asia.  Around 250,000-500,000 people in the United States claim that ASL is their native sign language which is quite a large number. The 10 states of America that officially recognise ASL as the official language of the deaf people in those states are Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah. Some experts believe that ASL is developed based on French Sign Language. But in reality, it was also influenced by Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and other local sign languages. 

American Sign Language or ASL has its own syntax and rules of grammar. It changes over time and has common linguistic properties like other languages. ASL consists of various facial expressions, specific signals, body movements, use of physical space, one-handed fingerspelling, and signing, which varies based on handshape, palm orientation, location, and movement. 

BSL or British Sign Language 

Just like ASL, British Sign Language, or BSL, is a visual language used by the Deaf community mostly in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Around 150,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language. This is a very old sign language that evolved at Thomas Braidwood’s schools for the deaf in the late 1700s and early 1800s. And then it spread to Australia and New Zealand. That is why you can see Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and New Zealand Sign Language are, therefore, quite similar because they use the same grammar, the same manual alphabet, and much of the same vocabulary. 

Again some sign language experts claim that BSL, Auslan, and New Zealand Sign Language are dialects of the same sign language, called British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language, or BANZSL for short. Despite the high degree of overlap, there are also differences between the different branches of the BANZSL family. For example, Māori words are included in New Zealand Sign Language. It also contains signs from Australasian Sign Language, a type of signed English used by New Zealand schools for the deaf in the 1980s. In the beginning, Auslan includes some signs derived from Irish Sign Language, as well. Deaf Indigenous Australians may use Auslan or one of the native Australian sign languages unrelated to Auslan. The dialect of Far North Queensland incorporates features of these indigenous sign languages, too.

ASL and BSL are Different Languages

ASL and BSL both have similar fundamental features of sign languages, such as the use of classifiers, and topic-comment syntax, but they are different languages. They have a long list of differences. But the most significant difference between ASL and BSL is the use of a one-handed manual alphabet in ASL and a two-handed manual alphabet in BSL.

ASL is so completely different from BSL in terms of the alphabet and numbers. For example, the vowels in BSL are done using your thumb and four fingers, and there is a lot of two-handed work for the rest of the alphabet. On the other hand, the vowels in ASL and the rest of the alphabet are done with one hand.

Though there is numerous overlap in vocabulary and similarity in signs, ASL and BSL are unrelated sign languages, completely separate and distinct. The people using ASL and BSL cannot be understood by each other’s users. Even after adopting language features or vocabulary from one another, they still remain pretty unique, which is the exact case with ASL and BSL.

Another big difference is that there is a lot of fingerspelling in ASL, whereas BSL users mainly use it for proper nouns such as names, places – when first said. But once you’ve given the name, you would use someone’s sign name or initial it in case they don’t have one. Place names tend to have signs to mean it- some are obvious, but others require local knowledge to understand the origin. Sign languages are the practice of using proper grammatical elements, vocabulary, and colloquialisms. 

July 5, 2021

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