Learner's Handbook

Learners' Handbook


Signworld's products for Learners are powerful, easy-to-use tools, to support independent or course-based learning. To help you get the maximum benefits from using our products, this Handbook gives some guidelines to best usage - how best to use all of our features, and to take full advantage of what we have to offer.

This is followed by some cultural information to help broaden your background understanding and develop a richer all-round knowledge of British Sign Language.

You may find it convenient to print out this handbook and keep it by you as a hard copy when you are working through the Level. (If you don’t feel the need to do so, of course, Signworld and the environment will be quite happy!)

1. Planning your learning

As each Level is linked to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), it saves you a lot of the time-consuming work in planning out lessons - everything has been structured for you already, and everything is compliant with the curriculum framework used in all academic language-learning courses in Europe. This structure will also give you valuable support if you’re following either a Signature or a BDA-curriculum course. The important thing is that you take things at your own pace.

Depending on your mood or signing experience, you are free to start wherever you want, and to take each lesson in any order you like. Just don't forget to make sure you haven't missed anything out! Once you complete a Signworld Level, you should be much readier and more confident to go for an assessment to take the equivalent qualification.

2. A walkthrough of Levels

a) There are 10 Lessons in every Level. Every Lesson has a title, which describes the theme of that Lesson, e.g. ‘Personal Details and Family’. You can start at Lesson 1, or wherever else you fancy or feel ready for.

b) In each Lesson, there are 6 Stories. The first thing you will see is a green video box and a sidebar showing the 10 Phrases of which this Story is made up.

This is where learning through immersion starts. Watch this video until you have a good, comfortable feel of the pace. Depending how much you already know, you may even get the gist of it, or be able to pick out and understand some signs!

Then when you're ready, go through the list of Phrases. All of these phrases are taken from the main video, and broken into bite-size clips for you to concentrate on in turn. With them, you can watch, learn, copy and practise any way you want until you're ready to move on to the next one.

Within Level 1 & 2, the stories and the first phrase you see are signs from the London/ SE England region. There are 14 regional variations where they have different signs, so you would need to click on each phrase to see if there is a regional variation for your region and then follow that. If your region doesn't appear on the list of regional variations for each phrase, then it means that the signs are the same as the London/SE England region. You will find that some phrases have lots of regional variations and other phrases have only a few.

We would encourage you to get as much as you can out of the signing alone. But, if you feel you need a hand, the video for every Phrase contains English subtitles. These can be turned on by clicking the 'CC' button at the bottom of the video. Here we must include a health warning – as the subtitles are in English, they do NOT reflect the grammar and syntax of BSL, so the signs will be in a different order to the English subtitles. We strongly advise you not to depend only on the subtitles as a way of learning. Subtitles are a useful aid, but you will know you're really ready when you don't need the subtitles to understand the clips! So, in short, the subtitles are there to give you a helping hand, and it's down to you to know when you've improved enough to switch them off.

After going through all the phrases, you can go back to the main Story and practise again. When you've done all six Stories and you feel you're ready and have a good understanding, you can move on.

c) Click on the 'Grammar' button next to ‘Stories’ and it will show you some grammatical notes relevant to the contents of this Lesson. These will help a lot in understanding how the grammar of BSL works, and give you a better grasp of the foundations of the language. As ever, read and use at your own pace.

d) Click on 'Questions' and this will take you to a series of 10 clips in every Lesson showing you how questions are formed in BSL. All of the questions are linked to the Lesson topic, and are there for you to study and make note of how people ask questions in BSL, and how the tone and facial expressions change accordingly. If you like, you can practise answering these questions.

e) When you move on to 'Tests', you'll finally be able to start checking out how much you’ve learned and start practising yourself! There are two kinds of Tests: Receptive and Productive. Receptive tests check your understanding of sign language, and productive tests get you practising BSL yourself. There are several different types of tests under these categories, and all instructions can be seen on each Test.

f) Then, when you’ve completed and understood all of the lessons in one Level to your satisfaction, you can move on to the next one!

3. Extra notes

a) Always remember that BSL and English are two completely different languages. This means the syntax and grammatical rules will be different. We really encourage you to think and take things visually. If possible, try not to 'think' in English - leave that at the door when you come in!

b) Never be afraid to show facial expressions! It's the way to express feelings, opinions and moods - and is a very important part of every sign language there is on this planet.

c) Our Fingerspelling packages are ready for you to use. These give you a great, useful opportunity to practise fingerspelling in BSL, which is sometimes like an entire level on its own. You can start with 3-and-4-letter words and build up your confidence and competence in both fingerspelling yourself and reading other people’s fingerspelling. Like all our Levels, each Fingerspelling package gives you lots of Tests that you can play around and have fun with. We really encourage you to practise spelling out full words. We strongly advise against learning or practising things letter-by-letter. That makes things much slower, and never helps with fluency.

d) Don't forget that our One to One service will always be there for you if you need to check or ask about anything! We're friendly people.


A Short Handbook of Deaf Culture

There are three areas of importance in learning any language - the language itself, the culture that goes with it and the community around it. With the language, Signworld aims to cover all the bases. Our videos and clips, especially in later Levels, will refer to many Deaf-community-related aspects of the Deaf world (stories about Deaf Clubs and Deaf schools for example), and the following notes will guide you through some of the cultural aspects of British Sign Language and the Deaf community that uses it.

1. Stating the Obvious – a Visual Culture

It may seem obvious to say that Deaf culture is a visual culture, based on sharp observation of what is going on round about you. But as we all know, the obvious is sometimes the easiest thing to overlook! Hearing people can walk around and depend on the sounds and noises round about them to get a sense of what is going on. Deaf people don’t, and a lot of the most obvious features of Deaf culture are based on that basic fact.

Here are a few simple ways in which this shows itself:

Let there be light!

None of us likes being ‘left in the dark’. Deaf people can feel ‘left in the dark’ if there isn’t enough light to see what people are signing. So we tend to like light rooms, places with good lighting, and often, to be near windows so that the lighting is good and we can see what we’re saying (but not with our backs to the windows, or the light will dazzle the other person). So keep your eyes open for good lighting.

Another way in which the use of light is important in Deaf culture is by switching the lights on and off in a room to get people’s attention. This is a common and accepted part of Deaf culture.

Filling out the picture - all shapes and sizes

In spoken language, people often mention things without feeling the need to describe them in any detail – a chair is a chair is a chair. Deaf people often add a lot of visual information, rather than just say the name of the thing. For example, when talking about a vase, they’ll often give you a good idea of its size and shape. If they’re talking about a BIG DESK a ROUND TABLE or an L-SHAPED SETTEE, they’ll usually show that in the description. They’ll also mention the colours of things a lot. All of this helps to ‘fill out the picture’, which is important in a visual culture.

Watch where you put your hands! – A sense of place.

A sense of place and a sense of direction is important to everyone, but especially Deaf people, who depend totally on sight for orientation. As well as describing what things look like, we tend to say a lot about where they are, and how they’re positioned in relation to each other. So if we’re talking about a living-room, we’ll probably incorporate information about the furniture and how it’s laid out. If we’re talking about going shopping in town, you’ll probably find out quite a bit about where the different shops are.

Deaf people are said to be very good at giving directions, because instead of just saying ‘first right, second left’, etc., you’ll ‘see where you’re going’ in the signs. The same applies when we’re talking about travelling around the country or around the world. We tend to show where places are in relation to each other, e.g. LONDON TO GLASGOW, WICK to CORNWALL. And if we’re talking about travelling in real time, we’ll probably indicate where we’re going on a horizontal plane.

Say what you see

In sign language we tend to describe things as we see them. So a hearing person may talk about someone having red hair. If it looks orange to a Deaf person, s/he may well describe it as ORANGE!

Of course, saying what you see can sometimes be unsettling if you’re not used to it. So that leads us to our next section –

2. Culture Shocks?!

A Matter of Appearance

Describing things exactly as they appear can sometimes seem a bit tactless to hearing people, where spoken language tends to be more general and often contains euphemisms, e.g. ‘generously built’ or ‘a good face for radio’. Deaf people tend to be ‘generous’ with their visual information and it may take a bit of getting used to. For example, they may describe people as BIG BUSTED or PROTRUDING TEETH or PREGNANT or BEER BELLY or FAT. It isn’t meant to embarrass – it’s just ‘telling it like it is’ – or rather how it looks.

Look at your face!

If Deaf people see a change in somebody’s appearance, they’ll often come right out and say so – “You’re looking TIRED/PALE/TANNED/CHUBBIER/ NOT VERY WELL, etc.” It all goes back to the importance of the visual, but if you’re not used to it, it can seem a bit direct, or even rude sometimes. It isn’t meant to be!

Have you seen my rash?!

Where a hearing person may say something like “I’ve got a bad rash on my back” and leave it at that, a Deaf person is likely to give you a fairly good visual idea of what the rash looks like and its extent – often in quite some detail - its colour, what the spots or blotches are like, and so on. This applies to other kinds of ailments that have an effect on the appearance as well. Whether it’s a runny nose, a grazed elbow with a nasty scar, or a swollen ankle – expect to get a description that any doctor would find useful! When describing another person’s symptoms, this may seem a bit unkind, but it isn’t meant to be.

What do they look like?!

Visual appearance is often used as a cue for giving names to people or places. We don’t want to exaggerate this, because in fact BSL tends to give fewer name signs than many other sign languages. But people quite often are given BSL names based on a feature of their appearance, e.g. a mole on the cheek, the habitual wearing of one earring, etc.

The same principle applies to the accepted BSL signs for some places and countries. Most British cities have sign names based on an abbreviation of the English spelling. But some do have sign names based on a characteristic of the city, e. g.

  • - SHEFFIELD (the first two fingers of both hands making a kind of crossed-knife movement, from the traditional Sheffield industry of making steel cutlery).
  • - GRIMSBY (the sign for FISH on the chin)

This can also apply to countries. In the case of SCOTLAND the sign is based on the appearance of somebody blowing up the bagpipes. With some other countries, such as JAPAN, INDIA and CHINA, the sign name is based on features of the facial appearance – the eyes, or a traditional red spot on the forehead. Some BSL learners may find this uncomfortable at first, and there have been attempts, often by hearing interpreters, to change these ‘politically incorrect’ signs. But Deaf people accept them for what they are – just visually-derived names. (In China and Japan for example, Deaf people have their own signs for westerners!)

What are they like?!

Deaf people may often come across as very forthright when they are talking about other people’s characters and personalities. They can be quite up-front about saying people are SHY, GRUMPY, CHEEKY, QUIET, etc. This is linked with both the visual nature of the language and also the fact that Deaf people use visual cues and clues to work out how to relate to people, not the tone of voice, for example.

Let your features do the talking

(Non-manual features)

A lot of the meaning in sign language is given through what are called non-manual features. A key part of this is facial expression - it plays a big role in showing the emphasis of what you’re saying and conveying any emotion. So mouth movements and eyebrow movements are often very emphatic and energetic. Sometimes if people are not used to this, it can come across as over-the-top, or they may even feel it’s a bit aggressive. Sometimes, Deaf people have been described as ‘angry’ when they’re not at all – they’re just emphasising the full meaning of what they’re trying to say by using facial expression. Head and shoulder movements are also part of the non-manual features in sign language. Once again, they’re just part of the language – they needn’t indicate that the person is getting wound up or angry!

We’d like to point out…

At one time, children used to be taught it was rude to point. Less so nowadays, perhaps, but there’s still a feeling of this amongst many hearing people. In sign language and Deaf culture, not only is pointing not rude – it’s an essential part of the language and an accepted part of the culture.

The index finger is an essential tool in sign language grammar. We often use it to point at what we’re talking about or to refer to topics that we have located in signing space. In fact, without pointing, it would often be difficult to know what we’re talking about. Sign language learners sometimes find this difficult to get used to, but it should be taught as part of BSL from Day One and explained as part of the culture as well as the grammar.

Upstairs, downstairs

One simple and very common use of the index finger is when talking about ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. Deaf people simply point to indicate where they mean. Sometimes non-native signers seem to find this difficult – they may even try and use the sign for ‘stairs going up’ or ‘stairs going down’. But just point to where you mean.


Roleshift is another important part of non-manual features. If we’re talking about another person or another creature, we’ll adopt the characteristics of that person or creature. E.g. when talking about a TORTOISE, HAMSTER, DOG or CAT, we would make appropriate animal movements and facial expressions. If we were reporting something a child said, we would adopt the role of the child in our body shape, movements and facial expressions. This may take time for sign language learners to develop, but it can be fun and once you’ve mastered it, it’s a very useful tool in making your signing more natural. As you develop more skills in BSL, roleshift becomes very important when talking about two or more persons – who is doing or saying what?

Noises off!

Use of the voice is not at all part of sign language and trying to speak English and sign at the same time makes good BSL impossible, because BSL has a completely different syntax. But you’ll find that quite a number of Deaf people do ‘vocalise’ or make noises when they’re signing. The reasons for this may vary. They may just not be conscious that they’re doing it, because they can’t hear themselves. Or it may go back to having been told when they were younger that they should try and ‘use their voices’, and it’s become a habit. At any rate, it is something that you will probably come across. The important thing is just to concentrate on the signing and try not to let any accompanying noises distract you.

3. A Touch More Culture!

Touching ourselves

Touching yourself is an important part of sign language. For example, if you’re talking about a CAT or a HAMSTER, you should touch your cheeks in the appropriate way. If you’re talking about wearing a pair of GLASSES, the sign involves touching your cheek(s) and eyebrow(s). If you say MY DAUGHTER WOKE ME UP, and she actually touched you on the shoulder to wake you up, you should sign this. Touching your own face and body a lot may feel odd to begin with, but getting used to it is an important part of not only learning the language, but also ‘getting in touch’ with the culture the language comes from.

Touching other people

When we can’t use sound to get people’s attention, touching them is an appropriate thing to do. So to get a Deaf person’s attention, it’s quite normal to touch them on the shoulder or upper arm. Please note that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to do this, so try not to do it too hard or abruptly. Likewise, in the example mentioned above, it would be appropriate for a child to touch her Deaf mother or father on the shoulder to wake them up.

Getting the vibe

Also related to touching is the use of vibration to get Deaf people’s attention. It’s normal if appropriate to the setting to bang the table lightly or stamp on the floor to send vibrations to the person whose attention you want. So ‘banging the table’ or ‘stamping your foot’ can be quite positive things in Deaf culture. Try it - you’ll soon get the vibe!

4. Subject Matters

Deaf culture isn’t only a matter of how we talk, but what we talk about – or don’t talk about – as well. Some of the things that crop up a lot in Deaf people’s conversation – or don’t crop up – are different from what you’d expect amongst hearing people.

What’s in a name?

When Deaf people meet each other for the first time, unlike hearing people, we don’t tend to start by giving or asking for names straight away. It’s quite common for us not to know each other’s names till we’ve met up a few times. When mixing in hearing circles, we often have to adapt this, of course!

‘My husband/wife/partner, etc.’

In general social gatherings, Deaf people often talk about MY HUSBAND, MY WIFE, MY PARTNER, MY SON, MY DAUGHTER, etc., rather than mentioning them by name, unless they’re in close family circles or groups of friends. Again, maybe it’s to do with the importance of visualising things and people in relation to each other.

Where from? What school?

Rather than exchanging names, it’s more common for Deaf people to ask/say where we come from, e.g. where we were born or live. Amongst older Deaf people it’s also extremely common to ask what school someone went to, as this can tell us a lot about their background, their signing, or what common contacts we might have in the Deaf world. For example, if someone went to Donaldson’s in Scotland, Northern Counties in Newcastle, Boston Spa or Doncaster in Yorkshire, Royal Cross in Preston, Derby (in Derby!), Burwood Park, Margate or Mary Hare (formerly Grammar) School in the south of England, or Exeter in the south west, that can tell us quite a lot about them!

Deaf or hearing?

In the hearing world, it’s usually not a matter for comment whether someone is hearing or not. But in the minority Deaf world, it’s a common marker to mention whether someone is hearing, especially if that person can sign. If we’re talking about somebody the other person doesn’t know, we’ll often say if they’re Deaf or hearing - or indeed hard-of-hearing. It’s a way of getting our bearings among people, or ‘getting a handle on things’.

If hearing people we’re talking about can sign, we tend to make a point of saying so – it’s useful and nice to know. If it’s because some of their family or friends are Deaf, we’ll mention that as well – it’s part of Deaf pride and asserting our identity.

Hearing aids and other devices

Deaf people tend to mention it if other people are wearing hearing aids. Things like textphones, vibrating alarm clocks and flashing light doorbells tend to crop up in our conversation as well. For us, these things are all ‘parts of the furniture’ and worth noting.

Did you see the interpreter?!

BSL/English interpreters have become such a big part of the lives of many Deaf people, that you’ll find the subject of interpreters crops up a lot in conversation – where we’ve had access through interpreters, what we thought of the interpreter support and so on. Access (or lack of it) is an important part of Deaf people’s lives, so it’s only natural we spend such a lot of time talking about issues around access.