How do hearing people learn BSL as a foreign language?

British Sign Language (BSL) is the first language of deaf people in the UK. There has been an enormous increase in the numbers of hearing people learning BSL in recent years. In 2009 there were an estimated 190,000 hearing adults who had learned at least basic level BSL. Hearing adults learn BSL as a second language for a hobby or personal and professional reasons. However we know almost nothing about how hearing adults learn to sign and whether it differs to learning a spoken second. The aim of this International Network is to begin to fill this gap and thus has great theoretical and practical value.

We will set out to discover more about this interesting topic both in order to advance understanding of second language research as well as provide valuable information for teachers of BSL. Research on sign language learning can impact greatly on current models and theories of how people learn a second language. Because BSL is not based on sounds it is difficult to see how learners’ first language might influence their understanding of signs. For example, what does a foreign accent look like in a sign language or how do leaners’ use of gestures influence their learning of BSL?
In 2013 I led a symposium on sign language learning at the European Second Language Acquisition Conference (EUROSLA). This was the first time the conference had included sign language learning in hearing adults. There is thus a pressing need for sign language investigators to interact more with spoken language second language researchers. In this network we aim to both increase the synergy across sign language teams as well as get spoken and sign language researchers together to work on second language acquisition for the first time.


Images of BSL learners repeating signs with different types of location (c) or handshape (d) errors. Taken from Ortega, G. & Morgan, G. (2015). Phonological development in hearing learners of a sign language: The role of sign complexity and iconicity. Language Learning. 65 (3), 660-668.

The network is made up of researchers in London, Hamburg, Lund, Amsterdam and Barcelona and has two principle aims: (1) to bring together a specific group of researchers to help us shape a future research programme. (2) to develop new methods and research paradigms to investigate this topic further. We will organise a final conference for  teachers and learners of BSL as well as mainstream second language researchers. 

Professor Gary Morgan
City University London
International Network