Deaf Awareness Week 2019: Exploring British Sign Language and Makaton

By: | Date: 9/05/2019


We pride ourselves on offering a warm welcome to all visitors to Eureka! and doing all we can to ensure that we’re as inclusive and accessible as possible.

Welcome to Eureka! in BSL

This starts from the moment you step through our doors. When you arrive, our friendly Enablers welcome you with a big smile, a cheery wave and often a signed greeting “Welcome to Eureka!” – and you don’t have to be a BSL user to understand that one!

BSL and Makaton: What’s the difference?

It’s easy to understand why some people aren’t sure of the difference between British Sign Language (or BSL) and Makaton, but they were designed for very different purposes.

About British Sign Language or BSL

It’s estimated that for every 1000 children, one is born with severe or profound hearing loss and, for many of them, BSL is their first language. In addition, many people whose hearing impairment occurs later in life as a result of accident, illness or ageing, use BSL to communicate – more than 87,000 in the UK alone.

Children who grow up using BSL may in time acquire hearing through implants and hearing aids, which in turn can lead to the acquisition of spoken language, however BSL will always be their first language.

BSL is a real language by the way, having been officially declared so by the Government in 2003, around 250 years after Thomas Braidwood opened the first Deaf School in Edinburgh. It has its own history, grammatical structure, and word order. And, like any other language, BSL has regional variations, differs from country to country, is constantly evolving, responding to and reflecting the times in which it is used. There’s even different versions depending on whether you are right of left-handed!

For example the sign for biscuit (tapping a cupped hand twice on the elbow – see video below) derives from the hard ship’s biscuit which formed the staple diet for sailors in the mid-18th century, and had to be broken into edible pieces (or perhaps to make sure it was weevil free?!).

Watch how to sign ‘biscuit’ in British Sign Language

About Makaton

Makaton was created in the 1970s as a communication system comprising signs and symbols, designed to be used alongside speech to support impairments caused by stroke, cognitive or other disability.

Makaton was created by three speech language therapists, Margaret Walker, Katharine Johnston and Tony Cornforth to support the patients they were working with and derives its name from the start of each of their names: Margaret, Katharine, Tony.

The Makaton system follows the same grammatical structure as spoken English and is used primarily in the UK, although it has been adopted by 40 other countries. It borrows some signs from BSL, but most are different. Because Makaton was designed to be used alongside speech it is widely used to support the development of language in (hearing) children, for example through the CBeebies programme Mr. Tumble, baby signing classes etc. As speech develops, the Makaton user will usually stop using the signs.

Signing at Eureka!

At Eureka!, our Enablers are taught twelve BSL signs as well as the fingerspelling alphabet, to help them communicate with Deaf visitors. We don’t claim to be BSL fluent, hence our “Learning to Sign” badges, but some of our  Enablers have chosen to study BSL further in their own time – we have a couple of Level 2 BSL signers and a champion fingerspeller on the team! From time to time we bring in a fully qualified BSL interpreter for events, and our signed song videos are becoming a regular feature too! Check out our latest – “Can’t Stop the Feeling” below. Facial expression and body language are really important when signing as they communicate the tone and energy of the message. And as you can tell from the video, that’s something our team are especially good at!

Want to find out more?

If you’re inspired by our video to try BSL for yourself, why not visit the BSL Dictionary website where you can search thousands of video signs to find the one you want – or download the free app and practice a few key signs to impress your friends!

Keep an eye out for Makaton too – the symbols are now finding their way out into the high street to help make life easier for those with communication needs. Romsey is the first town in the world to be awarded Makaton Friendly Town status, and Asda is rolling out a Happy Little Helpers Makaton communication board in all its UK superstores.

Whether you choose Makaton or BSL, it’s all about communicating the right message and at Eureka! our message is simple – you’re welcome!

Some useful links:

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Eureka! The National Children’s Museum
Discovery Road, Halifax HX1 2NE. Map