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What is the Difference Between BSL and ASL Alphabet

If you are working on better accessibility levels for your organisation, it is time to learn the basics of sign language. This is the visual-manual method of communication that relays meaning through a combination of hand signals, gestures, facial expressions, and body language instead of spoken words.

There is no one universal sign language. Like spoken languages, each country uses its own sign language; some countries use more than one. For example, Belgium uses French Belgian Sign Language and Flemish Sign Language, while Spain uses Spanish Sign Language and Catalan Sign Language.

According to statistics provided by National Geographic, it’s estimated that there are more than 300 different sign languages today with their own grammar and lexicon used by over 72 million people worldwide.

Though the majority of them are deaf or hard of hearing, the users of sign languages also include their families, people who are physically unable to speak or have a disability or condition that creates difficulty with oral language communication.

English has several varieties of sign language: American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), Australian Sign Language (Auslan), and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).

Next, we will analyse the differences between BSL and ASL and their respective alphabets.

What Is BSL vs ASL?

BSL is the first or preferred sign language used among the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Based on the official statistics by the British Deaf Association, it’s estimated that BSL is used by around 151,000 people, 87,000 of whom are people who are deaf.

ASL is the predominant sign language used among the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the United States and English-speaking Canada. According to the Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing of the State of Rhode Island, there are more than half a million ASL users in the U.S. In fact, after English and Spanish, ASL is the most commonly used language in the U.S.  

What’s more, various dialects of ASL are also used in much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language or lingua franca, a common language that is used as a way of bridging communication between people who don’t share a native language or dialect.

Is ASL Used in Europe? The Origins of BSL vs ASL

ASL is not normally used in Europe. Each European language has their own sign language variant. However, you may think that BSL and ASL might be interchangeable. Still, though there is a significant overlap in ASL and BSL vocabularies, they are in fact unrelated sign languages that are not mutually intelligible - i.e., they are not understandable by one another's users.

This is because sign languages often follow different sentence structure, grammar and syntax rules than the spoken languages they are based on. They are their own unique languages.

BSL originated out of commonly used signs within deaf communities in densely populated cities in England in as early as the 15th century. It’s believed that BSL was influenced by a combination of Old French Sign Language (VLSF), Old British Sign Language (OBSL), and Signed English.

Over the following centuries, OBSL evolved into not only BSL, but also Auslan and NZSL. But interestingly, not ASL.

Instead, the creation of ASL in the 19th century was influenced directly by VLSF signs, with about 58% of ASL signs having direct descendants in VLSF, as well as Native American sign languages used in their trades with Europeans.

Is the ASL and BSL Alphabet the Same?

The most important difference between BSL and ASL is that BSL users use two hands (same as Auslan and NZSL), while ASL users use only one (same as French Sign Language).

Let’s now compare the American Sign Language alphabet chart and the British Sign Language alphabet chart. ASL users typically sign with their dominant hand - right-handed people with their right, and left-handed people with their left hand.

ASL Alphabet

Since BSL requires the use of two hands, some of the signs will be quite different for right-handed and left-handed users:

BSL Right Handed
BS Left Handed

Differences and Similarities Between BSL and ASL Alphabets

As you can see when comparing these charts, there are very few similarities between the BSL alphabet and the ASL alphabet. So, it comes as no surprise that BSL signers would have difficulty understanding ASL signers.

This is quite unlike spoken English, which can be fairly easily understood between American and British speakers despite different pronunciations, grammar and syntax rules, local and regional accents and expressions.

Though there are some similarities between the signed letters, most of them are quite distinct from each other - for example, compare the letter “B” in the BSL and the ASL alphabet.

In the British Sign Language alphabet, the letter “B” is signed by joining hands to form a binocular shape (i.e., an “O” shape) with the fingers of both hands.

However, in the American Sign Language alphabet, the letter “B” is signed by holding up the dominant hand, with the palm facing out, four fingers pointing up, and the thumb tucked in.

The only noticeable similarity between the BSL and ASL alphabets is the letter “C” which is signed the same way in both sign languages - by curving one’s open, dominant hand with the top four fingers held together to form the top curve, and the thumb forming the bottom curve.

It’s no surprise that there is a noticeable similarity between the two alphabets since the letter “C” is the one and only letter in BSL that is signed with only one hand.

With so many differences between the two alphabets, it’s easy to conclude that fingerspelling, a method of signing letters to form a complete word, would be quite difficult to understand between the users of BSL and ASL.

Other Differences Between BSL and ASL  

The differences between BSL and ASL don’t end with their alphabets. They share roughly 30% of their signs, while the other 70% use different signs to refer to a particular word.

For example, in ASL the word “dog” is signed either by patting your leg a couple of times or by patting your leg and snapping your fingers with the same hand, as if calling a dog. In BSL, the word “dog” is signed by pointing extended index and middle fingers of both hands downwards, then making small up and down movements in front of your body.


The following ASL vs BSL sign comparison video will give you a further insight into how various words are signed in each language, their similarities and differences:

And that’s not all. BSL and ASL are also quite different in their use of non-manual signals. BSL relies more on body movements and hand shapes, while ASL relies more on facial expressions to convey emotion.

What’s more, some facial expressions (e.g., lip pursing) may have different meanings in each language, which could prove to be confusing and lead to misunderstandings between BSL and ASL signers.

In conclusion, although British English and American English are generally considered to be two varieties of the same language, albeit with their own dialects, pronunciations, grammar, spelling and syntax rules., Still, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are two distinct languages that share some similarities but more differences.

Though the main difference between the two alphabets is the use of two hands to sign in BSL and one hand in ASL, they also have major differences in their respective vocabularies and non-manual communication.

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