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The Power of Simultaneity in British Sign Language (BSL): Enhancing Interpretation and Translation

As professional BSL interpreters and translators, we are well aware of the intricacies and beauty of British Sign Language. BSL's unique features, including simultaneity, play a pivotal role in conveying meaning efficiently and effectively. Following our latest taught session on this topic, we thought it might be useful to share a little about the subject for you to find out a bit more about the power of simultaneity in BSL and its significance in enhancing our interpretation and translation skills. Let's dive in!

There are two types of simultaneity in BSL, morphemic and syntactic. You have probably used both and seen both being used but may not have realised it or been able to put a name to it. Using simultaneity in BSL means that you can create richer, more cohesive interpretations in BSL and being able to recognise it and translate/interpret it effectively will help your produce a more nuanced rendition in English.

Morphemic Simultaneity: Unleashing the Power of Parameters

One of the key aspects of simultaneity in BSL is morphemic simultaneity. It involves the simultaneous combination of shape, movement, and spatial relations to create process signs. This integration of parameters results in dynamic and holistic representations of actions and ongoing processes.

Imagine the sign for "writing." In this example, the shape parameter involves the dominant hand taking the form of a fist with the index finger and thumb extended (like holding a pen). The movement parameter depicts the hand moving back and forth, mimicking the act of writing. Finally, the spatial relations parameter places the sign in a specific location in front of the signer's body. By combining these parameters simultaneously, the sign for "write" conveys the action vividly and efficiently.

This type of simultaneity is common, every time you use two hands to form a sign such as work, walk, talk etc you are using morphemic simultaneity in BSL!

Syntactic Simultaneity: Conveying Complex Sentences with Finesse

Syntactic simultaneity in BSL allows us to break down sentences into their constituent parts and convey them simultaneously through signs. This approach facilitates clear and concise communication of complex syntactic relationships.

Consider the sentence "I woke up and checked the alarm clock." In this scenario, we can utilise syntactic simultaneity to express both the action of waking, reference being in bed and the action of checking the clock simultaneously. By signing "bed", while using facial expressions, eye gaze, and body movements to indicate the checking of the clock, marking the distinction between the two actions, we effectively convey the intended meaning with precision. This sentence can become even more complex by changing facial expressions to indicate that you were 'late' or 'still tired' and so on. Look at the second picture below indicating a person driving (left hand) and using body shift and eye gaze to reference a passenger in the back seat and the right hand to indicate talking. this one still shot could possibly be translated into English to something like this: 'The driver was distracted, talking to their passenger in the back seat.'

Syntactic simultaneity brings the richness and uniqueness of sign languages to life, it is something that we just can’t attain in spoken English - saying to words at the same time is impossible. Yet, with sign language we can articulate multiple ideas using different parts of our body to create a rich, complex message which can be easily understood.

This unique feature allows for efficient and nuanced communication in BSL. Crasborn (1988) suggested that a maximum of 4 prepositions can be signed simultaneously, however, Rachel Sutton-Spence (2010) suggested that a fifth preposition can also be used by using your mouth. Further to this, Vermeerbergen et al (2007) said that “The use of simultaneity produces syntactically complex sentences and marks the difference between novice and experienced signers”.

Important Building Blocks for Simultaneity in BSL:

To effectively utilise simultaneity in BSL, signers incorporate various building blocks that work together to convey multiple elements simultaneously. These building blocks include:

Hands: Handshapes and movements are fundamental components of BSL. Signers use their hands to produce signs that represent words, concepts, or actions. Simultaneity allows signers to combine different handshapes and movements to convey multiple meanings within a single sign or phrase.

Head: The movement and positioning of the head play a significant role in BSL. Signers use head tilts, nods, and shakes to indicate questions, affirmations, negations, or to show directionality. Simultaneity allows the head movements to occur concurrently with other signed elements, adding further layers of meaning.

Eye Gaze: Eye gaze is an essential non-manual marker in BSL. It conveys grammatical and contextual information, such as indicating the subject, object, or location. Simultaneity allows for the simultaneous use of eye gaze alongside manual signs, enhancing the clarity and efficiency of communication.

Body Shift: Body shifts involve the movement of the upper body or torso to convey spatial relationships or transitions between different referents. Signers can use body shifts to indicate the movement or interaction of multiple entities within a narrative or conversation. Simultaneity enables the integration of body shifts alongside other linguistic elements to provide a comprehensive and cohesive message.

Mouth: It is possible to use your mouth to mouth a different word or exclamation to add extra meaning to a signed phrase. It is also possible to negate or affirm the opposite of what is being signed by using a different mouthing.

Mastering Simultaneity: Tips and Techniques

To harness the power of simultaneity in BSL, it is crucial to practice and refine our skills continuously. Here are some tips and techniques to enhance your simultaneous interpretation and translation abilities:

  • Immersion and Observation: Immerse yourself in BSL-rich environments, such as Deaf community events, to observe native signers' use of simultaneity. Pay attention to how they integrate parameters and convey meaning simultaneously.

  • Study Linguistic Resources: Dive into linguistic resources and literature on BSL to deepen your understanding of simultaneity and its application. Explore research papers, books, and online resources that delve into the nuances of BSL grammar and structure.

  • Receive Feedback: Seek feedback from experienced BSL interpreters and translators. They can provide valuable insights and suggestions to improve your simultaneity skills. Constructive feedback helps refine your technique and ensures accurate communication.

  • Continuous Learning: Attend workshops, webinars, and professional development courses that specifically focus on simultaneity in BSL. Stay updated with the latest research and advancements in the field to enhance your professional skills continually.


Simultaneity in Signed Languages: Form and Function. Myriam Vermeerbergen, Lorraine Neeson, Onno Crasborn. (2007) JB Publishing Co. Amsterdam

Napoli, D. J., & Sutton-Spence, R. (2010). Limitations on simultaneity in sign language. Language, 86(3), 647-662.

PADDEN, C. (1988). Interaction of morphology and syntax in American Sign Language. New York: Garland

So, what do you think of simultaneity? Have you seen or used it before? Don’t forget to reflect on the article that you just read and claim your unstructured CPD points!

If you would like to find out more about Simultaneity and also Dynamic Equivalence, our next full day training course for £52.24 is on the 9th of September 2023. Click here to find out more and to reserve your place.


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