Sign Language

Deaf people around the world communicate using sign language as distinct from spoken language in their every day lives. A Sign Language is a visual language that uses a system of manual, facial and body movements as the means of communication. Sign language is not an universal language, and different sign languages are used in different countries, like the many spoken languages all over the world. Some countries such as Belgium, the UK, the USA or India may have more than one sign language. Hundreds of sign languages are in used around the world, for instance, Japanese Sign Language, (or Nihon Shuwa, JSL), British Sign Language (BSL), Spanish Sign Language (Lengua de signos o señas española, or LSE), Turkish Sign Language (or Türk İşaret Dili, TID).

Sign Languages are organized like sign languages, and can be analysed at the phonological, morphological, grammatical and lexical levels, and there are differences at each of these levels between the many different sign languages. There are however language families of sign languages: American Sign Language, French Sign Language (or langue des signes française, LSF) and Irish Sign Language (ISL) are a part of the same sign language family.

Some of the world’s sign languages are legally recognized in national laws or constitutions, or are mentioned in the laws of different countries, such as those relating to education, the justice system, etc. Other sign languages are not recognized or considered as languages. Deaf communities all over the world strive to have their Sign Languages recognized as fully-fledged languages and to secure their right to live daily life in their sign language.

Signed Languages in most countries and communities are not written languages – just like many other (spoken) languages of the world.

Signed Languages are processed dominantly in the left hemisphere of the brain, just as all other (spoken) languages are, in the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, and so they are natural languages.

Having access to a signed language is central to any deaf person, child or adult for their cognitive, social, emotional and linguistic growth. Signed Languages are acquired by children in the same timeframe as spoken languages and this acquisition process shows similar patterns and milestones as a spoken language acquisition process. It is important that deaf children at early ages have access to a sign language – it should be understood as their first language, their education can be achieved bilingually in the national sign language and the national written/spoken language.

Language and culture are interrelated. Deaf culture is deeply dependent and rooted in signed languages.
When deaf people communicate with other deaf people from other nations they often use International Sign (IS). IS is a contact form of signing/communication system (as distinct from a full language) used at international meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) Congress and events such as the Deaflympics.

Recommended Reading:

  • Brentari, Diane, ed. (2010) Sign Languages. Cambridge University Press
  • Crystal, David (2010, 3rd edition) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press
  • Pfau, Roland, Steinbach, Markus and Woll, Bencie (eds.). 2012. Sign Language. An International Handbook. Series: Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science (HSK 37). De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Reagan, Timothy G. (2010) Language Policy and Planning for Sign Languages. Gallaudet University Press