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How Many Different Sign Languages Are There

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American And British Sign Languages

How many sign languages are there, anyway?

American Sign Language is largely based on LSF, which was brought to North America by Thomas Gallaudet in 1816. Similarities between the two systems are still apparent today , though a person who is fluent in American Sign Language will not be able to communicate effectively with those who use LSF.

ASL remains extremely popular today, although it is now facing some competition from cued speech, a system developed in the 1960s that represents phonetic signs rather than words and concepts.

Due to their historical relationship, French and American Sign Language actually have more in common than American and British Sign Language . Interestingly, Gallaudet originally sought to learn BSL , but was rebuked by the scholars of the time resulting in his subsequent trip to Paris instead.

When comparing ALS and BSL, even the basic finger-spelling systems are different. For instance, BSL uses two hands while ASL uses only one.

Different Types Of Sign Language Used Around The World

by Woman of the World | May 19, 2020 | Culture and Languages |

For non-deaf or hard of hearing people, it is often a surprise to learn that there is more than a single sign language.

Today, there are anywhere up to 300 different types of sign language used around the world. Some are only used locally. Others are used by millions of people.

Most sign languages dont aim to directly translate spoken words into signs you make with your hands either. Each is a true language, with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax often unrelated to those of oral languages spoken in the same region.

And yes, the position of the hands is important. Yet so are eyebrow position, eye position, body movement and much more besides. A little like tones in oral languages, their importance and the way they are used also vary between different sign languages.

It only takes a moments thought to realise that, with so much variation in oral forms of expression, wouldnt it actually be more surprising if there was only one universal sign language?

Where Did Asl Originate

No person or committee invented ASL. The exact beginnings of ASL are not clear, but some suggest that it arose more than 200 years ago from the intermixing of local sign languages and French Sign Language . Todays ASL includes some elements of LSF plus the original local sign languages over time, these have melded and changed into a rich, complex, and mature language. Modern ASL and modern LSF are distinct languages. While they still contain some similar signs, they can no longer be understood by each others users.

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The Data Source Problem

Formal linguistic analysis typically relies on evidence provided by native speakers of the language or variety under study. This can involve different types of collected spontaneous or semi-spontaneous productions, elicited utterances, or grammaticality judgments. Despite the unavoidable abstraction across different speakers, it is taken for granted that their competence is similar enough by virtue of having acquired the language natively in a typical, unproblematic fashion.2 However, such a simple assumption cannot be made for sign languages because of their highly idiosyncratic sociolinguistic settings and in particular their dominant acquisition patterns .

Given these limitations, some alternatives have been proposed. One of them consists in working with consultants that get as close as possible to a native signer, as put forth in Mathur and Rathmann : exposure to a sign language by the age of 3 daily contact with a sign language in the Deaf community for longer than 10 years. For linguistic research, they also required capability to make grammaticality judgments with ease. Freel et al. also establish this age limit of 3 in the acquisition of sign language in order to count someone as native signer. Such accommodations seem desirable in practical terms, but it might be the case that even with these slight departures from strict nativehood, it is still hard to find sign language consultants, given their scarcity in some areas.

Why There Are Different Types Of Sign Language

How many different versions of sign language are there for ...

Rita Mae Brown an American writer said Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Over time language forms through different cultures. So, we found different cultures as well as different verbal languages. If society is the swimming pool then language is the swimming skill and the culture is the water.

Sign language is not out of this theory too. Sign language also differs based on the culture and the environment. They also do not align with the verbal form of the language.

For instance, the American Sign Language and the British Sign Language are not the same even though the verbal language of these two communities are similar.

This happens, because both of these sign languages are from the two different locations of the world with two different cultures.

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Indigenous Sign Languages In Canada

The linguistic and cultural heritage of First Nations and Inuit includes several sign languages. The most famous, Plains Sign Language , is still known by a few Dakota, Cree, Blackfoot, and others in Canadasome deaf, and others hearing, who use it to accompany their oral narratives. PSL was apparently developed by deaf individuals and their families on the Great Plains, and its use spread as a lingua franca as far South as the Rio Grande in Mexico and as far north as the North Saskatchewan River in Canada . As Ernest Seton described in his 1918 textbook, Sign Talk :

My attention was first directed to the Sign Language in 1882 when I went to live in Western Manitoba. There I found it used among the various Indian tribes as a common language, whenever they were unable to understand each others speech. In later years I found it a daily necessity when traveling among the natives of New Mexico and Montana.

Though most of its signers have been hearing, PSL has always served as a full-fledged, primary language to Deaf Plains people. For instance, Seton learned PSL from White Swan , a famed Deaf Crow: I was glad to be his pupil, and thus in 1897 began seriously to study the Sign Language . Below is Setons 1897 portrait of White Swan.


MacDougall, James. 2001. Access to Justice for Deaf Inuit in Nunavut: The Role of Inuit Sign Language. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 42: 6173.

Different Types Of Sign Language

Now lets see the different forms of sign language in the UK. They may differ a little bit according to their dialects. So lets checkout the most common sign language in the UK.

Using these three tools sign language is communicated and varies from place to place and region to region. But the question is, why they are different and why there are so many forms of sign language? Lets find out.

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Do All Deaf People Use Sign Language

When you encounter someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, your first instinct may be to use your hands to communicate. Maybe youre fluent in American Sign Language, know basic fingerspelling, or just use gestures to illustrate what youre saying. As well-intentioned as your motives may be, these methods may unintentionally make you harder to understand.

Thats because not all deaf and hard-of-hearing people know sign language. In fact, of the 48 million people in the United States with hearing loss, less than 500,000 or about 1% use sign language.

Hearing loss is a spectrum, with varying types of loss and communication strategies. Some deaf people use hearing aids or cochlear implants generally, this group chooses to lipread and use auditory cues when possible. For others, sound amplification doesnt work or is otherwise unappealing. Sign language may be the primary mode of communication for them. Still others use varying combinations of spoken and sign language. It is the individuals choice, based on their body and preferences.

When someone automatically defaults to sign language with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person, it may be counterproductive. Not only is there the very real possibility that the person doesnt know or need sign language but signing may detract from the input that is needed for communication, such as lipreading or clear speech that provides for auditory cues.

What Is A Language

Many Different Sign Languages

A language is, fundamentally, a collection of dialects that are mutually intelligible. Each dialect is a collection of idiolects that are similar enough to be classified together. An idiolect is a single speakers version of a language. For example, as an Australian, I speak my own idiolect of English, just as you speak with a slightly different one. Yet, since we can understand each other, it can be defined as a single language.

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Does Sign Language Differ Between Countries

As we said above, around 300 sign languages are used worldwide today, and most of them vary significantly.

Along with BSL, there are several sign languages used by English-speaking countries, including the US , Auslan and NZSL. Ireland also has its own sign language , which is derived from French Sign Language but shares similarities with BSL.

One of the most widely used sign languages around the world is Chinese Sign Language , which has up to 20 million users. Brazilian Sign Language has around three million users worldwide, while Indo-Pakistani Sign Language has about 1.8 million users across South Asia.

Back in the UK, Sign Support English and Makaton are both used alongside BSL to support Deaf and Hard of Hearing people with additional learning needs.

Countries With Partial Recognition

Several other countries recognize the sign language but not in an official capacity.

The Canadian provinces of Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba recognize American Sign Language as a minority language while Section Fourteen of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants a deaf person the right to an interpreter.

Australia recognizes the Australian Sign Language as a community language, although it does not ensure the provision of services in the sign language.

Thailand recognizes the Thai Sign Language as “the national language of deaf people in Thailand.” The country’s Ministry of Education recognizes the same language as their first language of the deaf people in school.

The United States does not identify any language whether signed or spoken as the official language, but some states recognize American Sign Language as a foreign language while others recognize the sign language as a language of instruction in academic institutions. Some universities in the country accept the American Sign Language credit to fulfill the requirement of a foreign language.

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Basics Of Alphabets And Fingerspelling

Most people start their sign language journey by learning the A-Z or alphabet equivalent in sign form.

The use of the hands to represent individual letters of a written alphabet is called fingerspelling. Its an important tool that helps signers manually spell out names of people, places and things that dont have an established sign.

For example, most sign languages have a specific sign for the word tree, but may not have a specific sign for oak, so o-a-k would be finger spelled to convey that specific meaning.

Of course, not every language uses the Latin alphabet like English, so their sign language alphabet differs as well. Some manual alphabets are one-handed, such as in ASL and French Sign Language, and others use two-hands, like BSL or Auslan. Though there are similarities between some of the different manual alphabets, each sign language has its own style and modifications, and remains unique.

The Different Types Of Sign Language

How to Learn Sign Language to Communicate Well with a ...
  • The Different Types of Sign
  • Sign Language is Not Universal:

    The Ethnologue Languages of the World, lists that there are 142 sign languages in use, however this number is hard to accurately pin down due to new sign languages frequently being created at schools in village communities with high levels of congenital deafness. Sign language is a complex form of communication comprised of hand gestures, body language and facial expressions and its used to allow deaf individuals the ability to effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings. Many people are under the misconception that sign language is universal, however the manual languagesdiffer significantly from one geographic region to the next. Sign languages, like spoken languages, develop naturally out of groups of people interacting with one another region and culture play a large role in the development as well. Most sign languages are not mutually intelligible, therefore people who do not sign the same language can not understand one another. In some countries like Sri Lanka for example, every school has their own sign language, only known by the students who attend that school. Other countries share sign languages although they are called different names, Croatian and Serbian sign languages are the same and Indian and Pakistani sign language are also the same.

    Three Major Forms of Sign Language Used in the United States:

    Popular Forms of Sign Language Used Around the World:

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    The Evolution Of Auslan

    In the 19th century, British, Irish and Scottish people who were deaf migrated to Australia and brought their sign languages with them. Over time, an Australian sign language developed its own unique characteristics. Like any other living language, Auslan continues to evolve over time to meet the communication needs of people who are deaf.Just as people who can hear speak different languages in different countries, people who are deaf around the world also use different sign languages, such as:

    • American Sign Language
    • French Sign Language

    and many more. Sign language is influenced by the culture, language and traditions of each country, as are many spoken languages. International Sign is a language that many deaf people learn in order to communicate more effectively with each other, especially at international events such as congresses or the Deaflympic Games. Due to historical influences, Auslan is more like BSL than ASL.

    Other Forms Of Communication For People Who Are Deaf

    The way a person communicates depends on the degree of sensory loss they experience, their communication ability and their preference. Auslan is a complete sign language, while signed English is a sign language that directly represents spoken English.

    Other forms of manual communication have been developed to aid communication for people with specific needs. For example, key word sign is a basic communication system that uses a simplified version of signed English to work with people with communication difficulties.

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    Learning To Speak Learning To Sign

    In reviewing studies of infant development, Elissa Newport along with Richard Meier, now at the University of Texas, have argued that if deaf infants are exposed to ASL from birth, they achieve the same milestones during language acquisition as do speaking infants, and at approximately the same intervals.3 By 12 weeks, most hearing infants produce vowel-like sounds called cooing. By 20 weeks, vocalizations begin to include more consonant sounds, a stage called babbling. While initially these vocalizations are similar around the world, by the time babies are 8 to 10 months of age the sounds resemble the narrower range of sounds used in the surrounding language. Isolated words are produced at about one year, usually common nouns that describe everyday objects and social words such as bye bye.

    Deaf infants also produce vocal sounds in early development but those exposed to a signed language go on to show their language milestones through gestures. As in the acquisition of spoken languages, infants acquiring ASL babble prior to the time of producing their rst lexical itemthat is, they produce gestures that resemble signing but are not recognizable or apparently meaningful. At about one year, if not earlier, the rst recognizable ASL signs are produced, one at a time, in isolation.

    More Than You Might Have Thought

    How Many Languages Are There?

    When people are asked how many languages they think there are in the world, the answers vary quite a bit. One random sampling of New Yorkers, for instance, resulted in answers like probably several hundred. However we choose to count them, though, this is not close.

    When we look at reference works, we find estimates that have escalated over time. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, implies a figure somewhere around 1,000, a number that climbs steadily over the course of the twentieth century. That is not due to any increase in the number of languages, but rather to our increased understanding of how many languages are actually spoken in areas that had previously been underdescribed.

    Much pioneering work in documenting the languages of the world has been done by missionary organizations with an interest in translating the Christian Bible. As of 2009, at least a portion of the bible had been translated into 2,508 different languages, still a long way short of full coverage. The most extensive catalog of the worlds languages, generally taken to be as authoritative as any, is that of Ethnologue , whose detailed classified list as of 2009 included 6,909 distinct languages.

    Did you know that languages belong to a family?

    One area of particularly high linguistic diversity is Papua-New Guinea, where there are an estimated 832 languages spoken by a population of around 3.9 million. That makes the average number of

    Photo credit: Minna Sundberg

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    Is British Sign Language The Same As American Sign Language

    Not at all! Despite both countries speaking English, their Sign Languages are very different. They are types of sign language that developed in very different circumstances. For example, all fingerspelling in ASL is done with one hand, but BSL uses two hands for fingerspelling. This is just one example. Signs in both languages are completely different from each other. Although a lot of signed languages have some overlap, just like spoken languages, someone who only knows ASL would not be able to communicate with someone who only knows BSL.

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