Sign Language

What is Sign Language?

Sign language is a form of communication that uses physical gestures, instead of spoken words, to convey meaning. It is used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as by those who can hear but cannot speak.

There are many different sign languages in use around the world, each with its own set of hand shapes and gestures.


History of Sign Language

The history of sign language is long and complex, with roots in both the deaf community and the larger society. Early forms of sign language were developed by deaf people as a way to communicate with each other and with hearing people. These early forms were often based on the natural gestures that people use to convey meaning, such as pointing or waving.

As sign language developed, it became its own distinct form of communication, with its own grammar and rules. Within the past few centuries, sign language has also developed different dialects. Some of these dialects are still in use today.


How Sign Language is Used Today

Sign language is a vital form of communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. It is also used by many hearing people, including parents of deaf children, sign language interpreters, and people who work in noisy environments. There are different types of sign language, with the most common being American Sign Language (ASL).


American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is the most common form of sign language in the United States. ASL originated in the early 19th century with French Sign Language (LSF). LSF was brought to the United States by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a pioneer in deaf education. Gallaudet observed LSF being used at a school for the deaf in France and was so impressed that he decided to bring it back to the United States.

ASL is a complex language that uses hand shapes, gestures, body movement, and facial expressions to convey meaning. It is a visual language that does not require speech or sound. It is also a complete language, with a syntax and grammar all its own. It is fully capable of handling all subjects and levels of discourse, from everyday conversations to highly technical subjects such as chemistry or computer programming. ASL is also made up of a large number of ASL-specific signs, which are different from the signs used in LSF and other forms of sign language.

ASL is the primary form of communication for many deaf people in the United States and Canada.

There are also other signed languages used around the world, such as British Sign Language (BSL), French Sign Language (LSF), and Japanese Sign Language (JSL). Signed languages vary from country to country and can be different even within the same country.

Find out more about American Sign Language on our American Sign Language (ASL) Alphabet and Numbers page.


British Sign Language (BSL)

BSL is the first language of many deaf people in the United Kingdom (UK), and is used by some hearing people too. BSL was recognized as a language by the UK government in 2003. This means that it is now an official language of the UK, alongside English and Welsh.

It has its own grammar, vocabulary and syntax, which are different from English. This can make it challenging for hearing people to learn, but there are plenty of resources available to help.

BSL is a visual-gestural language, so it can be used by deafblind people as well as those who can see and hear. It is a natural way of communicating, and many deaf people feel that it is an important part of their identity.


French Sign Language (LSF)

LSF (Langue des Signes Française) is the native language of the deaf community in France, and is used by tens of thousands of people. It is a visually-based language that uses hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions to communicate.

While LSF has been historically marginalized by the hearing community, it is now recognized as a valuable form of communication. In France at the turn of the 20th century, it was considered that the use of sign language was somehow a barrier to learning to talk and and was forbidden from the classroom. Over time, the use of sign language was discredited as a barrier to learning how to speak and not thereafter permitted in the classroom.

This attitude remained all the way up until the end of the centrury, when in 1991 the National Assembly passed the Fabius law, officially authorising the use of LSF for the education of deaf children. Legislation was finally passed in 2005 fully recognising LSF as a language in its own right.

In recent years, there have been efforts to promote and preserve LSF through events and education programs.


Japanese Sign Language (JSL)

Japan has its own sign language, called Japanese Sign Language (JSL) of Nihon Shuwa. It is estimated that there are about 150,000 deaf people in Japan who use JSL.

JSL consists of two main types of signs: hand signs and body language signs. Hand signs are made with the hands and fingers and are used to represent words or concepts. Body language signs are made with the whole body and are used to express emotions or convey meaning without using words.

JSL is a visual-spatial language, which means that it is primarily conveyed through sight and space, rather than sound. This can make it difficult for hearing people to learn JSL, as they often rely on auditory cues to pick up new languages.


The Benefits of Learning Sign Language

There are many benefits to learning sign language:

  • First, it can help you communicate with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

  • Second, it can improve your cognitive skills. Studies have shown that people who know sign language have better memory recall than those who don’t know sign language.

  • Third, learning sign language can help you better understand the world around you. When you know sign language, you can “read” a person’s body language and facial expressions, which can give you clues about what they’re thinking or feeling.

Learning sign language is challenging at first, but with practice you ll be able to communicate more effectively with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.


The Challenges of Learning Sign Language

One of the challenges of learning sign language is that it is a visuo-spatial language, which means that it is represented by visual cues instead of spoken words. This can make it difficult for those who are not used to reading body language or facial expressions.

Another challenge is that sign language is a complex language with its own grammar and syntax, which can be difficult to learn for those who are not familiar with linguistics. Additionally, sign languages vary from region to region, so someone who wants to learn sign language may need to learn multiple versions in order to communicate with people from different parts of the world (for example, a person proficient in American Sign language may struggle to communicate with a deaf person from Japan).


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