Many people are surprised or even shocked to learn that American Sign Language is not universal. However, when you think about how many spoken languages there are across the globe, it makes sense that sign language would be the same. After all, American Sign language is its own language with its own grammar, idioms, and everything else needed to be a language completely separate from English. Different types of sign language are developed in different regions around the globe, just like spoken languages.
What does it mean that American Sign Language is not universal?
There are so many types of sign language across the world! Just a few examples are British Sign Language–used in the UK–French Sign Language–from France and also used in parts of Canada–Indian Sign Language–signed in India. And there are so many more!
Think of how many spoken languages and cultures there are in the world, there are deaf people all around the globe. Doesn’t it just make sense that there would be just as many signed languages? After all, types of sign languages originated from different places just like spoken languages. In fact, many developed in even more isolated areas, due to the fact that there were, and are, less deaf people than there are hearing people.
What is American Sign Language?
American Sign Language (ASL) is the Sign Language used in the US and parts of Canada. It actually originated from a mixture of French Sign Language and home signs of the 1st students of the 1st American School for the Deaf. The first deaf teacher in that school in the USA, a man named Laurent Clerc, was from France and brought a lot of that country’s influence with him.
Now when you see American Sign Language, it’s apparent that it’s much different than the sign language you might see in France. ASL, just like spoken languages, continues to evolve. In spoken English you don’t hear the same slang as was used in the 1900s, the language has changed with the times, so too with ASL!
Within ASL there are also variations on the language. PSE (Pidgin Signed English) and SEE (Signed Exact English) are also ways of signing. They are, however, based on English. They are not their own languages, but they are still used all over the US.
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.
What are the Differences Between Different Types of Sign Languages?
Well, they are actually completely different languages, as different as spoken languages are from one another. If you are hearing, and know only English, you wouldn’t be able to suddenly travel to Spain or Japan and speak to anyone in their language. The same is true of the types of sign language across the globe. Each is a unique language that has a unique culture and history attached.
Sometimes, signs are similar across languages. The signs in American Sign Language that tell about passing another car in traffic are the same motions as the signs used in the sign language used in India. However, the hand shapes are very different.
Every sign has 5 parameters, handshape, location, movement, palm orientation and non manual signals. Handshape, and movement of the handshape are fairly self explanatory. Location refers to where on the body or in space the hand is located. Palm orientation has to do with the direction your hand is facing. And finally, non manual signals are facial expressions, movement of the body, and anything that isn’t the hand itself. These things can actually change the meaning of a whole sign, and if any of these are different in these between different signed languages the meaning completely changes.
The different sign languages across the globe are each their own language
Each place that has a unique sign language is completely separate from both other types of sign languages, and the spoken language of that region. There are just as many sign languages as there are deaf communities, some are national and some are regional. Learning a language is so good for inclusion, just don’t forget that you are only learning one language, not a universal language. Whether that’s ASL, BSL, or the sign language of Brazil, Egypt, Russia, or any other region. They each have languages all their own.