Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Reasons Why Is Sign Language Universal and Why it Isn’t

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There are different mediums available to communicate with people, like facial expressions, gestures, language, music, and more. Out of all of them, Language comes on top as we use it in our daily life while interacting with people around us. But Is sign language universal or varying in types?

Although you might not be aware of how to use sign language, you must have either seen it in public, through media, or as a sign language interpreter at a conference. There are various sign languages and sign language families around the globe. New sign language developed every day at a fast pace, makes it difficult to keep several sign languages. Out of all the questions and myths about sign language, the most common one is

 Is Sign language Universal?

american sign language

Is sign language universal or individual language for each in the world? A simple answer to that is no. No, there is no specific sign language that can be considered a universal language and used for communication with all the Deaf and hard of hearing people worldwide. Even though English is the universal language of the spoken language, sign language doesn’t have a universal language. There are several reasons why sign language cannot be considered a universal language.

A lot of myths surround the language of the deaf or the sign language. A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about it and assume completely irrelevant facts. Comparing sign language with the spoken language, both of them are comparatively different from each other.

Do We Consider Sign Language Universal?

“Wouldn’t It Be Easier if Everyone Used the Same Sign Language to Communicate?”

It would be easier, but it wouldn’t work in the long term. Having different sign languages makes it fun for people to learn but easier as they are based on their region’s dialect and culture. As the spoken language has different forms, sign language is also bound to change as it travels through different countries and cities. It adapts to the local area and the people learning it.

Sign language also has its different types depending upon regions and their culture like any other spoken language. Culture and language are interconnected and affect each other accordingly. For example, there are two French sign languages. One is a French sign language used in France. The other is French Belgian sign language, which is used in the Belgian country and personalized according to its culture and environment.

Sign language developed through origins and the later changes made to them by the people learning the language. Sign language communities are usually small in size. The Deaf people communities are spread wide across the world. But the awareness about sign language is not so much as it should be. There are limited schools or spaces for people to study sign language, which leads to different sign languages being developed in villages and districts. There are really few facilities available for the deaf and hard of hearing people who help deal with their daily lives.

Every country has its sign language or expands according to different dialects. The deaf and hard of hearing people living in that area also play a role in the development of sign language. Along with the location factor, other factors play in the growth of new sign languages. Sign languages have their structure and grammar like spoken languages. Sign languages are not dependent on spoken language for the meaning-making process.

Elements of Sign Language

Conversing in sign language


Spoke language has a universal language, so is sign language universal too? A 2003 study published in the quarterly journal Sign Language Studies states that occurrence is one of the primary factors that affect how people speak individual words. The paper had over four thousand signs analyzed, with the frequency characteristics being reported here. For instance, signers communicate with one another through several signs like FINISH and EAGLE.

If you’ve seen people talk in sign language, then you must be aware that sign language includes not only hand gestures but body movements and facial expressions. The body movements focus on the face, neck, chest, knee, legs, and more. It is an important element in sign language to have proper gestures and facial expressions. One mistake can lead to the language changing its dialect or structure.

Facial expressions include eyebrows, eyes, smiling or displaying the common emotions, puffing of cheeks, and more like them. These changes are not different than how the spoken language has grammar, syntax, and pronunciations. For the spoken language, there are phonetics, and for sign language, it is expressing through body movements and gestures. So, is sign language universal?

Some gestures or facial expressions might be similar in two or one sign language, but it is not right to consider sign language universal. For example, in ASL or American sign language, the word AMERICA is expressed by intertwining the fingers and rotating them in front of the chest, as if stirring a pot. On the other hand, in German Sign language, it is expressed by interlinking the fingers and making a circle in front of the chest.

Is Sign Language Universal? What About the Different Language Families?

Let’s Take a Look at the Sign Language Families around the world.Quebec Sign Language

There are different families of languages around the world. These families have either originated from the other or developed through different languages. These families are there to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing learned the language easily and quickly. These language families include the BANZSL Sign language, FRENCH sign language family, DANISH Sign language family, and SWEDISH sign language family.

Out of these, the French sign language family is the largest. The French sign language family includes Italian sign language, Irish sign language, Quebec sign language, Russian sign language, American sign language, Dutch sign language, Mexican sign language, Catalan sign language, Austrian sign language, Czech sign language, and many more. French sign language is the largest language family clan when it comes to the development of sign languages.

Is sign language universal in the Asian parts of the world? Even in South Asia, Pakistan and India have similar sign languages, Sri Lanka has its own sign language. Japanese sign language, Chinese sign language, and Korean sign language are all different languages altogether.

As a fun fact, ASL or American sign language asl and BSL or British sign language do not have anything similar. This is a common misconception between people that ASL and BSL are similar. ASL is the most commonly known sign language to people. But even though the form of spoken language is English, in both countries, sign languages in both the countries are different as American sign language has been developed through the French sign language. So, it has certain elements of French sign language.

With this many language families, the answer to the question; is sign language universal remains the same. It becomes even clear, if so, why there is no sign language universal in nature.

How Sign Languages Change Around the World

With the rapidly advancing sign language system, it is a task for linguists to keep track of so many different versions of sign languages. Some sites say that there are around 142 sign languages globally, while others say that there are more than 300 sign languages in the world. In this number of languages, it is impossible to have a universal language that everyone acknowledges.

Sign languages don’t just develop in urban areas and rural areas like villages or small country towns. For example, ASL or American sign language is the sign language used in America. But all over America, the language doesn’t remain the same; they change according to states and their dialects.

Taking an example of village sign languages from ASL itself, there was a sign language developed specifically in Martha’s Vineyard Island in the United States due to the increasing number of deaf communities. However, Marth Vineyard sign language no longer exists.

The Semantics of Sign Language

In the context of language development, sign language may be similar to spoken language, as it has its linguistic qualities. Sign languages evolve naturally depending upon the environment. Like a public school, the children learning sign may form a version of their own sign language. Sign languages are also formed when there is an increase or decrease in the population of the Deaf community.

As sign language uses hand gestures, body movements, and facial expressions, they have their functions in the working of the language. In ASL, facial expressions represent a lot of the grammar of the language. There is also the use of one hand or both the hands for the alphabets. ASL has one-handed alphabets, and BSL uses two-handed alphabets in their language structure.

There is no Universal Sign Interpreter.

language interpreter

You will not be able to find one sign interpreter who can communicate with all deaf people. No sign interpreter is learned in all the different types of sign languages. Everyone is specialized in their languages depending upon their country, region, and preference.

Sign Language is just a visual Language. Is it?

A lot of times, sign language is called a visual language solely. It is described as pictorial and similar to mimes. However, sign language is much more than just visual communication and gestures. It has its grammar and structure like any other language. It isn’t easy to learn sign language in the first place. A lot of children reach a certain communicative level because of the difficulty in learning.

Learning a spoken language is difficult, but it is still easier as we can listen to the sounds of the words. But in sign language, the children can’t hear the sound from the beginning, so learning something you’ve never even been familiar with once is hard.

In sign language, even babies have a babble when learning how to sign for the first time. It is a difficult task to be accurate in the facial expressions and the hand gestures you make. Every gesture and facial expression means something, and one wrong move can lead to misunderstanding.

Looking into the diversity of sing languages, let’s look at the different sign languages used in Britain/United Kingdom and America/United States individually.

asl and british sign language

In Britain, the most obvious one is BSL or British Sign language. BSL has its grammar, syntax, and structure. Hence, it is different and doesn’t align with spoken English. BSL focuses more on hand gestures than facial expressions.

Along with BSL, Irish sign language is also used in areas of Northern Ireland. One unique concept about Irish sign language is that it is gender-based. As there are schools separately for females and males, the languages also differ from each other accordingly.

Another sign language used in Britain is SSE or Sign Supported English. SSE or Sign Supported English is not counted as a language exactly, but it is used to make it easier to learn the structure and grammar of BSL. It is similar to BSL in nature, but it aligns more to structuring sentences according to spoken English.

Lastly, this language isn’t exactly considered a language for the deaf but more as a supportive language to help develop people with learning disorders or other disabilities, which affects the learning ability. This language is also used by those who are deaf and hard of hearing. The language is called Makaton.

Moving on from Britain or U.K, we come to the United States of America. The United States primarily has three main sign languages across the country. First, many people of the deaf communities in America use ASL or American Sign language asl. ASL is considered as a completely individual language. It is also considered as a language credit in universities. The French sign language has inspired ASL. Facial expressions act as the grammar of the American sign language asl.

Second, Pidgin Signed English or Signed English. PSE or Pidgin Signed English is widely used across America. Although it takes inspiration from ASL, it follows more on the lines of the order in which spoken English is used. It is said to be easier than ASL and SEE.

Lastly, Signed Exact English SEE or Sign Exact English sign language gives a clear and focused English picture. It takes inspiration from ASL and is expanded through words, prefixes, and tenses. It does, exactly as the name suggests, give a comprehensive and easy presentation of the English language—the gestures. Facial expressions and body movements are structured to form spoken English sentences. Despite its clarity, SEE takes longer to sign than PSE and difficult to get it right.

While American sign language asl comes from the French sign language like Mexican sign language, Quebec sign language, BSL, or British sign language is a part of the BANZSL Family.

Like ASL and BSL, sign languages all around the world differ in various perspectives and elements. Sign languages may have some common gestures, body movements, or facial expressions, but no sign language is completely similar to the other.

As discussed earlier, being a hard proof for the answer to the question for this article is Sign Language Universal. Sign languages change throughout the world, from country to country, village to village, or city to city. Small villages usually form their own sign languages because of the low population and familiarity among them.

For this reason, sign language cannot be called a universal language. It has a lot of different components and types that branch out wide across the world.

Concept of International Sign.

“There is an International Sign, so is sign language universal now?”

Even though sign language is not considered as one universal language, there is International Sign language. It falls under the category of pidgin sign language. It is usually used in huge gatherings like conferences or Deaflympics, for example, where deaf people worldwide come together. It is used for both deaf and hard of hearing people. International sign language was made for cross-communication on special occasions. Even in spoken language, International Languages differ in some countries.

However, even International Sign language doesn’t remain the same everywhere and is modified in some places to suit the people and the sign language they are aware of.


Thank You

So, is Sign Language Universal?

Coming back to our main question, is Sign Language Universal? In a nutshell, no sign language can be considered a universal language. All of them go under modification and change accordingly. Sign languages have been under modification since original sign languages emerged. From the origins, several languages were inspired by it.

It must be fun and helpful to know at least one sign language. Do you know any sign language? If yes, have you noticed the differences with other sign languages? Let us know in the comments below.

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