Reading the Signs: Sign Language

By April 21, 2017Culture, Language

Various languages have, since time immemorial, been the mode of communication between people. These languages have evolved over time and today we see a large language map which has many language families and dialects. These are mostly verbal and written. But what about a large part of world population that is hard of hearing or has hearing and speaking disabilities?

Sign language is a visual means of communication that uses hand gestures and facial expressions. It is mainly used by people who have hearing or speech impairments.

There are about 70 million deaf people who use sign language as their first language or mother tongue. Each country has one or sometimes two or more sign languages, although different sign languages can share the same linguistic roots in the same way as spoken languages do.


Sign languages have supposedly existed as long as spoken languages. No one has invented them but they have arisen spontaneously through time by unrestricted interactions among people who use them as a primary communication system.

Difference between sign and spoken languages is in different modalities they use. Signed languages are visual-gestural languages, while spoken languages are auditory-vocal languages. Forms of sign languages consist of sequences of movements and configurations of the hands and arms, face, and upper torso. The forms of spoken languages consist of sounds produced by sequences of movements and configurations of the mouth and vocal tract.

The status of sign language varies in each country, therefore, the legislators and governments understand the roles of sign languages in different ways. In some countries the rights of Deaf people to education and equal participation in the society are secured by legislation.

Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not a universal language. Like spoken languages, sign languages around the world are different.
International Sign (Language), formerly known as Gestuno, is an artificially devised sign language. International Sign is composed of vocabulary signs from different sign languages that Deaf people agreed to use at international events and meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress, events such as the Deaflympics, in video clips produced by Deaf people and watched by other Deaf people from around the world, and informally when travelling and socialising. International Sign is a term used by the World Federation of the Deaf and other international organisations. The need to standardise an international sign system was discussed at the first World Deaf Congress in 1951, when the WFD was formed.

Every country has its own sign language based on the local spoken languages and culture. Many are standardized while some are not, owing to cultural and geographical diversity.

American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, complex language that employs signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

British Sign Language (BSL)

The common form of Sign language used in Britain is called British Sign Language (BSL). It has its own grammatical structure and syntax and is not totally dependent on spoken English. It is the preferred language of around 145,000 people in the UK.

Sign Supported English (SSE)

This is another form of sign language used in Britain. It uses the same signs as BSL but the signs are used in the same order as spoken English. It is generally used in schools where children with hearing impairments are studying alongside students who can hear and speak.


Auslan is the language of the deaf community in Australia. Auslan was not invented by any single person, hearing or deaf. Auslan has evolved from the sign languages brought to Australia during the nineteenth century from Britain and Ireland. Auslan has been called a dialect of British Sign Language (BSL).


This is a method of spelling words using hand movements. It is used in sign language to spell out names of people or places for which there is no particular sign. It can also be used to spell words for signs that the signer or a sign reader does not know. BSL uses a two-handed alphabet whereas ASL uses a one-handed alphabet.

Persons with hearing or speech impairments must have equal opportunity of expression, communication and comprehension as all other individuals. Sign languages help them participate in the mainstream and ensure prospects for growth and learning.


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