An Overview of Sign Language: Clearing Up Misconceptions

An Overview of Sign Language: Clearing Up Misconceptions

A common misconception about Sign Language is that all deaf & hard-of-hearing individuals and learners use only one universal version of Sign Language. But did you know that there are over 200 different Sign Languages?   

Sign Language generally does not correspond to the spoken language within that country. To illustrate: the US and Britain both speak English as their primary language. If you look at the Sign Languages of the two countries, they have nothing in common. If you know American Sign Language (ASL), you are not likely to understand even one sign of British Sign Language (BSL), including their alphabet… Yet the spoken languages are the same! In fact, in terms of syntax, ASL is more closely related to Japanese than English. There is little connection between the development of Sign Language and the spoken language that surrounds it.   

All languages at times borrow elements from other languages. For example, in English, we use “Noodle,” influenced by the German language. Or “breeze” influenced by Spanish. Similarly, Sign Languages have done the same in borrowing from spoken language. An example of this is using an alphabet to spell out our names. Though there is a natural influence of spoken language within Sing Languages, this does not define or make up the entire language. Just as English is not German, American Sign Language is not English.   

Many say that hearing people “invented” Sign Language for those who needed it. This idea is far from the truth. Sign Language came about by those who use and need the language, the Deaf. They very well could have had little or no knowledge of the spoken language in their area. As a result, we have visual language not confined by the rules or structure of spoken language.   

What can we learn?   

We cannot expect those who use ASL, such as the deaf, to know our spoken Language, English. Whether in written form or by lipreading. We must treat Sign Languages as they are, as Foreign Languages. As a minority language group, not a disability group.