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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Is Sign Language an International Language?


Photo taken by DDW Team in New Zealand and shared on flickr.

When I was telling my friends and family about Discovering Deaf Worlds, someone asked me if sign language is an international language. She meant, "Is it the same all around the world?" The answer is no. Sign language is unique to cultures and varies from country to country. When I took an ASL sign language, I was shown that there are regional variations as well. Deaf families may even use home signs that have special meaning to the family members.


Photo taken by DDW Team in Japan and shared on flickr.

Christy Smith and Dave Justice of Discovering Deaf Worlds experienced this firsthand when they traveled through Asia in 2007-2008. In their newsletters to supporters back home, they published examples of the fingerspelled alphabets for each country they visited. Their May 2008 newsletter includes the following excerpt:
....the first question our new hearing friends almost always ask is, “So sign language is universal, right? That must be cool to know a universal language!” But of course, sign language is not universal. The roots of sign language, just like any verbal language, are influenced by culture and geography. For example, the sign for “Thank you” in Japan is adopted from the karate-chop-like gesture a sumo wrestler makes after winning his prize money, whereas in China, “Thank you” is signed as a fist with a bending thumb to represent the subtle head nod Chinese people use to acknowledge thanks in passing.

Discovering Deaf Worlds holds this value to be central to its mission: "Local sign languages reflect the cultures in which they are rooted and must be preserved. "(October 2009 newsletter). While traveling through developing countries in Asia, Christy and Dave learned that Cambodia had no sign language before 1997 and the language is still in development today. In addition, Thai Sign Language was not recognized by the government as the official language of the deaf in Thailand until 1999. DDW is committed to helping the educational efforts of those teaching local sign languages. You can learn more by visiting their website at

In my next post, I will write about an exciting new venture that DDW has launched.


kym said...

Cool! I already knew that sign language is not a universal language, but, good post!!

Kim said...

Don't know if you ever go to the Ambling Rambler blog but I roomed with Robyn at a SayCon a couple years ago. (SayWhatClub). We had a laugh over our different sign languages. Yep-- it was totally useless after I took my aids off and she took off her CI. We were forced to write in English.

MM said...

A universal language has to be understood by everyone, as this doesn't occur then no sign isn't, as a physical form of communication, but a lot does not travel outside its own areas. It's a myth because you see hands used it's all the same. Usually deaf adopt the basic mime approach when meeting signers they can't follow, the same as hearing really ! I think if you are literate the most effective communication has to be written for most things, for face to face and low level communications sign is fine. Communication effectiveness relies on the situation in hand. Friends you don't use interpreters everywhere else you DO, so deaf already accept 'degrees' of communication priorities as well. Which I suppose raises the question do deaf not mind if they don't always understand their friends... or official things ?