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Do sign languages have the same characteristics as spoken languages?

Some differences between sign languages and spoken languages.
Mapa lingüístico mundial de las familias de LS
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra


Sign languages (SLs) are natural languages, as they arise naturally from a need to communicate with deaf infants. Their acquisition process is very similar to that of spoken languages, and deaf babies go through the same stages of acquisition as hearing babies. In addition, although they are gestural languages, SLs are located in the parts of the brain responsible for language.

True or false?

  1. SL is an artificial communication system
  2. SL is universal
  3. SL is connected with the local spoken language

1. Sign language is not an artificial communication system

Sign language is not an artificial communication system. There are, however, artificial communication systems that are used to teach spoken language to deaf children. These systems include:
  • Cued speech, which facilitates speechreading
  • Sign supported speech, which combines spoken and sign language and is used as a basis for learning the grammatical structure of spoken language
  • Fingerspelling, which is a representation of the letters of the written alphabet using only the hands

2. Sign language is not universal

All known and studied languages in the world are listed on the Ethnologue website. Among them there are more than 140 different sign languages from all over the world. This is an estimated figure, however, as there could be other sign languages that are yet to be studied. Furthermore, the difference between what is considered to be a language and what is considered a dialect is still unclear, as the study of sign languages is very new. There is also an international sign language (ISL), which, although not a natural language, it serves as a communication bridge between deaf signers from different countries.

3. Sign language is not connected with the local spoken language

SL has no connection with local spoken languages. It is, therefore, common to find different sign languages in countries that share a single spoken language, as well as regions or countries that have their own spoken language, but which share a SL with other places. Here are some examples:

English-speaking countries:

Spanish speaking countries/places:

Basque country:

What are the main sign language families?

Below there are the main linguistic families and the languages they comprise:

1. Old French Sign Language:

Genetic relationship originally developed in France to educate deaf people
  • French SL
  • American SL
  • Catalan SL
  • Spanish SL
  • Dutch SL
  • Quebec SL
  • Irish SL
  • Flemish SL

2. British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language (BANZSL):

Genetic relationship developed by colonialism and emigration
  • Australian SL
  • New Zealand SL
  • British SL

3. Japanese:

  • Japanese SL
  • Taiwanese SL
  • Korean SL

4. Scandinavian:

  • Finnish SL
  • Swedish SL
  • Norwegian SL
Not all SL families are “pure”, and there are influences between SL caused by a variety of factors. For example, there is an important influence of American SL on Ghanaian SL due to historical missionary work.
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra
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Introduction to Catalan Sign Language: Speaking with Your Hands and Hearing with Your Eyes

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