4 Common Misconceptions About Sign Language

4 Common Misconceptions About Sign Language


The World Federation of the Deaf says there are more than 70 million people around the world that use sign language to communicate. But far from all speaking the same language, those who communicate by signing utilize vastly different forms of manual expression. Ethnologue has 142 distinct sign languages recorded in its database, Wikipedia has 190 entries for sign languages and dialects, and it is estimated that there are actually well over 300 sign languages and dialects used around the world. Oftentimes these languages come about through relatively isolated communities of deaf individuals, and as is with any language, with time and isolation, dialects or distinct features emerge.


The first recorded reference to sign languages was by Plato, when he mentioned deaf individuals communicating with body language. The Gospel of Luke mentions sign language as well, when the father of John the Baptist is rendered deaf by the angel Gabriel for being a nonbeliever; his family subsequently communicates with him through motions and gestures. Native American tribes, before Europeans colonized the Americas, sometimes had signed lingua francas to communicate with other tribes that spoke different languages. Turkish Ottoman courts used some variation of sign language from the 16th to the 18th century. European sign languages only just began to develop and codify more fully in the 18th century, more than two thousand years after Plato discussed them in his work.


Although there are tens of millions around the world who communicate with sign language, deaf individuals have been communicating with sign language for literally thousands of years, and Deaf communities and culture which have risen prominence in the past few decades, quite a few misconceptions around sign languages persist. Let’s take a look at some of these:



1.      Sign languages are not universal

Obviously, with the hundreds of sign languages around the world that are mentioned above, sign languages are not mutually intelligible. Even languages who speak the same language almost always have quite distinct sign languages. One of the best examples of this idea is that British and American sign languages, while their spoken counterparts are the same language with minimal difference in dialect, are entirely unintelligible and even have different alphabets – the British have a two-handed alphabet while the Americans’ is one-handed.


When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who created the American School for the Deaf in 1817, went to Europe to learn about methods of teaching deaf children, the two prominent schools in the United Kingdom both turned him away, but those in France welcomed him in. Accordingly, perhaps if Gallaudet had been able to learn from British schools, the two sign languages would be more similar, but the American Sign Language of today shares about 60 percent of its vocabulary with French Sign Language.


Just like for sign languages in English-speaking countries, all Spanish-speaking countries, Arabic-speaking countries, and most French-speaking countries (languages spoken across numerous countries) all have their own unique variation of sign language that wouldn’t be understood outside their borders.



2.      Sign languages do not mirror spoken languages

Quite the contrary, sign languages employ their own unique vocabulary and syntax. Gestures, motions, and signs were not born from spoken or written words but from commonly understood ideas in groups or communities of deaf individuals. Sign language is not just spoken words expressed in the same order with hand gestures.


This leads us into the next misconception, that sign languages were created by hearing people:



3.      Sign languages developed separately from spoken languages

While the current array of most widely spoken sign languages were created in the past three centuries, sign languages have been spoken by the deaf and hard of hearing for millennia. The man credited with bringing sign language and the ability for deaf individuals to contribute and participate in society to the attention of the masses, Charles Michel de l’Epee, stumbled upon two Parisian women speaking with complex and eloquent signs and gestures in the mid-18th century.


A triangle of towns known for its high incidence of deafness near Martha’s Vineyard each developed their own sign languages that, when Gaullaudet opened up his school for the deaf and brought over a French Sign Language instructor, a new language merged itself into existence, standard American Sign Language.


The British Sign Language alphabet

4.      Sign languages are not “inferior” to spoken languages

There’s an idea that the ability for sign languages to express ideas and concepts is more limited than spoken languages, a derogatory idea that has persisted among European and Western nations for centuries. Up until the 1700s, it was commonly thought that deaf individuals didn’t have the mental capabilities that hearing individuals did. This also was a contributing factor to why sign languages weren’t codified until 2,000 years after Plato first mentioned them in his writings.


Deaf babies acquire sign language the same way hearing babies acquire spoken languages, going through basic manual expressions to communicate wants and needs. Linguists classify and consider sign languages the same as spoken languages in terms of complexity, development, and vocabulary. And anyone who has studied sign languages knows that there are complex ways to express oneself, just like there are in spoken languages.


Trying to navigate all these languages can be stressful, and especially with sign language – the third most commonly used language in court interpretation – being sure to have the right materials and resources is imperative. Luckily, Ata Translation Agency is able to help you with all your translation, interpretation, and localization needs as they relate to sign language. Give us a call or send us an email now to get a free quote or learn more about our services.



About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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