Many people may wrongly believe that sign language is universal for all the deaf people around the world. This, however, is far from the truth. There are about 300 sign languages utilized in different countries. Quite often there is even more than one sign language used in a given country. American Sign Language (ASL) is kind of an exception in this aspect as it is used in entire Northern America and English-speaking Canada. It this sense, we can say that it is universal for the USA but not for the rest of the world. 

universal sign language

American Sign Language is used in schools and organizations of the Deaf Community in the USA. Many people learn ASL in order to be able to communicate with family members or friends, while others do it with the intention to develop professionally as ASL interpreters.

Why Isn’t There a Universal Sign Language? 

You may be wondering why there is no universal sign language. Well, why don’t people speak the same language but hundreds of different languages? The truth is pretty simple – both spoken and sign languages are natural languages. In other words, they have developed naturally around the world as a result of cultural, religious and other differences.  

Establishing one universal sign language will have the same success as establishing a single spoken language. It will be artificial and people won’t accept it and use it. Esperanto was created as an international spoken language towards the end of the 19 century but failed to get established as such. Quite a few people speak it nowadays.  

There was also an attempt to invent an international sign language referred to as Gestuno or International Sign. It had pretty much the same fate as Esperanto. The first time it was used in an international conference in 1976 in Bulgaria, it turned out that the deaf people attending it did not understand the language. It was further developed afterward, however, it still failed to get established.

List of Sign Languages 

Since there is no universal sign language, you can guess that there is a variety of them used around the world. The Ethnologue Languages of the World lists 142 sign languages, however, there are probably about 300 in use today.  

While there are “official” sign languages in each country, which are recognized and used by the deaf communities there, there are also sign languages that are used by a restricted group of people. Some schools for the deaf in Sri Lanka and Tanzania use their own languages, for example. There are also villages in remote areas that have developed their own signs used only by the community there. 

It is interesting that countries, which speak one and the same language – for example, Spanish, use different sign languages. There is Spanish sign language used in Spain and Mexican sign language used in Mexico, despite the fact that both countries use Spanish as their official language. There are also cases, where the countries use one and the same sign language but give it a different name, such as Croatian and Serbian, Indian and Pakistani, etc.

How Did American Sign Language Develop? 

American Sign Language is a complete language that has developed naturally and is now used by the deaf and hard-of-hearing people in North America and English-speaking parts of Canada. There is no exact date that can be listed as the origin of American Sign Language but it has evolved about 200 years ago as a mixture of local sign languages and French Sign Language. The language has gone through a period of development until reaching its current format. The contemporary American Sign Language differs significantly from the French Sign Language to the point that speakers of both languages are not able to understand each other.  

Quite often, the cradle of ASL is pointed out as the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, which was founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  

Later, many more schools for the deaf were founded, which also used ASL. Nowadays, the Deaf community in the USA uses the language and there are between 200,000 and 500,000 people who use ASL to communicate. 

Comparing ASL and Spoken Language 

Sign languages and spoken languages have evolved naturally to meet the needs of people to communicate. While a spoken language uses the mouth and voice to make sounds, the sign language uses gestures and facial expressions along with body position to convey the message. Sign languages are based on the notion that deaf and hard-of-hearing people use their vision as the most powerful tool to deliver and receive information. Some of them read on the lips of the speaker but most use a sign language to communicate. 

American Sign Language is a mature, independent language that is completely separate from English. It is absolutely incorrect to assume that ASL simply translates spoken English into signs. ASL has its own word order, complex grammar and rules for pronunciation. A simple example of the difference is the way questions are asked. While in English the interrogative word stays in the front – “What is your name?”, in ASL it is at the end – “Your name, what?”.  

It is interesting to know that ASL also has regional dialects and accents the same way every spoken language does. There are also individual differences in expression, rhythm of signing and pronunciation. Location, age, and ethnicity are factors that also influence the way ASL is used.  

Children who are born deaf learn to sign naturally, they do it the same way as children who learn to speak. If the parents of the child are deaf and use ASL, the child picks it up from them. In case the parents are not familiar and also need to learn ASL, other adults may serve as a role model for the child.

The conclusion is that American Sign Language is not universal for the very same reasons why English is not a universal language. It is a complete language with its structure, grammar, and regional dialects. Is it easy to learn ASL? The answer depends on whether you need it just for communication or you want to become an ASL interpreter – in both cases, however, you need to approach the undertaking as learning a new language and invest time and effort in order to master it.

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