Sign language around the world

William Woods ASL

Bachelors in American Sign Language interpretation students at William Woods University have so many opportunities to explore the global implications of sign languages around the world — from ASL 120 Deaf Culture, where students compare and contrast Deaf culture in America with other perspectives, to Interpretation courses.

In the above Attitude Live video, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) presenter, storyteller and advocate Mark Berry shares (in NZSL) how sign languages around the world differ.

“There are several different families of Sign Languages, just as there are in oral language. And there are hundreds of sign language dialects in use around the world. Most Deaf people cannot understand someone signing in a different dialect, although there are some signs that overlap — for example, thank you,” says Berry.

Worldwide, there are about 70 million Deaf people who use a sign language as their first language, and it is also the first language to many hearing. There are 130 sign languages listed on The Ethnologue language database, however there are more known but undocumented languages. No sign language is identical.

“I speak NZSL [New Zealand Sign Language], which developed from [British Sign Language] BSL, whereas ASL developed from [French Sign Language] LSF, so while Americans and British speak English, a Deaf American would have an easier time understanding a Deaf French person than a Deaf British person,” says Berry in the video.

And just as oral language dialects and word choices differ across the United States, American Sign Language can differ regionally as well.

University of Pennsylvania researchers Jami Fisher and Meredith Tamminga have been looking at Philadelphia for a specific “accent” that is exclusive to Philadelphia signers — what the researchers refer to as lexical differences — differences in words.

“For example, the sign for hospital [in Philadelphia] is exceptionally different from what standard ASL would be, and among other things. To the point where the signs are not able to be deciphered based on what they look like,” said Jami Fisher, ASL Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, on Public Radio International (PRI) podcast The World in Words last week.

Depending on the roots of a sign language, you may be able to recognize a few words you’re speaking with another similar to American Sign Language, but that is not always the case.

On The World of Words, Fisher also explained why ASL is so much closer to LSF than BSL. The reason is historical. Thomas Gallaudet, who was a preacher in the 1800s, believed that Deaf people should be able to commune with God in the same way hearing people could. He traveled to Paris to find a way to educate them, and found the Deaf schools using the manual method, meaning signs.

“He managed to convince a Deaf teacher — Laurent Clerc — to come back to the United States and teach Deaf children … He brought French Sign Language,” said Fisher.