international sign language

Is there a universal sign language?

People new to sign language often ask if there is a universal sign language. Sign Language is like every other language on the planet, in that there are as many different sign languages around the world as there are countries. There are also regional differences so signs will vary across a country too. So, just like someone from Bristol has a slightly different accent and dialect to someone from Newcastle, the same applies to British Sign Language – even the simplest signs will vary according to region. For example, at the time of writing, there were over 12 BSL signs for purple!

Table of Contents

Is Sign Language the same in every country?

No, but sign languages, like spoken languages may have a ‘family tree’. British Sign Language is similar to Australian sign language (AusLan) and New Zealand sign language (NZSL). It is likely that BSL was used by migrants to these countries and modified over time to become languages in their own right. Some consider AusLan and NZSL to be dialects so theoretically you could say BSL is used in other countries.

AusLan is separate from the indigenous sign languages, used by Aborigines. These sign languages have remained the same over thousands of years.

BSL is different from American Sign Language (ASL), despite the fact that the U.S is an English speaking country. Why is that?

sign language family tree

British Sign Language vs American Sign language – why are they different?

American Sign Language (ASL) differs from BSL in a number of ways but the most obvious difference is ASL uses one-handed fingerspelling (similar to Irish Sign Language), while BSL uses two hands. The Sign Language Family Tree (above) shows the history of different sign languages. From the chart, we can see that ASL is linked to French sign language and has no historical link to BSL.

Interestingly, Japanese sign language and Chinese sign language have their own lineage and are not related to each other or other sign languages. We can also see that Russian sign language appears to be related to ASL!

We add a note of caution regarding the image of ‘sign language family tree’. It is unclear who collected the information about these different languages or who decided the relationship between the languages.

Collecting information about sign languages around the world is notoriously difficult. Before cameras, signs had to be drawn. Drawings cannot capture all elements of signing because it is a language that using 3-D space. Even videos have difficulty capturing signs! So it is unlikely that a researcher has been able to document sign languages sufficiently to confirm a family tree.

We know ASL emerged after Thomas Gallaudet set up a Deaf School in the U.S. Gallaudet had previously travelled to Europe and during his time there, he met Laurent Clerc who used French Sign Language (LSF). Gallaudet learned FSL and took what he learned to America. The history of ASL is in stark contrast to BSL’s history in the UK. The most notable (negative) impact on BSL was oralism.

Universal Sign Language – Gestuno?

While there is no official universal sign language, there is a form of international sign language called Gestuno. It uses elements of different sign languages so that sign language users from different parts of the world are able to communicate with each other.

BSL video (YouTube) translation:

The British Deaf Association (BDA) worked with the World Federation of the Deaf to create a book of international signs. The book was the first official book of Gestuno – international sign language.

The idea for the book was created to make it easier for Deaf people at international events (e.g. sports events, conferences) to communicate with each other.

Compiling the book was difficult. All communication was by letter – there was no internet, emailing, texting or video calling. Unfortunately, letter writing resulted in miscommunication but the book was eventually completed in 1975.

Some of the countries that existed when the book was created no longer exist or have divided into two separate countries. Some of the signs e.g. for Germany or Sweden are still used today.

Looking at the chart, French sign language appears to be the main historical language across sign languages worldwide. This is in contrast to spoken language, where English is (now) the most spoken language across the globe.

International Sign Language

International Sign Language is still used in various places across the world. It is mainly used in social, political, sports or business contexts. For example, it is used in international institutions such as the U.N. It is also be used by public services such as border control or social services when a deaf person uses a non native sign language.

International Sign Language is flexible and adapts to those using it. It incorporates many sign languages including ASL, BSL, Scandinavian sign languages and many others.

Despite the prevalence of International Sign (ISL), there is a shortage of ISL interpreters. The need for ISL interpreters is growing as people travel more frequently. You can find out more about becoming a Sign Language interpreter in one of our study guides.

Related articles: