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 as there are countries. There are also regional differences so signs will vary across the country too. So, just like someone from Bristol has a slightly different 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 signs for purple!

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Is British Sign Language used in other countries?

Sign languages, like spoken languages have a ‘family tree’. British Sign Language is similar to sign language in Australia (AusLan) and New Zealand (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 will have remained the same over thousands of years.

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

sign language family tree

Why is American and British Sign Language 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). 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.

ASL emerged after Thomas Gallaudet set up a Deaf School in the U.S. Gallaudet had travelled to Europe and during his time there, he met Laurent Clerc who used French Sign Language (LSF). The history of ASL is in stark contrast to BSL’s history in the UK, particularly the impact of oralism.

Universal Sign Language – Gestuno?

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

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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.