According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are around 72 million deaf people across the world, using over 300 different sign languages. The sign languages of today evolved over time from those in the past. They are grouped into different signed family groups. These signed languages may not even be connected to the spoken language of its country of origin.
For instance, American Sign Language (ASL), one of the signed languages primarily used in the United States and Canada, is a part of the Francosign family. Although French is regularly spoken in Canada, that isn’t so much the case in America where Spanish and English are the top spoken languages.
Read more: Sign languages around the world
Not only can the signed languages be completely different than the spoken languages surrounding them, but some places can have multiple versions and tons of dialects that go along with them. The history of the country can also contribute to the changes in the language. For instance, Black ASL came about during slavery and segregation in the United States. Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was pushed into the background during colonization. Now people are fighting to keep these languages alive.
Over the centuries, spoken languages have been extensively studied. But in many places, signed languages are still battling to be seen as languages. Although a few countries do not recognize any languages, 41 of about 232 countries recognize a signed language as a national language. For some of the deaf people in these countries, having their signed language recognized means access to education, employment, and other social services.
“In many places, signed languages are still battling to be seen as languages.”
Believe it or not, in some places sign language was banned. One of the biggest examples stemmed from the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf of 1880 (also known as the Milan Conference), where deaf educators from various nations met to decide how to go forward teaching the deaf. Out of the 164 delegates, only one delegate was deaf. His name was James Denison. Delegates from the United States and Britain were the only ones to oppose an oralist only approach to educating the Deaf. The motion passed and signed language was banned in schools. During this time Gallaudet College (now University) became a safe haven for the Deaf as the college promised it would continue using it to the fullest. It wasn’t for another hundred years before the resolution on the ban was dropped. Now many are pushing for their rights to language.
Read more: Understanding India’s deaf community
While sign language waited for more recognition, research into what is known as “baby sign language” started. According to babysignlanguage.com, William Dwight Whitney noticed that children of deaf parents, who communicated through sign language, were able to communicate at six months compared to a year with hearing parents. This finding wasn’t studied further until the 1980’s/1990’s.
More and more hearing parents taught their hearing children sign language. Today, many in the Deaf community are pushing back against Baby Sign Language. The reasoning is, you don’t say you are teaching your baby Baby English/Baby French. You would say you are teaching your baby English/French. Ultimately sign language helps babies communicate their needs and wants at a young age, regardless of hearing.
Read more: How I am teaching my deaf baby sign language
One side of the language world that I personally find fascinating is the world of polyglots. A polyglot is a person who knows more than three languages, often knowing a whole lot more than three. There are hearing polyglots that are often seen on YouTube and the media. However, there are also Deaf polyglots. Though few of them are known, some know multiple signed languages, and some know multiple signed and spoken languages. One Deaf polyglot known as William on YouTube, knows 11 spoken languages and four signed languages.
As a late-deafened individual, I learned a lot of sign language in my late teens/young adult years. There are many ways to learn sign language. The most beneficial one is learning from a native Deaf user.
Read more: How to learn sign language