Sign Languages in the English-Speaking World

Couple using english signed languages

Sign Languages in the English-Speaking World

In America, we are most familiar with ASL, or American Sign Language. Children may be taught simple signs while watching educational television, and many adults can name at least one funny or raunchy sign they know, passed to them by a friend or colleague. 

But just like there are thousands of spoken languages, so too are their hundreds of signed languages and variations. While ASL is used throughout the United States and into parts of Canada, there are dozens of variations used by the deaf and hard of hearing in Europe. 

In fact, there are somewhere between 138 and 300 different types of signed languages used throughout the world today. 

There are even differences in sign language among countries that use the same spoken language. Take America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. While these countries share a spoken language, each country has its own very different version of sign language.

ASL evolved from French Sign Language, one of the earliest European sign languages to gain acceptance by educators. ASL is also influenced by Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and other local sign languages. 

Although Irish Sign Language is derived from French Sign Language and has been somewhat influenced by BSL, it remains quite distinct. Most notably, because deaf students were educated in separate Catholic schools, some men and women in Ireland were taught slightly different versions of the language. This gendered version of sign language is no longer taught, and these differences have diminished over time.

Like French Sign Language, ASL and ISL use a one-handed fingerspelling alphabet.

British Sign Language, on the other hand, was based on the curriculum taught at Thomas Braidwood’s schools for the deaf in the late 1700s and early 1800s. His teachings relied on two-handed sign language and fingerspelling, with the addition of lip-reading and oralism. 

From there, BSL spread to Australia and New Zealand. With each introduction to a new area, changes and additions were made to BSL. While they use the same grammar, manual alphabet, and much of the same vocabulary, the sign languages of the Antipodes often have regional differences.

For example, New Zealand Sign Language includes signs for Māori words as well as signs from Australasian Sign Language which was used by New Zealand schools for the deaf in the 1980s.

Australian Sign Language (Auslan) includes some signs derived from Irish Sign Language, as well. Deaf Indigenous Australians may use Auslan or one of the native Australian sign languages that are unrelated to Auslan. The Far North Queensland dialect of Auslan incorporates features of these indigenous sign languages, too.

Like most language services, sign language interpretation is not one-size-fits-all.