Is American Sign Language Universal?

[Text Description: Illustration of a girl wearing a hearing aid and her hand is by her ear. To the left of her are a multi-color of yellow, blue, and coral illustrations of finger spelled alphabet international signs along with the written out letters. At the top, it says “International Sign” on coral color background.]

Many people ask, “Is American Sign Language (ASL) universal?” Well, the answer is no, it is not universal. American Sign Language is unique and is commonly used within the United States and Canada. Canada actually has two official sign languages known as American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language (LSQ). However, people from outside of the US can still learn ASL and it will be counted as another foreign language. Each country has their own sign language, Deaf culture, and organizations. The name of the sign language is the country or spoken language followed by “sign language”; for example, Israel Sign Language or British Sign Language. Many signs may look alike in each of the sign languages, but sometimes the signs may have totally different meanings. On the other hand, there are signs in which the signs and meanings are the same in each of the sign languages. Here is an example video of each country signing “Happy Father’s Day”. Besides sign languages of different countries, sometimes organizations have their own signs; for instance, the military has their own unique signs to communicate with each other during times they have to be really quiet. Here are some commonly used military signs.

French Sign Language (LSF) and American Sign Language (ASL) are very similar because ASL was derived from LSF. Abbe Charles-Michel de I’Epee founded the first deaf institute in Paris in 1755. Thomas Hopkins Galladuet traveled to Europe in 1815 to study methods for teaching Deaf students. While he was in England attending an event, he was invited by two French people to visit their Deaf school in Paris. Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher of the Deaf institute in Paris, was invited by Gallaudet to go to America to help Gallaudet establish a Deaf school in the United States. In 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc established Deaf schools in Connecticut. In 1864, today’s Deaf university, known as Gallaudet University, was founded. Today’s ASL was strongly influenced by Deaf students who graduated from American School for the Deaf, who passed down the sign language and Deaf cultural experiences. Furthermore, ASL became one of the most used languages in the United States. Here is a video of the alphabet in LSF and ASL. If you’re interested in learning about the history of ASL, watch the video here.

How do people of different national sign languages communicate with each other? There is a “language” known as International Sign Language (ISL). World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) invented a system of ‘cross-language communication’ where various international Deaf communities have the ability to interact with each other. It is important to note that ISL is not a language as it does not have a fixed sentence structure or grammar, and it is preferred to be called as International Sign (IS). IS consists of gestures and expressions that are used in certain situations which can help one understand the context of the signs. For example, “question/ask” is signed with drawing a question mark in the air, or “time” is signed by pointing at the wrist to represent someone wearing a watch. Here is a video of someone demonstrating IS.

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