International Sign Languages

Robert Traynor
June 6, 2017

Although most hearing impaired adults and children in the US, Europe and many other countries around the world are oral individuals obtaining great benefit from their hearing instruments for everyday communication.  There are, however, a small percentage of individuals that use sign language daily for their communicative needs.  Living within the United States it would seem that American Sign Language (ASL) is the main language of the deaf around the world.  While one of the major forms of sign language, it is by far the universal language signed in all parts of the planet.

The definition of sign language is any means of communication through bodily movements, especially of the hands and arms, used when spoken communication is impossible or not desirable. The practice of signing is probably older than speech. Sign language may be as coarsely expressed as mere grimaces, shrugs, or pointing; or it may employ a delicately nuanced combination of coded manual signals reinforced by facial expression and perhaps augmented by words spelled out in a manual alphabet. Wherever vocal communication is impossible, as between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages or when one or more would-be communicators is deaf, sign language can be used to bridge the gap.


One of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato‘s Cratylus, where Socrates says: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?” While Americans suggest that sign language began in the streets of Paris in the 1750s and the observations of Michel de l’Epee, there were numerous attempts, printed alphabets, and signing materials before then by Pedro Ponce de Leon (1520-1584), who is said to have developed the first manual alphabet. It was refined by Juan Pablo Bonet (1620), George Delgarmo (1680) and many others that finally by 1720 the British Manual Alphabet was pretty much in its present form. Thus, 30 years prior to the Paris discovery, there was successful manual communication.  Of course, it is also history that de L’Epee published his manual alphabet in the 18th century that has survived basically unchanged in France and North America until the present time. In 1755,  he founded the first school for deaf children in Paris; Laurent Clerc was arguably its most famous graduate. Clerc went to the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817.  This move popularized the use of the Paris sign language system in North America and the system brought by Laurent Clerc became the American Sign Language (ASL). 

While ASL is used in many places, it is not universal.  It is used primarily in North America, Central Africa, West Africa, Bolivia, and a few other places. Sign languages tend to be regional and very specific to certain areas.   Gallaudet University offers a full list of countries around the world and the sign language system used.  It is interesting that these languages developed side by side with the spoken language in most places but are not necessarily related to them as there are different grammatical structures.  The World Mime Organization (2017) offers the following list of the various languages and where they are signed:


Whittman, H. (1991).  Classification linguistique des langues sign.  Revue qucoise de linguistique thorique et applique, 10:1, 215.

World Mime Organization (2017).  Sign Language.  Retrieved June 6, 2017.

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