Signed Languages Around the World

A language develops when a community of people is struggling to communicate, whether it be a mixed or pidgin language, or if part of the group chooses to learn the language of the other part. But what happens when the physiology of your body does not allow you to learn a language? You need to find a way to communicate with others.

This is what has happened with various communities of deaf people around the world. People with hearing loss struggle to speak a vocal language because they cannot hear, and therefore replicate the way their community speaks it. For centuries, maybe longer, deaf people have been using their hands, faces, and other body parts in order to communicate with their peers. 

The oldest record of this type of communication is shown in Plato’s Cratylus, a play written in ancient Greek times. In the dialogue, 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?” Some form of sign language has been around since the first person with hearing loss started to communicate.

In fact, even people who do not suffer from hearing loss have used signing. In the United States there are records dating back to the 1500s showing that Native American tribes had developed a form of sign language to communicate with tribes speaking a different language.

Over the years, sign languages have evolved, changed, grown, and diverged just like spoken languages.  Many people believe that there is only one sign language across the world, but there are more than one hundred different sign languages in existence. Even spoken languages can have different sign languages; for example, American Sign Language and British Sign Language are two different languages, although speaking citizens of America and Britain typically both speak English. In Spain and Mexico, the majority speak Spanish, but the sign languages of these countries are actually very different.

British sign language is sometimes considered a dialect of BANZSL, which encompasses British, Australian, and New Zealand Sign Languages. These languages evolved from a sign language formed in Britain during the 19th century. American Sign Language (ASL) was actually formed using a combination of French signs and village sign language from communities in New England.

On every continent, a vast variety of signed languages exist, many have developed within the existing community, known as village sign, while others have been brought over and evolved from some of the major signed languages. Here is a list of sign languages by country, including their language of origin.

Although these people may not be able to hear a spoken language, they can sign it, and they can also read, making communication easier for us all.  Most materials today are written - emails, PDFs, apps, websites, etc. For those materials that are audio-based, like videos, audios, or videogames, new technology allows us to add subtitles so that we may communicate with the deaf audience without having to learn sign language. Here at Lionbridge onDemand, we offer subtitling and transcription services, as well as transcription translations to reach your audience in other parts of the world. Don’t miss out on this vast market of people. Come check out our website to see what we offer.