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Sign language

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Practising the American Sign Language.

A sign language is a language made of positions and movements of hands, head and body combined with facial expressions. They are primarily used among deaf people.

Sign languages are used all over the world, yet they are not the same everywhere. Just as there are many spoken languages, there are many signed languages.

Origins and relation to oral languages[edit | edit source]

Sign languages developed over time among local deaf communities across the world, being influenced by their respective environments and cultures. They are no direct bound to oral languages: signed languages have their own history. For example, American Sign Language is much closer to French Sign Language than it is to British Sign Language! And the Flemish Sign Language, used in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, is derived from the French Sign Language and has nothing to do with the Dutch Sign Language.

However, someone that communicates using American sign language would usually read and write written English.

Where official sign languages are not known (and even where they are), "home sign" typically develops where speakers needs it to communicate.

In addition to local sign languages, there is one called International Sign which is used in some international gatherings of deaf people as well as when travelling. Contrarily to the local languages, this one has been artificially constructed since the second half of the XXth century. It uses a quite limited basic vocabulary, complemented with grammatical features common to most sign languages such as classifiers.

Also, since sign languages tend to mix a lot of miming and acting along with the actual language, deaf people often have an easier time making themselves understood with other deaf people, even if they don't "speak" the same language. This also helps them to learn each other's languages. So deaf people might have an easier time communicating across the language barrier even if their respective languages are very different.

Learning a sign language[edit | edit source]

A sign language interpreter.

Deaf people sometimes learn a sign language from their family, especially if their parents are deaf. But, most deaf children have hearing parents, so they learn a sign language from other deaf people. They may learn it by going to signing classes or by meeting deaf people otherwise or studying it alone with a workbook, or interactive method.

Other people learn sign language in order to be able to communicate easily with family members or friends that are deaf or hard of hearing. Sign languages may also be learned in order to be a sign language interpreter.

For hearing people, learning a sign language is really like learning a second language, not just learning signs for the words you already know. In the same way, translating a sign language to a spoken language involves accounting for grammar differences in much the same way that translating from one spoken language to another does.

List of local sign languages[edit | edit source]