Sign Language Overview
Learn all about what sign language is, who uses it, and the various forms of sign language throughout the world!
What is sign language?
Sign languages are languages used mainly by deaf people that employ signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and postures of the body. Many family members of sign language users can sign as well.
Groups of deaf people have used sign languages throughout history, with of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, and there are hundreds of different types of sign language used throughout the world today.
There are over 20 different types of sign languages from the Middle East, at least 25 from Africa, around 50 originating in the Americas, and even more from Europe and Asia! Sign language has evolved wherever there are humans, and there is no universal sign language: not all signers can understand one another, and the main spoken language of an area is often nothing like the main sign language of that area!
Who uses sign language?
Sign language is commonly used by people with the following conditions, and many of their family members come to learn as well:
Apraxia of Speech
Apraxia of Speech is a motor speech disorder which affects the connection between the brain and the mouth. This makes it difficult for a person to move their lips, tongue and says sounds correctly. Using both sign language and voicing to talk can help a person remember the motor process for that word. For someone with Apraxia of Speech sign language can benefit them emotionally and socially.
Children with autism can struggle with the spoken language. Sign language is another option for communication. Research shows that sign language may help with speech development, social interaction and learning new words. Many signs are visually associated to the object they are referring to. These visual associations can help someone with autism communicate.
Cerebral Palsy can affect the way a person moves their mouth, jaw and head as well as the rest of their body. This can make speaking and eating quite difficult. Speech therapy along with sign language can help improve communication for a child with Cerebral Palsy.
Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing
Sign language is most commonly associated with deaf persons. Because sign language can be communicated and understood visually, it used as a primary form of communication among many people with auditory issues.
Down syndrome is a genetic condition caused by having an extra chromosome and causes delay in development and some level of learning difficulty. Sign language can help babies, toddlers and children with Down syndrome improve their communication skills. It can support in the development of expressive language, functional communication, and social skills.
Types of sign language
American Sign Language (ASL)
ASL is the most commonly used sign language in Canada and the United States, with around 500,000 users. It is also used in West Africa and Southeast Asia. ASL originated in the early 19th century in the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford, Connecticut, with heavy influence from French Sign Language, and other local sign languages. Like French Sign Language, ASL uses a one-handed fingerspelling alphabet.
Region Canada, USA, West Africa, South Asia
Native Users Around 500,000
Influences French Sign Language
Quebec Sign Language/Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ)
Although ASL is the most commonly used sign language in Caanada, LSQ is the most commonly used in Quebec, and it is also used in communities in New Brunswick and Ontario. LSQ is a mix of French Sign Language and American Sign Language, and was developed around 1850.
Region Quebec, New Brunswick, Ontario
Native Users Around 500
Influences American Sign Language and French Sign Language
Inuit Sign Language (IUR)
Inuit Sign Language is native to communities in the Canadian Arctic, and is currently only used in Nunavut. Of the estimated 155 deaf residents of Nunavut in 2000, around 47 were thought to use IUR, while the rest used ASL. It is a highly endangered language, without protection under the federal or territorial governments of Canada. However, IUR interpretation is provided in the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, and there are efforts to revive it through greater documentation and inclusion in schooling.
Native Users Around 50
Plains Sign Talk
Plains Sign Talk was once used among the various Plains Nations across what is now central Canada, the central and western United States and northern Mexico. It was also used for storytelling, oratory, various ceremonies, and by deaf people for ordinary daily use.
Region Canada, United States, Mexico
Native Users Formerly over 100,000 but today very few
French Sign Language/langue des signes française (LSF)
French Sign Language (LSF) is the native language of roughly 100,000 native signers in France and French areas of Switzerland. It is also one of the earliest European sign languages to gain acceptance by educators, and it influenced other sign languages like ASL and Quebec Sign Language. In the mid-1700s Charles-Michel de l'Épée founded the world's first public school for deaf persons in France, and his tremendous contributions helped French Sign Language flourish compared to many other sign languages.
Region France and Switzerland
Native Users Around 100,000
Influences Old French Sign Language
British Sign Language (BSL)
Around 150,000 people in the UK use BSL. Deaf communities in England used sign language as far back as 1570, and BSL greatly evolved at Thomas Braidwood’s schools for the deaf in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It then spread to Australia and New Zealand, which is why Australian Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language are very similar. They use the same grammar, the same manual alphabet, and much of the same vocabulary, though New Zealand Sign Language includes signs for Maori words.
Region United Kingdom
Native Users Around 150,000
Influences Local sign language dialects
Chinese Sign Language/Zhōngguó Shǒuyǔ (CSL or ZGS)
The first Chinese schools for the deaf were founded by American missionaries, and there are two main dialects of Chinese Sign Language: Southern CSL is centered on Shanghai and influenced by French Sign Language, while Northern CSL is more influenced by American Sign Language and has greater influence from Chinese.
Region China, Malaysia, Taiwan
Native Users Unknown (an estimated 20 million deaf people in China)
Influences French Sign Language, American Sign Language, British Sign Language
Mexican Sign Language/lengua de señas mexicana (LSM)
LSM is the language of the deaf community in Mexico. It is the primary language of an estimated 135,000 people. LSM is widely believed by the deaf community to have derived from Old French Sign Language, which combined with pre-existing local sign languages and home sign systems when deaf schools were first established in 1869. LSM is quite distinct from Spanish, and many LSM users have little understanding of Spanish.
Native Users Around 135,000
Influences Old French Sign Language, local sign languages
Indian Sign Language (ISL)
Indian Sign Language is the predominant sign language in South Asia, used by at least several hundred thousand deaf signers throughout India, Pakistan, and other countries. ISL is in the rudimentary stage of its development, and deaf communities of India are still struggling for ISL to gain the status of sign language as a minority language.
Region South Asia
Native Users Unknown; estimates range from 700,000-2 million
Influences British Sign Language
South African Sign Language (SASL)
SASL is the primary sign language used by deaf people in South Africa. South African Sign Language is not entirely uniform and continues to evolve. Due to the geographical spread of its users and past educational policies, there are localised dialects and signs with many variants, though signers from across the country can readily understand each other.
Region South Africa
Native Users Unknown; estimates range from 700,000-2 million
Influences British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language
Home sign is the gestural communication system developed by deaf children who lack input from a language model in the family. This is a common experience for deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community.
While not developing into a complete language, home sign systems show some of the same characteristics of signed and spoken languages, and are quite distinguishable from the gestures that accompany speech. Words and simple sentences are formed, often in similar patterns despite different home sign systems being developed in isolation from each other.
Where can I learn sign language or find an interpreter?
Have a look at our collection of sign language resources, from online and in-person lessons, interpretation services, and more!