Hearing the deaf | Sunday Observer
Sign Language

Hearing the deaf

31 October, 2021

A Sign Language is defined as a language that uses manual, facial, and other body movements as a means of communication. Sign Language, much like spoken languages, consists of many variations globally and contrary to popular belief, the most commonly known variation, American Sign Language (ASL), is simply just one of the hundreds of sign languages used around the world. Sign Language is developed just as naturally as spoken languages and it is normal for each country to speak its own variety of sign language. This means that no one sign language serves the purpose of a universal language and it is only as a result of ignorance that most only think of ASL when it comes to sign language.

Different Sign Languages

It is even normal for countries that share the same spoken language would still have greatly differing sign languages. This is true for Britain, Ireland, Australia and America, where they share the same spoken language of English but each country uses its own unique sign language. To the average person, the act of signing might seem the same visually between the variations, but in reality sign languages can be so fundamentally different that there is no mutual intelligibility connecting them. However, there are also sign languages so similar to each other, most linguists tend to classify them as different dialects of one language, such as with British, Australian and New Zealand, collectively known as BANZSL.

While some sign languages are a subset of the spoken language of the originating country, others, like ASL, are not. While ASL shares the same alphabet as English, it was based on French Sign Language (LSF), one of the oldest ones.

It has its own grammar and pronunciation independent from English and even supports different dialects and accents. LSF, as one of the first sign languages to gain formal acceptance by educators, went on to influence many other sign languages besides ASL as well, like Irish Sign Language (ISL) and Russian Sign Language (RSL).


While most sign languages are formally recognised by their respective countries, some are not which leads to difficulties in educating their deaf populations. This is most recognisable in China, which has a deaf population of 20 million, absolutely dwarfing America’s 600,000. Despite the large number of deaf people, it is not possible to know how many of them use Sign Language to speak as the government and education system has discouraged and stigmatised its use in favour of oralism.

Oralism is the process of teaching the deaf to understand spoken languages through lip reading, speech and mimicking speech. It is a controversial method that has largely been abandoned in the modern world due to its limited efficacy, especially in those who have gone deaf before learning a spoken language. While it is controversial, Oralism can be a popular option for parents who want their deaf child to communicate with the majority population.

Ultimately, the deaf have been a historically marginalised group around the globe and sign language is one part of deaf culture that has been suppressed, ignored and misunderstood for the sake of what is normal. By understanding what sign language is and by learning more about deaf culture, we can see how deafness is less of a disease or disability meant to be cured and more as a different human experience that must be given the same respect as their hearing counterpart.