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The Myths and Misconceptions Surrounding Sign Language

Jan 2015

Language ,


British Sign Language is used as a preferred language by approximately 125,000 deaf adults in the UK. That number swells quite considerably when children and other speakers are included. Despite the large community of BSL users, sign language is still enveloped in a cloud of myths and misconceptions.

In this weeks blog we are going to attempt to bust some of the biggest.


A sign is a sign is a sign

The sign for cow involves mimicking horns. To sign tree is to sway your arm like a tree in the wind. The sign for drink is simply to move your hand in a drinking motion. Looking at these simple signs it’s easy to assume that all signs are iconic – they aren’t.

While many signs incorporate iconic elements, most are expressive or conceptual.

If signs were solely iconic, a sign language would be comprehensible by people across the world. However, because signs are not iconic, sign languages are not international.

British Sign Language and American Sign Language were both born out of cultures where English was the dominant oral language but have developed into distinct language which share only 31% of sign.

In 2013, Ethnologue listed 137 different sign languages across the globe. Within those languages there is immense diversity, just like there is in spoken languages.

However, an international pidgin has emerged through international meetings and is fast gaining traction. International Sign is not conventionalised and is far less complex than full sign languages but it allows communication within the international deaf community.


Sign languages are the visual equivalent of spoken languages

British Sign Language is a language in and of itself. It is not, as many think, the visual equivalent of English. In fact, when BSL is used with the structure of spoken English it is called Sign Supported English (SSE) and not BSL.

Because BSL is a visual language, there is a much larger directional component. The structure of spoken English simply didn’t suffice so a new one evolved. For example, “What is your name?” would be signed as “Your name what?”


All deaf people sign

British Sign Language is the official language of the deaf in the United Kingdom. However, this doesn’t mean that it is used by all deaf people in the United Kingdom.

Deafness affects people in radically different ways: some people are born without hearing, some become deaf slowly and others are rendered deaf suddenly. The relationship people have with deaf communication is, therefore, equally as diverse.

A large portion of the deaf community does sign but others choose not to and opt for alternative methods of communication.


Teaching signing prevents speech

There is a persist opinion that teaching young deaf children sign language will hinder their communication with hearing people. Even though research has shown this to be comprehensively false, it’s a belief that still influences policy to this day.

The research actually suggests that the verbal communication skills of deaf children benefit from learning sign language.

Have you encountered any myths about the language you speak? Tell us about it on Twitter using the hashtag #LanguageMyths.

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