Facts about sign language


The word « deaf » is sometimes written with a capital and sometimes in lower case. Is there a specific reason for this?

In the field of Deaf Studies, the use of an upper case ‘D’ in the word ‘Deaf’ denotes membership of a Deaf community and use of an indigenous signed language as a primary or preferred language. Use of the lower case ‘d’ in the word ‘deaf’ refers to people who have a medically determined hearing loss, but who may not consider themselves to be a member of the Deaf community, and who may not use an indigenous signed language. (see “Signed Languages in Education in Europe – a preliminary exploration”, Lorraine LEESON, Dublin. Council of Europe. 2006)


Are all users of sign languages deaf or hard of hearing?

No. Children of Deaf people also often learn how to sign; the native sign language of their parents will be their first language, before any spoken languages. Additionally, parents and siblings of Deaf children learn how to sign to facilitate communication. There are also a number of people who learn sign language in their free time because they have friends or want to become interpreters, or are simply interested in the language.



Is there one universal sign language?

No, there isn’t. There are many varieties and there can actually be more than one signed language in a country, just as for oral languages. For example, there are two sign languages in Belgium (French Belgian Sign Language and Flemish Sign Language) or in Spain (Spanish Sign Language and Catalan Sign Language). Also, there are different sign languages in countries that have the same spoken language, such as in the UK and Ireland. This is due to historical developments that are different to the ones experienced in spoken languages.



Are there ‘families’ among sign languages (such as for oral languages - Roman or Slavonic languages for example), which would allow intercomprehension?

Yes, there are language families within sign languages. For example Austrian Sign Language or Dutch Sign Language are more readily understood by someone who knows German Sign Language than by someone who knows Italian Sign Language. By contrast, British Sign Language is very different to any other European sign language and only related to Australian Sign Language.



Is there any international form of sign language, which could be regarded as a ‘lingua franca’?

There is an international communication system often called International Sign (IS). It is regularly used at international conferences and at meetings with participants who do not share a common sign language. This auxiliary language is indeed used as a lingua franca among sign language users from different countries, also in spontaneous conversation. It cannot be compared to Esperanto, however, as IS is not a language as such. It does not have a fixed grammar or lexicon and relies heavily on gestures, which have meaning only in that specific context, and uses vocabulary from the signer’s native language. This means, signs are clarified and often more than one sign is used to describe a concept to ensure understanding.



Are sign languages simply a representation of spoken/written words?

No. They are highly developed languages with their own grammar and syntax. Just as in every language, there are sentences that are difficult to translate and certain words/signs that don’t have a literal translation in another (sign) language.


Is there a standardised form of signing for each language and, as in oral language varieties, are there different ‘dialects’, which exist?

There have been attempts to standardise sign languages across Europe. As with spoken languages these attempts have not been successful and dialects are still in existence. This is also due to Deaf schools being in different parts of the countries, using certain signs that the children then spread. Often signs for the weekdays and the months differ, along with the signs for colours.



How many people use sign languages within Council of Europe member states?

This is difficult to answer. There are no reliable statistics in each Member State. An estimate for the European Union is 750,000 Deaf sign language users. On average, Deaf sign language users make up about 0.1% of the whole population in any given country. This does not include people learning a sign language as a second language or children of Deaf parents or other family members. In Finland there are for example an estimated 5,000 SL users; in France 100,000, and in Romania 20-30,000.



Have sign languages been related to the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) which exists in over 35 languages?

The French Ministry of Education prepared an adaptation of some parts of the CEFR (French version) for French Sign language, in particular common reference levels and descriptors.


Is there a way of transcribing sign languages?

Yes, sign languages can be transcribed in a number of ways. There is no standardised way of transcribing sign languages but often the Hamburg Notation System (HamNoSys) is used, which uses certain symbols to describe the handshape and movement of the sign. Another system that works in a very similar manner is SignWriting. Additionally, ‘glossing’ is often used, whereby signs are translated into capitalised words showing facial markers and grammatical information on top of the word or as prefixes. For more information please visit: http://www.signwriting.org/, or http://assets.cambridge.org/97805216/37183/sample/9780521637183web.pdf (chapter on ‘conventions’), or http://www.sign-lang.uni-hamburg.de/projects/hamnosys.html.


Where could I best find out more information about sign languages and how could I learn one?

It is best to contact your National Deaf Association to find out more where sign language classes take place and to know more about the national sign language. Information on all Deaf Associations in the EU can be found online on the website of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) (map). More information is also available on the website of the World Federation of the Deaf.


We would like to thank Mark Wheatley and Annika Pabsch from the European Union of the Deaf (EUD - www.eud.eu) for their substantial contribution to this section.