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Give me a sign – How sign language differs between cultures

You may have noticed that we here at WIT take pride in our ear for languages. But there are indeed the odd few that are impossible to run through your CAT tools...

Nevertheless, sign language is gaining exposure and creativity within mainstream culture. 2018 marked the release of A Quiet Place, a horror film entirely filmed in ASL, while at this year’s Glastonbury festival, Tara Asher, Stormzy’s BSL interpreter, broke the sound barrier by interpreting his whole set for deaf fans. With the video of her passionate translation becoming a viral sensation, it goes without saying that sign language is surging to the forefront.

Cut the BS(L)

However, let’s firstly clear up a few misconceptions. Contrary to popular belief, this means of communication does NOT represent one all-encompassing language that all deaf people can understand. In fact, English alone has 3 different branches of expression (British, American and Australian) that convey a whole host of regional and philological differences. This could range from anything between specific gestures to the pinpoint positioning of the eyebrows.

Of course, different languages require different signs – just think about the cultural elements (history, geography) that influence spoken language. And it doesn’t stop there; it is even possible to sign with different accents to punctuate sentences with a personal flair. Through varying hand positions and facial expressions, signers develop accents that depict their age, ethnicity, gender and whether they're hearing-impaired or mute.

Although some versions of sign language play into structures of speech, sign language does not represent spoken language. Different variations are influenced by different social stimuli. For instance, deaf students in Ireland were, for a long time, taught in gender-divided Catholic schools, meaning ISL between males and females varies in a way that differs to spoken language. Forget about ‘le’ and ‘la’!

Playing it by ear

Although sign language is thriving in many countries, there are some places that have had to come up with their own official-unofficial means of communication. The Italian government’s attempt to relegate Italian sign language (Lingua dei Segni Italiana) to a mere form of mime sparked outrage within the deaf community[1] and eventually led to signers creating their own gestures for communication.

Similarly, Nicaraguan sign language (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) was, for the most part, developed instinctively by deaf children in western Nicaragua through the 1970s-80s. Those isolated from other deaf communities would resort to inventing their own form of pidgin sign language. The following generation would then cultivate and regularise until it became official. Clearly, the innate drive to be heard and understood overpowers any limits in conversation.

A sign of the times

Though well-established in many countries, historically parents in China would prefer their child to master lip-reading skills due to societal stigmas surrounding sign language.

That said, things are certainly moving forward. In recent years more Chinese schools for the deaf have opened and Chinese Sign Language is becoming more prevalent. Plus, over the past decade, university students choosing sign language as an elective has risen by more than 50 per cent worldwide. Through mainstream exposure and understanding, sign language will continue to gain acceptance and become normalised in the non-deaf community.

So, join us at WIT this year in celebrating International Day of Sign Language! And on the off chance we are indeed doomed to a post-apocalyptic future of silence, let’s all vow to learn and pass on at least one signed expression. Signed, sealed, delivered.


By Gina Agnew, WIT Project Manager

[1] The SAGE Deaf Studies Encyclopedia (2015), G.Gertz, P. Boudreault, SAGE Publications.


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