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Is Sign Language Universal?... The Eternal Question...

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Let me introduce myself; my name is Elisa Nuevo Vallin, I came from Spain almost a year ago and I am CODA.

I landed on Deaf Umbrella by serendipity. I moved to the same building where Deaf Umbrella's office is placed and I had to get in contact with them. Two years ago I developed a website ( and a Facebook channel to share my own video contents in Spanish Sign Language for Spanish deaf people. Therefore, it was a good idea to say ‘hello’ and collaborate with the company and share with them my knowledge of social media, photography and film making.

So here I am; Happy and pleased to be working with the Deaf Umbrella team!

As someone in the deaf community, all deaf or hard of hearing people or those in contact with the deaf community, get asked the same question?! Is sign language universal? Well here is my answer to you now: No, it isn't, as spoken language neither.

Sign languages are independent of spoken languages and follow their own paths of development. For example, although the hearing people of Spain and Argentina (or Chile, Costa Rica, México...) share the same spoken language, the Spanish Sign language (LSE) and Argentine Sign Language (LSA) are quite different and mutually unintelligible.

Similarly, countries which use a single spoken language throughout may have two or more sign languages (Great Britain is an example of this), or an area that contains more than one spoken language, like South Africa which has 11 official spoken languages, might use only one sign language.

Sign languages evolve wherever there are Deaf people, and they show all the variation you would expect from different spoken languages. There are regional dialects and “accents” which are present in every language.

Since I have worked with Deaf Umbrella, whenever I have had the opportunity I have tried to communicate with deaf people who come to the office (CIC teachers or students, BSL tutors...) and learn British Sign Language. I try to find similarities with Spanish Sign Language and learn new ways of grammar structure. It's an exciting and enriching experience.

Working with Deaf Umbrella I have learned one of the main differences between British and Spanish Sign Language: In our team there are qualified interpreters that use British Sign Language (BSL), that have their own syntax or sign order, as does the Spanish Sign Language too.

Also there are interpreters that use Sign Supported English (SSE) that is not a language in itself. SSE uses the same signs as BSL but they are used in the same order as spoken English.

And there are interpreters that use Signed Actual English (SAE) that signs BSL but using all the words in a sentence, they do not remove or miss any words and place them in the same order of spoken language.

Those differences were a surprise on me, because I think that in Spain we don't have these different kinds of ways of expressing the sign language -correct me if I'm wrong-...

And you may ask yourselves, "why don’t deaf people use a universal or international sign language?". Well... probably for the same reason there is not a universal spoken language.

Of course there is an International Sign Language (IS) that is not as conventionalised or complex as natural sign languages, and has a limited lexicon. It is used in international meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), events such as the Deaflympics’ or informally when travelling and socialising (although from my own experience, with my parents -they don't know IS – but travel around the world with their innate ability to communicate with everybody, deaf, hearing or in another languages... better than me; guaranteed!).

So, in a nutshell; sign language is not universal, every country even region has its own sign language, which is genuine, rich and complex.

Try communicating with another cultures as this always improves the knowledge, empathy and ultimately tolerance, and I am pretty sure that no universal sign language is needed when socialising; isn't it?

What about you? Have you ever had to answer to the same question before? Share this information with those you think they should read it :)


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