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Is Sign Language Universal?... do I really need to explain this AGAIN?!

First of all, let me introduce myself; my name is Elisa Nuevo Vallin, I came from Spain almost four years ago and I am CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). Both my parents are Deaf and Spanish Sign Language (LSE) is my mother tongue, then spoken and written Spanish, followed by English, with a little BSL thrown in for good measure!

As the Digital Marketing Specialist at Deaf Umbrella I plan, develop and execute the marketing campaigns online and one of my duties is to raise Deaf Awareness, not only because it is one of the main objectives of this company, but also because it is in my blood.

A few years ago I developed a website ( to share my own video content in Spanish Sign Language for the Spanish Deaf Community. I used this platform to raise Deaf Awareness and spread sign language and I believe that it worked very well (for example, I gained more than 16K followers on Facebook for this platform!).

Now, and after having my lovely little baby, I can't find enough time to keep doing this during my spare time, but the Deaf Umbrella platforms, such as its blog and social media channels, are still giving me the opportunity to keep raising awareness of the Deaf Community and, in this case, of British Sign Language.

Having said all of that... this is, believe it or not, the third time I'm going to share this information!

Once again, I am going to answer a question that all D/deaf or hard of hearing people, or those in contact with the Deaf community, are repeatedly asked:

"Is sign language universal?"

Well here is my answer to you now: No, it isn't! Just as spoken language has many forms, dialects and local variations, so does sign language.

This year and during the International Day of Sign Languages, we shared a short clip where you can see my work colleague Lorraine signing in British Sign Language and me signing in Spanish Sign Language. We wanted you to spot the differences, and it was quite a surprise to see that many people commented how unexpected it was to find out that sign language is not universal - and also comments saying how beautiful both languages are! ㋡

So here I go with the explanation (once again): 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 with each part of the UK having a variation of BSL unique to itself), 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.

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 can also use Sign Supported English (SSE) when a client prefers this, 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) when a client requests this, 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 – please 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 we need to mention that 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; NO, sign language is not universal, every country even region has its own sign language, which is genuine, rich and complex.

Please always take the opportunity to communicate with other cultures, both deaf and hearing, as this always expands knowledge, empathy and ultimately tolerance, and I am pretty sure you will find that no universal sign language is needed when socialising. I hope you find this to be the case too?

What about you? Have you ever had to answer the same question repeatedly? It can be frustrating, but it is good to share information… Please share this information with those you think would benefit from reading it ㋡


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