Hesperian Health Guides

Using sign language

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HealthWiki > Helping Children Who Are Deaf > Chapter 7: Choosing and learning a language > Using sign language

A man and his daughter speaking together.
I want to be a teacher like you when I grow up!
You would make a great teacher, Teresa.

Sign language is used by deaf people throughout a community. It is a language that uses hand shapes, body movements, gestures, and expressions on the face to communicate experiences, thoughts, needs, and feelings. A sign language includes common gestures as well as thousands of signs that deaf people have developed over time.

Sign languages are real languages which have an organized grammar and structure just like spoken languages do. People use them to ask complicated questions, describe things around them, and discuss relationships, ideas, and beliefs. People use sign language to discuss how things affect each other, or refer to the past or the future. People who use a complete sign language can communicate everything that a hearing person can communicate using spoken words.

One way a sign language may be different from the local spoken language is that the order of signs in a sentence is often different from the order of spoken words.

For example, the question "What is your name?" would look like this in American Sign Language:

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your name what?

Deaf people in nearly all countries, all over the world, have created their own complete sign languages. Like spoken languages, complete sign languages differ from region to region and country to country.

Australia Spain Thailand
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Here, for example, are the signs for 'mother' in 3 different countries:

Even though they are different, each sign language is a full and natural way for deaf people to communicate.

A woman and her baby touching their own face.

Benefits of using sign language

  • Young children learn sign language very easily when they are exposed to it. With practice, older children and teenagers are able to learn and use sign language without too much trouble.
  • A child who uses sign language can communicate with anyone who knows the same sign language — just as fully as a hearing child who uses a spoken language. He will get to know other people who are deaf, and learn that deaf people are an important part of the community.
  • It may be easier for a child who knows sign language to learn to read and write the language of her community. The more languages a person has, the easier it is to learn another language.
  • Unlike spoken languages, different sign languages are more easily understood by people around the world. It is easier for a signing child from China to communicate with a signing child from Nicaragua than it is for hearing people from those countries to communicate.

Difficulties with using sign language

A couple reading a book together.
  • A child who uses sign language cannot communicate with people who do not know sign language. To be able to communicate with your child, family members, friends, and others in the community must also learn sign language.
  • While children learn to sign easily, adults have to study a lot to learn a complete sign language.
  • If a family lives in a community where there are no people who use sign language, it may be very difficult to find a sign language teacher, or other people to use a sign language with.