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Can You talk to Deaf People from all over the World?! Is ASL Universal?

Dec 15, 2022

Just like any spoken language, each language is tied to a country, a culture, a people group, a region, and oftentimes even sub-cultures within the same country or region. While no one would be surprised to learn that there are many spoken languages, some may be surprised to learn that there are also many signed languages. Here in America, we have ASL (American Sign Language) and BASL (Black American Sign Language). There are a wide variety of signed languages around the world; however, some countries other than the United States do use ASL. 

  • Some of the most popular signed languages are: 
    • Indian
    • Indonesian
    • Russian
    • Brazilian
    • Spanish
    • Egyptian
  • Other countries that use ASL include:
    • Canada
    • West Africa
    • Southeast Asia

Region/Sub-cultures

As in English, people in America from different regions use various words to describe the same object. For example: what would YOU call this? 

In the north or midwest, it’s called ‘pop’, and in the south, it’s called ‘soda’ or ‘coke’ (even if the soda is a Dr. Pepper, they might still say ‘coke’).

How about another example: What would YOU call these?

 

The majority of the Americans call these ‘tennis shoes’; however, New Englanders prefer to call them ‘sneakers.’

 

The same idea is true in ASL. For every deaf person you meet, most likely they will sign just a bit differently than the next deaf person.  The word ‘birthday’ is signed differently in different parts of America, for instance. Other words signed differently in different regions include ‘strawberry,’ ‘garbage,’ and ‘pretend.’

So, the answer to the opening question is no.  No, ASL is not universal. There are many signed languages around the world as well as various ‘dialects’ and ‘accents’ in American Sign Language.  And just like hearing people should adapt to using the acceptable words for various things in the different regions, we also accept correction from a Deaf person when they prefer a different sign for a specific word.

The most important key to learning ASL is to remain flexible!

References: 

Sign Language Around the World
https://youtu.be/J80Vc2y9Fcs

English regional differences
https://bestlifeonline.com/things-have-different-names-u-s/

ASL regional differences
https://youtu.be/kd_w7ndjRpw

Where ASL is used
https://www.k-international.com/blog/different-types-of-sign-language-around-the-world/#:~:text=American%20Sign%20Language%20(ASL)&text=It’s%20also%20used%20in%20Canada,a%20one%2Dhanded%20fingerspelling%20alphabet.

ASL Linguistics:  Sociolinguistic Variation of ASL
https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/sociolinguisticvariationofasl.htm

Kelli Mathews has loved American Sign Language and the Deaf community that communicates with it for more than 25 years. While living in the Ft. Lauderdale area, she interpreted professionally in her community as well as for a large Deaf ministry at her church for 12 years. Being involved in Deaf club, Deaf ministry, and Deaf people’s lives was a huge part of her life while living in Florida.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.