contributed by LUNA Fellow, Sarah McWhorter

While studying abroad in London, I was waiting for a crosswalk light to change and encountered two young men signing in a language that was foreign to my eyes. After mustering up the courage, I said hello and then fumbled to communicate, but eventually discovered they were from Holland. I later learned their sign language is similar to that of American Sign Language (ASL) although it has vast differences as well. I was amazed by not only the similarities and differences of their language, but also with how easy it was to communicate with someone who lives literally a half a world away.

One of the most common questions an ASL interpreter gets when out working in the community is, “Sign language, that’s universal right?” Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not universal. There is British Sign Language, Japanese Sign Language, and even Dutch Sign Language. All of these languages, much like ASL, are embedded with decades of culture and history passed on to the next generation. Even though spoken languages span past national borders, with English spoken in America, Great Britain, and Australia, sign language forms vary despite the spoken language remaining consistent. An example of this difference is British Sign Language uses two hands to fingerspell while ASL only use one hand.

To learn more about the specific differences in various forms of sign language, check out Spread the Sign. The website and app contain over 15 forms of sign language and has functionality allowing you to pick the sign language’s country of origin and then scroll over the alphabet to see how each letter is signed.

Or, if you’re interested in learning ASL, contact LUNA to schedule language training classes.

It is fascinating to think how similar the spoken languages are in various regions while the corresponding sign language can vary greatly.