Is Sign Language Universal?

Sign language has its own grammar, and it's not one universal language. In this interview with interpreter David Peach, I learned all kinds of fascinating details about sign language around the world.

Mignon Fogarty
17-minute read
Episode #450


Today, I’m going to talk about sign language with David Peach. I became interested in sign language when I learned that my brother is taking American Sign Language as his foreign language in college, and then I saw on David’s Linkedin profile that he’s a missionary to deaf communities. He’s the host of the Missionary Talks podcast (no longer an active show) and he’s @dpeach on Twitter. And most interesting to me, he’s fluent in multiple sign languages. 

Mignon: Hi, David. Thanks for talking with me today. 

David: Hello, Mignon. I’m very excited about being able to share what I know about sign language.

Mignon:  I know, I think it’s fascinating. So what country are you in right now?  

David: Currently, I’m in Argentina, and we’re in the city of La Plata, which is just South of the capital, Buenos Aires. 

Mignon: Oh, and what sign language do they use there? 

David: Here they use the Argentine Sign Language, so it is specific to its country. 

Mignon:  I know nothing about sign language, so I wasn’t even sure there were different sign languages spoken in different countries. Your profile says you’re fluent in multiple sign languages. So what different sign languages do you know? 

David: Well, I’m very comfortable in American Sign Language, Mexican Sign Language, and I’m getting there with Argentine Sign Language. I’ve also learned the Peruvian Sign Language, which isn’t all that different from our American Sign Language because it was taken into Peru in the ’60s by an American missionary, so the sign language they use there is very much the sign language in the United States, and we’ve been in other countries where…such as Cuban Sign Language, but I’ve only learned it really for the time I was there. So I learned it, took it all in, and then was able to communicate—do my work. But that was six years ago, so I don’t really remember it anymore. I’ve had other countries like that where I’ve been in and out kind of quickly but just learned enough to be able to communicate. So while I do know other sign languages I don’t know them as well as the ones I mentioned. 

Do the Different Sign Languages Align with the Different Spoken Languages?

Mignon: And the different sign languages, are they the same as the written and spoken languages in each country? If you have five countries where everyone speaks Spanish, will the deaf people in those countries use the same sign language or does it not overlap? 

David: No, it’s limited to geographical areas and some of that’s just because of locally where a school is. South Africa is a really good example of this, in kind of the other direction: While South Africa has many official spoken languages, there are only two sign languages in the country. There’s multiple spoken languages and two sign languages. Here in South America, while we primarily speak Spanish as the spoken language, there are sign languages for each of the different countries and some of the countries would have multiple sign languages. 

Mignon: Is it harder for deaf people to travel and communicate with each other? 

David: No, not really. It’s interesting, I just came back from a conference in Las Vegas where there were 23 thousand deaf people from around the world, and it was interesting to see the different sign languages being spoken, and yet, the deaf people were able to communicate with one another. It may not have been a very deep conversation, but the ability to communicate was there. Some of that would be very limited communication. For example, I met a man from Thailand and we talked—we communicated—but as far as sharing family history and that kind of information, that didn’t happen, and I’m a hearing person, but a deaf person is even more adept at being able to pick up another sign language or at least get the rudiments of it to be able to communicate. 

Next: Do Deaf Students Take Foreign Language Classes?


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.