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[A] How many countries have sign language as an official language?
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July 4, 2019
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Zack Creach
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5 Facts About International Sign Languages

How many people with full auditory capabilities know how to sign their name in their local sign language? Sadly, not too many people go out of their way to learn sign language like they would an auditory foreign language such as Spanish or Mandarin. Unless you or someone you know is deaf, you probably don’t think about sign language. But since Deaf Awareness Month is coming up soon in September, now is a great time to learn a few interesting facts about international sign languages.

70 Million People Use Sign Language for Primary Communication

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While there are an estimated 466 million deaf or hearing impaired people in the world (or 5% of the world’s population), only 70 million rely on sign language for core conversations. Part of this could be because many communities have access to auditory support devices like hearing aids or implants, but the other causes for this disparity include the sobering statistics that 98% of deaf people never learn a sign language and 72% live in homes with families that don’t learn sign language either. Of the 70 million people who do use sign language, 1 million are Americans using American Sign Language (ASL).

ASL Is One of the Most Widely Used Sign Languages

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ASL is, of course, spoken in the United States. But it’s also widely used in English-speaking Canada, Central and West Africa, areas of Central and South America, and numerous countries throughout southeast Asia and Oceania. ASL can trace its roots to the Paris sign language system from the 1750s. Laurent Clerc, a deaf man from France traveled to the U.S. and founded the American School for the Deaf with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in 1817. The school relied heavily on the Paris sign language system, which was adopted and modified to become ASL.

Sign Languages Can Be Nation- and Region-Specific

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It’s easy to assume that everyone who is deaf or hearing impaired would use ASL to communicate — but you would be wrong. Just like audible languages, there’s no one unified sign language that everyone is taught. It’s dependent upon your nation of origin and in many cases your region. Just like in any language, there are idioms, slang, and sentence structures that can vary based on location. And yes, ASL also features variations dependent upon your region. But interestingly enough, it is easier for two people who speak completely different sign languages to communicate than it is for, say, someone who speaks English and another who speaks Japanese. And if you’re curious, yes, someone did try to create a universal audible language — Esperanto — with low levels of success.

There Is Such a Thing as International Sign

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International Sign (IS) is a thing, but it’s not a standard by which anyone would judge a deaf person’s communication abilities. Depending on who you quote, IS is either nothing more than a pidgin-like language or an international auxiliary language that was designed to make it easier for anyone who speaks one of the 300 sign languages to communicate. So, in reality, no one would learn IS first. It would be a secondary language. But unlike Esperanto, IS evolved naturally. According to historians, the first form of IS took place at the International Games for the Deaf in 1924 when athletes from around the world needed a way to communicate with each other. They essentially determined which signs were most similar between languages, and thus, a very simplified IS was born.

Football Teams Huddle Because of a University for Deaf Students

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There’s nothing more familiar than seeing a football team huddled on the field planning out their next play. But this wasn’t always a part of that All-American game: In the 1890s, the team at Gallaudet University  —an NCAA Division III Washington, D.C., private school for the deaf and blind — was playing a football game when their quarterback Paul Hubbard realized that they were giving away the plays by signing in the open. He told his team to form a huddle to hide their signing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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