The 4 biggest myths about sign languages

This post is also available in Dutch.

As a sign language researcher, I am confronted daily by myths regarding sign languages. This is usually the case because sign languages are still an unfamiliar field. Read. Learn the truth, and share my fascination.


“Myth: Sign language is more than just forming symbols with your hands” Picture taken by Marcisim (License: CC0 1.0)

Myth 1: “There is only one sign language”
I am not exaggerating when I say that every person I generally meet outside the field tends to assume only one sign language exists. This is a rather large myth. In fact, every country has its own sign language. Currently, there are at least 100 sign languages that exist globally. However, this number is not static, new sign languages emerge quite frequently.

May I ask you another question? Do you really think it’s possible to have one single universal sign language? As if one guy is traveling around the world for the purpose of teaching every deaf person his sign language… Sounds unrealistic, doesn’t it? For the past century, people have tried to develop a language (e.g., Esperanto) that could be spoken around the world, but it has yet to succeed.

For sign communication there is an international communication system called International Sign, created for international meetings such as conferences, congresses, etc. However, it is not as conventionalized, nor as complex as natural sign languages, and thus not considered a real language.

Myth 2: “Sign languages are not real languages”
What do you think? Spanning the past 40 years, research has demonstrated that sign languages are real languages. They were not invented but evolved naturally, and have their own grammar and structure. Sign languages have rules for well-formed sentences just like we have for spoken languages.

In fact, there are usually many dialects for a single sign language. For example, in the Netherlands you will find three main dialects for the Sign Language of the Netherlands: one in the north, one in the west, and one in the south that have developed  around  the original schools for the deaf.

Myth 3: “All deaf people sign”
I wish it were so but the truth is only about 10 percent of deaf people communicate in sign language. Why so few? Many deaf people choose not to sign for a variety of reasons. For example, some people lose their hearing later in life after having learned spoken language (e.g. through illness). They may prefer to lip read.  Furthermore, 92% of deaf babies are born to hearing parents. Nowadays, and in most cases, parents decide to use a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device that provides the perception of sound. Most often these children never learn a sign language because of another myth, namely:

Myth 4: “Signing hinders learning speech
Many studies have shown that deaf children who are hindered from learning a sign language are more susceptible to language and cognitive delay. This language and cognitive delay occurs when deaf children cannot access spoken language and this can be further aggravated depending on the severity of their hearing loss (even with cochlear implants). Interestingly, some studies have shown that sign language can actually facilitate speech instead of hindering it.

I could continue listing many more myths, but it would take you days to finish reading this blog. So I will stop here and come to the conclusion. Hopefully, I have convinced you that it’s worth learning more on the topic of sign languages. Sign languages are beautiful languages, fascinating, and thus worth getting to know the deaf world and their languages.­­­­­

This blog was written by Francie Manhardt. Edited by Marpessa Rietbergen.



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