ASLI Association of Sign Language Interpreters

Facts about Sign Language

Legal Seat - Helsinki, Finland


The Development of Sign Language

• Prior to the 16th century no formal recognition was made of sign language. Resorting to homemade signs was the only way for Deaf people to communicate, until an Italian physician, Girolamo Cardano, tried to develop some code of signs that never caught on.

His work,however, paved the way for a new perspective on Deaf people: communication WAS possible, and just because they could not hear didn’t mean they were inferior.

• Spanish monks began to develop a standard set of signs, trying to form similar shapes to the written word.

• By the 18th century, in France the first public education of the Deaf was started, by Abbe de L’Epee. He devised signs for certain functions of grammar. He taught Deaf pupils through writing, signing, and finger-spelling successfully.

• In the 20th century, Dr. William Stokoe, linguistic researcher, declared American Sign Language an official language. Other research on sign language worldwide produced similar results; sign languages are true languages with their own set of linguistic rules.

The Goals and Role of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD):

1. To promote recognition of sign language and the right of Deaf individuals to use sign language;
2. To promote the right of Deaf children to have early and full access to sign language;
3. To promote increased support for sign language research;
4. To promote better quality of teaching of sign language;
5. To promote better quality of sign language interpreting;
6. To promote more availability of sign language in the media.

Sign Language Recognised in the Following Countries:


Brazil, Finland, South Africa,
Czech Republic, New Zealand, Uganda
Ecuador, Portugal, Venezuela


Australia, Denmark, Romania, Uruguay
Belarus, France, Russian Federation, Zimbabwe
Belgium, Some German States, Slovak Republic
Brazil, Greece, Spain
Canada, Iceland, Sri Lanka
China, Iran
Colombia, Latvia, Switzerland
Cyprus, Lithuania, Thailand
Czech Republic, Mozambique, United States of America


United Kingdom


Sign Language is a pictorial rendition for the words of spoken language, a short cut.
• Sign language is universal, the same in every country around the world.
• Abstract concepts cannot be expressed in sign language.
• People can learn sign language easily.
• Education in sign language jeopardises the learning of the written language.


• Sign languages have complex rules of grammar and expansive vocabularies, and are comfortably capable as vehicles everyday conversation, intellectual discourse, rhetoric, wit, and poetry!
• Sign languages in each country are found to have dialects, just as spoken languagesdo.
• In the United States of America, ASL (American Sign Language) is the fifth most used minority language, after French, Spanish, German, and Italian.
• Some studies reveal that children can learn sign language 2-3 months earlier than they can learn to speak.


• Prior to the late 1800’s, sign language was commonly used to give a good education to Deaf pupils.
• In 1880, at a conference in Milan, Italy, hearing authorities made the decision to eliminate sign language from the classroom and prevent Deaf teachers from teaching in European countries; at the same time, American schools saw a similar fate as the number of Deaf teachers (47% of all teachers in Deaf schools) went down to a single digit.
• In place of using sign language, nearly all schools implemented the Oral Method, placing Deaf children’s education in the Dark Ages for 100 years.
• To this day, in spite of numerous studies showing that Deaf children learn best through sign language, Deaf education has still not fully recovered from the blows dealt by the Milan Conference and by the reduction in numbers of Deaf teachers.


  • Sign language is different from other minority languages, in that it is a visual language- facial expressions, body language and visual placements are all important components of sign language.
  • Although Deaf people consider themselves (and research supports this view) a linguistic minority group, governments and other institutions insist on labelling Deaf people as ‘disabled’.
  • There are currently about 4,000 recorded spoken/written languages in the world- if more countries recognise sign languages as well, this number would go up dramatically.
  • Languages are the roots of culture.


World Federation of the Deaf
General Secretariat
PO Box 6500401 Helsinki, Finland
FAX: +358 9 580 3572
(updated: October 2006)

Association of Sign Language Interpreters (2007 – 2008)
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