What is sign language?

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Published On: 21 Apr 2022Categories: Articles, Deaf Awareness

Sign language is a naturally occurring language which develops as a result of the need to communicate among members of deaf communities. Sign language is produced using the hand, face, head and upper torso and is processed by the eyes.

Different sign languages have developed in different countries where deaf communities exist, for instance:

  • British Sign Language (BSL)
  • American Sign Language (ASL)
  • Ethiopian Sign Language (ESL)
  • South African Sign Language (SASL)

“Always remain positive and relaxed when communicating with the Deaf. Show that you care – your attitude can build confidence.” Sign language is not universal or international as many people incorrectly believe. Sign languages are living languages made by real people – the deaf – making them dynamic, constantly changing and developing, like any natural human language which is capable of developing new vocabulary when needed.


Fingerspelling in sign language is the way in which the 26 letters of the alphabet are made on the hands, e.g.,
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z.

Fingerspelling is used to spell names of people (especially in introductions), names of places and concepts and / or words that one may not know have signs for or one has forgotten. Fingerspelling is not sign language. It is a technique used to represent the written English word in space at that moment.


Facial expressions in sign language are very important because they express the grammar. They are referred to as non-manual grammatical markers, non-manual behaviours and or non-manual signals.

Facial expressions are rule governed. Facial expressions for questions that require YES/NO answers are different from NO answers are different from facial expressions for WH-questions word e.g., WHO, WHY, WHEN, WHERE, etc.

  • YES/NO questions: the eyebrows are raised, eyes are open wide, head and shoulders are forward.
  • WH – questions: the eyebrows are lowered, eyes are narrowed, head forward with a slight tilt and shoulders forward.

NB: If you change the facial expression, you could convey an entirely different message.


  • Sign language is an identifying feature of membership in the deaf culture.
  • Sign language has its own grammatical structure independent of any spoken/written language e.g., English, Zulu, Xhosa, etc.
  • The majority of deaf people (90%) are born to hearing parents and therefore do not acquire sign language as a mother tongue. They acquire sign language at school from peers. Sign language is the first language of the majority of deaf children.
  • A minority (10%) of deaf children are born to deaf parents and these children acquire sign language as a mother tongue.
  • SASL, despite regional differences and variation, has the same grammatical structure countrywide.


In the production of a sign, there are four important aspects that need to be mentioned. These are hand forms, locations, movement and orientation.

  • Hand forms: These are the different shapes that the hand takes. A few examples are given here:

  • Orientation: This refers to the orientation of the palm in relation to the body
  • Location: These are the areas where the hand forms are placed such as the head, chest and the neutral space in front of the body.
  • Movement: In every sign, there is movement.
  • Expression: Non-manual signals refer to facial expression or body movement used to convey additional meaning with a sign. Not all signs use non-manual signals.


Sign language is neither universal nor international. Each country’s deaf community develops its own sign language despite some similarities of grammatical features that are shared by all known signed language of the world. Different sign languages may have hand forms which, in some instances, may have hand forms which, in some instances, may be culturally unacceptable in other sign languages. Signed exact spoken languages, that is, making a sign for each word in a spoken language e.g., English, Zulu, Xhosa are not sign language. There are merely forms of a communication because they do not follow the grammatical rules of either spoken or signed language.


In the past, sign language was not accepted in schools of the deaf by society in general as well as within the immediate family. This meant that deaf children did not see anybody use sign language until they went to school, if at all. Now that SASL has been included in the new South Africa Constitution and accepted as the official language instruction in the education of deaf learner, early identification and intervention of deaf children are very important. When a deaf child is identified (as early as possible) the following people should learn and use SASL when communicating with the child:

  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Relatives
  • Deaf community centers or deaf clubs. Deaf adults also function in deaf community centers and clubs as role models not only for the deaf children but for parents and other family menders.
  • Teachers of the deaf should be competent and fluent users of SASL in order to communicate with the client directly
  • Other service providers such as school workers, counsellors, psychologists, nurses and the police should also learn SASL in order to communicate with client directly
  • Interpreters should be sought and provided.


  • Since the early 16th century an attempt was made to teach deaf people to speak, especially because speech was required in order to acquire wealth.
  • This marked the beginning of the oral vs. sign language controversy. The oral method involves communication through spoken language, mostly developed in Germany and was known as the “German Method”.
  • In 1880 an attempt was made to abolish to abolish the use of sign language in schools for the deaf, passing a resolution that banned the use of sign language in schools.
  • Consequentially sign language became an underground language used outside the classroom.
  • However, in 1960 a scientific research report showed that sign language was a natural human language in its own right similar to English and other spoken languages.
  • In 1970 Simultaneous Communication/Total Communication was developed where it involved signing and speaking at the same time.
  • The 1980s saw the advent of the bilingual-bicultural approach. According to this approach deaf people use sign
  • language and a written language e.g., Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, etc.
  • It is therefore acknowledged that deaf people live in two cultures, the one being the culture of the hearing majority and the other being their own deaf culture.

MYTH South African Sign Language is not a language in its own right.

TRUTH South African Sign Language is a natural, developing language with a strong language community.

“As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs… the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”– George Veditz