Is Sign Language Universal?

by | ASL Basics

Overheard in class…

One Saturday morning at my Tiny Signs class in Boston, I heard a dad say the following to another parent…

“Well now that I’m learning a little sign language, I’ll be able to talk to people anywhere I go!”


sign language universal

A Common Misconception

Thinking that there is one “sign language” used throughout the world is a surprisingly common misconception. However, most people (when they actually give it some thought) quickly understand why that just isn’t possible.

Languages Evolve Geographically

Like spoken languages, sign languages evolve based on the geographic communities that use them, and are passed along from one generation to the next within those geographic regions. If you think about it, how would a Deaf person in rural Thailand learn to use the same sign language as the Deaf community in Australia? It just doesn’t make sense. And, because sign languages are constantly changing (there was no ASL sign for “texting” 10 years ago!), it would be impossible for communities across the globe to keep up with each other’s ever-changing vocabulary.

There is No One “Sign Language”

So there is no one “sign language” but many beautiful and diverse sign languages around the world. In the US and most of Canada, we use American Sign Language (ASL), while in England they use British Sign Language (BSL).

So while both the US and UK share a spoken language with English, our sign languages are quite different. And while the US and France have different spoken languages, our sign languages –  ASL and LSF (Langue des Signes Française) – are quite similar as the head teacher at the first school for the Deaf in the US was French. Fascinating, right? :)

So Now You Know

So the next time you hear someone talking about how “sign language is universal,” you can gently correct them. There are more than a hundred different sign languages in the world, and American Sign Language is just one of them.

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Hi, I’m Lane. I’m so glad you’re here!

As a new mom, I wanted to use sign language with my baby, but I wasn’t sure where to start.

After a trip to my local library and lots of trial and error, I figured it out—and I was honestly blown away by how much closer I felt to my daughter!

I decided every parent should be able to experience that deeper connection with their little one. So, I added American Sign Language training to my child development background, and I created my award-winning Tiny Signs program.

I’ve helped tens of thousands of families communicate through basic sign language, and I’d love to help you, too.

Lane Rebelo, LCSW, author of Baby Sign Language Made Easy and The Complete Guide to Baby Sign Language