The World of Sign Language

Signed languages are natural human languages existing across numerous societies around the world. They are rich and beautiful communication tools with individual rules and norms for displaying phonetic, phonemic, syllabic, morphological, syntactic, discourse and pragmatic levels of organization. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing community sign language often becomes the only language that can be acquired naturally.

The WHO estimates that more than five percent of the world’s population lives with disabling hearing loss (2021), amounting to roughly 385 million people that use or could potentially benefit from sign language. Still, sign language users are minorities everywhere that to various extents are affected by the global communication gap. In Norway, there are currently estimated to be 16,500 users of sign language, of which approximately 5000 are deaf (Norges Døveforbund, 2021).

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that several hundred signed languages exist and are in use in the world today. It is important to note that while signed languages are often named using national terms (for instance Norwegian Sign Language, American Sign Language, and many others), they are distinct from national spoken languages as one country might have several dominant signed languages. 

Signed languages are widely used by people, and have emerged throughout human history as shared languages in communities of deaf and non-deaf users. Nonetheless, official and public institutions have often failed to support sign language acquisition in the deaf and hard-of-hearing population. In particular through the early stages of life and education, in which immersive exposure to natural language is important for timely neurocognitive and linguistic development of children. 

What is sign language?

A sign language is a gestural-visual language, which means that one must use sight to understand sign language. This stands as opposed to a spoken language which is auditory-vocal, in which hearing is used to retrieve information. 

In order to communicate in sign language, one must use visible movements both with one’s hands and other parts of the body. For instance, facial expressions and the positioning of eyebrows are commonly used to convey linguistic information and emotion. An eyebrow raise is in most sign languages necessary to mark general questions, and the alternation of the intensity of a sign alongside a facial expression modifies the context and associations of the message. In speech, this is parallel to the use of hearing to understand an audible stream of sound with intonation to convey the full message. 

Sign language is as such a visual language, and because of this, it takes advantage of the ability to reproduce and show the positions, movements and properties of objects through the shape and movement of the hands in front of the body, in combination with the expressions and movements of the head and face. This three-dimensional space in front of the signer is what is known as the signing space, commonly used in sign language to represent physical space and conceptual structures.