Sign Language

"Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club – the community of speakers of that language."

- Frank Smith (1928-2020), Psycholinguist

Can you imagine a world where deaf people not only have no rights – but were considered “senseless” and incapable of learning? That was 18th century Europe. French priest Charles-Michel de l’Epee (1712-1789) set a course for change.

Centuries after his death, he is still recognized as The Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education.

Changing centuries-old mindsets about the fundamental human rights of deaf people must have seemed insurmountable at the time. But Charles-Michele de l’Epee took on the challenge, systematically working to teach deaf children – and starting a revolution in the process.

The son of a wealthy architect who worked directly for King Louis XIV, Epee could have lived a life of leisure. Instead, he studied theology and law.

While living in Paris, he met twin girls who had been deaf since birth. Epee began teaching them a form of hand signals that substituted the sounds of the alphabet. His methods became so successful that Epee took on more and more students from all walks of life, not just from wealthy families.

He wrote in his 1784 book, La Veritable Maniere d’Instruire les Sourds et Muets, Confirmee Par une Longue Experience (The True Method of Educating the deaf, Confirmed by Much Experience):

“Destitute class of persons who, though similar to ourselves are reduced, as it were, to the condition of animals…that I consider it an absolute obligation to make every effort to bring about their release from these shadows”

  • Epee devoted his life to accomplish all this:

  • Founded the first public school for the hearing-impaired in France.

  • Developed the world's first sign alphabet for the deaf.

  • Created a systematic method of teaching the hearing impaired.

  • His manual alphabet, which he called French Sign Language, was adapted into American Sign Language a few decades after his death.

Facts about Sign Language

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 Recognized in the Following Countries:


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

Legislation / Policy

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

Sign Language Officially Recognized by the Government

United Kingdom, Cuba, Mauritius


  • 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 jeopardizes 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 languages do.

  • 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.

Sign Language and Education

  • 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.

Interesting Tidbits!

  • 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.


Oralism in education

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines oralism as: "advocacy or use of the oral method of teaching the deaf". Oralism consists of various methods used in teaching the deaf how to read lips by recognizing formations of the mouth in spoken dialogue, practicing certain breathing patterns used to produce words and letters, and mimicking mouth shapes.

Oralism methods can be traced as far back as 1648. Oralism gained popularity in America in the 1860s when it began being utilized in the education process of many schools for the deaf. The notion of oral methodology gained tread in deaf educational institutions as popular opinion believed it was paramount for the deaf community try to "assimilate" themselves into the hearing world.


ISO Standard

  • Indian Sign Language (ins)

  • Pakistan Sign Language (pks)

  • West Bengal Sign Language (Kolkata Sign Language) (wbs)

  • Nepalese Sign Language (nsp)

Native Speakers in 2021

  • 6,000,000 in India (ISL)

  • 1,080,000 in Pakistan (PSL)

  • 450,000 in Bangladesh (WBSL)


  • Bangalore-Madras Sign Language

  • Bombay Sign Language

  • Calcutta Sign Language

  • Delhi Sign Language

  • North West Frontier Province Sign Language

  • Punjab-Sindh Sign Language

IPSL in Bollywood

  • Koshish, 1972 film about a deaf couple

  • Mozhi, 2007 film about the love story of a deaf and mute girl

  • Khamoshi: The Musical, a 1996 film about a deaf couple with a daughter who becomes a musician

  • Black, a 2005 film about a blind and deaf girl based in part on the life of Helen Keller

Indian Sign Language (ISL)

Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) is the predominant sign language in the subcontinent of South Asia, used by at least 15 million deaf signers. As with many sign languages, it is difficult to estimate numbers with any certainty, as the Census of India does not list sign languages and most studies have focused on the north and urban areas. As of 2021, it is the most used sign language in the world, and Ethnologue ranks it as the 151st most "spoken" language in the world.

Some scholars regard varieties in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and possibly Nepal as dialects of Indo-Pakistani Sign Language.

Present Status

Deaf schools in South Asia are overwhelmingly oralist in their approach. Unlike American Sign Language (ASL) and sign languages of European countries, IPSL does not have much official government support.

  • The Deaf communities of the Indian subcontinent are still struggling for IPSL to gain the status of sign language as a minority language. Though sign language is used by many deaf people in the subcontinent, it is not used officially in schools for teaching purposes.

  • In 2005, the National Curricular Framework (NCF) gave some degree of legitimacy to sign language education, by hinting that sign languages may qualify as an optional third language choice for hearing students.

  • NCERT in March 2006 published a chapter on sign language in a class III textbook, emphasizing the fact that it is a language like any other and is "yet another mode of communication." The aim was to create healthy attitudes towards the disabled.

With strenuous efforts by Deaf communities, NGO's, researchers and other organizations working for people with hearing disabilities since the end of the last millennium, we now have several government organizations and NGOs that offer courses and interpreter services for DHH. These are listed under NGOs in Caregivers and Resources. However, lot more of boost is needed for proper technology interventions and creation of ISL resources.

History of IPSL

Although discussion of sign languages and the lives of deaf people is extremely rare in the history of South Asian literature, there are a few references to deaf people and gestural communication in texts dating from antiquity. Symbolic hand gestures known as mudras have been employed in religious contexts in Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism for many centuries, although Buddhism have often excluded deaf people from participation in a ritual or religious membership. In addition, classical Indian dance and theatre often employs stylized hand gestures with particular meanings.

An early reference to gestures used by deaf people for communication appears in a 12th-century Islamic legal commentary, the Hidayah. In the influential text, deaf (or "dumb") people have legal standing in areas such as bequests, marriage, divorce and financial transactions, if they communicate habitually with intelligible signs.


ISL Numerals

Fingerspelling (or dactylology) is the representation of the letters of a writing system, and sometimes numeral systems, using only the hands. These manual alphabets (also known as finger alphabets or hand alphabets) have often been used in deaf education and have subsequently been adopted as a distinct part of a number of sign languages.

There are about forty manual alphabets around the world. Historically, manual alphabets have had a number of additional applications - including use as ciphers, as mnemonics and in silent religious settings.

Grammar of IPSL

Despite the common assumption that Indo-Pakistani Sign Language is the manual representation of spoken English or Hindi, it is in fact unrelated to either language and has its own grammar. Zeshan (2014) discusses three aspects of IPSL: its lexicon, syntax and spatial grammar. Some distinct features of IPSL that differ from other sign languages include:

  • Number Signs: The numbers from zero to nine are formed in IPSL by holding up a hand with the appropriate handshape for each number. From one to five the corresponding number of extended fingers forms the numeral sign, whereas for zero and the numbers from six to nine special handshapes are used that derive from written numbers. Ten may either be expressed by two 5-hands or by ‘1+0’. (Zeshan, 2000)

  • Family Relationship: The signs for family relationship are preceded by the sign for ‘male/man’ and ‘female/woman’.

    • MAN SIBLING ==> brother

    • WOMAN SIBLING ==> sister

  • Sign Families: Several signs belong to same family if they share one or more parameters including handshapes, place of articulation and movement.

    • PASS and FAIL: The handshape for the sign is same but they move in opposite direction.

    • MONEY, PAY and RICH: They have same handshape but different place of articulation and movement pattern.

    • THINK, KNOW and UNDERSTAND: The place of articulation is head which is same for all signs.

  • The IPSL consists of various non-manual gestures including mouth pattern, mouth gesture, facial expression, body posture, head position and eye gaze (Zeshan, 2001)

  • There is no temporal inflection in IPSL. The past, present and future is depicted by using signs for before, then, and after.

  • The question words like WHAT, WHERE, WHICH, HOW etc. are placed at the end of interrogative sentences.

    • BANK WHERE ==> Where is the bank?

    • SICK WHO ==> Who is sick?

  • The use of space is a crucial feature of IPSL.

    • Sentences are always predicate final, and all of the signs from the open lexical classes can function as predicates.

    • Ellipsis is extensive, and one-word sentences are common.

    • There is a strong preference for sentences with only one lexical argument.

    • Constituent order does not play any role in the marking of grammatical relations. These are coded exclusively by spatial mechanisms (e.g., directional signs) or inferred from the context.

    • Temporal expressions usually come first in the sentence, and if there is a functional particle, it always follows the predicate

      • YESTERDAY FATHER DIE COMPLETIVE ==> (My) father died yesterday