close up of hands communicating via sign language
By: Autumn On: September 01, 2016 In: Interpreting, Languages Comments: 0

When seeking a sign language interpreter, you may assume that whomever you hire can communicate with every person who uses sign language. This is not the case, however, because there is no single universal sign language.

Instead, there are hundreds of distinct signed languages. Because many sign languages are unique to individual schools and small communities, no one knows an exact number.

That being said, experts estimate there are 300 different sign languages in use around the world. What’s more, most of them are sufficiently different from one another to create a language barrier.

This is why simply telling an interpreter that you need some help with sign language is not enough — you need to specify which one is being used.

Avoiding a “Slight” of Hand

One signed language you may be familiar with is American Sign Language (ASL), which is employed in the US and parts of  Mexico and Canada, among many other countries. And while you may think England would be included in that list since the countries share a spoken language, you’d be mistaken.

In theory, the sign languages used in the US and England might seem very similar — British Sign Language (BSL), like ASL, requires the use of facial expressions, posture, and hand motions to communicate. But someone who uses ASL will not be able to understand someone who uses BSL, because the motions used in each language convey entirely different concepts. The result is that hiring an ASL interpreter to communicate with someone who knows only BSL could be seen as a major faux pas, not to mention a waste of everyone’s time.

Different Types of Sign Language for Different Regions

ASL and BSL are far from the only types of sign language that are used, but they serve as great examples to show why you cannot employ a single sign language interpreter to communicate with all Deaf people. You must consider your audience before hiring a sign language interpreter.

This may involve a little research, but it is worth it to communicate clearly with the people you wish to reach. A lack of consideration of your audience when choosing a sign language interpreter can lead to confusion, dismay and even offense when hard of hearing individuals cannot understand the interpreter.

The language one employs often has to do with geography, so finding out where your audience is from can help you hire the appropriate sign language interpreter. Keep in mind that people from Japan, France, Sweden and Nicaragua each use different types of sign language, to name just a few of the versions in use.

Hiring the Appropriate Sign Language Interpreter

People from other countries may communicate using a version derived from some of the major types, such as ASL, BSL or French Sign Language (LSF – langue des signes française), but they may also stick to their own country’s type. For example, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden each have their own version of sign language, but there is a degree of mutual intelligibility between them. A person fluent in one of the Nordic sign languages can usually communicate with someone using one of the others, similar to a Spanish-speaker in Italy — it isn’t perfect, but it can often get the job done.

Before you contact a language services provider about sign language interpreting, take into account the type (or types) of sign language that your audience uses. By being aware of the different types of sign languages available, you’ll be able to locate an interpreter versed in the sign language you need.

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