Is sign language a language?

Is speech language a language?

Whoa! What a lightning answer. Yes? Okay. Is sign language a language? Oh, right, that's why you're here.

First, what is language? What does science say about the nature of language from signed languages? In one-line summary whether you like to hear this truth or not is:

Speech is not central to language.

What is language?

Put the "speech" away for now. What is language? Also, put "signing" away for now. What is language?

A language is a system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals that change across time and that members of a community share and use for several purposes: to interact with each other, to communicate their ideas, emotions, and intentions, and to transmit their culture from generation to generation. -- (Cokely et al, p 1)

Okay, what mediums does one use language with? What channels? What modalities? Signing, speech, and writing. And, maybe telepathy.

So, what is the origin of language? The brain?

Language activites in the brain

Most people are familiar with the fact that the left region of brain is activated when a language is used. What about the visual-spatial speakers? Eyean speakers? I mean, signers? What does the hard-science brain say?

These spoken (vocal-aural) and signed (visual-spatial) modalities are quite polar, yet neuroscience and linguistics studies show that signed and spoken languages are no different at all in terms of natural human language and in biology.

Studies show that processing ASL (or another signed language) activates the same linguistic regions of the left brain (e.g. Wernicke and Broca) as spoken languages. As renowned neuroscientist Dr. Petitto famously noted, the brain does not differentiate between hands and lips.

"The human brain does not discriminate between the hands and the tongue. People discriminate, but not our biological human brain." -- Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (Gallaudet Today, Spring 2012, p. 17)

Brain's control in language development

Another thing is that language development has nothing to do with a modality. It's the brain. This brain decides its milestones of the maturational language development, regardless of the modalities.

Science studies show that language acquisition (L1) milestones in sign language are on a similar timeline as found in speech from babbling to the two-word stage and beyond. This shows evidence that the brain controls maturational language development regardless of the modality (signing or speech).

Languages of their own

Signed language isn't a version of spoken language. A signed language is a language of its own, independent from any spoken language. For examples, Ameslan (American Sign Language) and Auslan (Australian Sign Language) are not signed versions of English and they aren't based on the English language.

Similar to spoken languages, signed languages have their own grammatical rules, syntax, phonology, morphology, other linguistic features and unique complexities.

So, yes, you infer it right that sign language is not universal, contrary to common hearing belief or assumption. There are different signed languages around the world, just like spoken languages.

The conclusion to the question

Back to the question "Is sign language a language?", in other words, are ASL, Auslan, French SL, LSQ, etc. languages?

No question about it.

Further readings

Basically, visual-spatial languages and vocal-aural languages activate in the same regions of the left brain (Wernicke and Broca). Second, both are on the same timeline in language acquisition (L1).

What does studies tell us about cochlear implants and speech? This Gallaudet's video below explains all important information in short on the brain, language, modality (signed and spoken), language acquisition, and myths and facts on cochlear implants.

Related posts

What is sign language? What is not?

Enter a keyword in the field box below to search or filter the new topic list and click on the link.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.