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Do other countries use our two-handed fingerspelling alphabet?
The only countries that also use our two-handed manual Alphabet are Australia and New Zealand. This is partly due to the influence of the British Manual alphabet used in Britain’s colonial days but shows little resemblance to the current version. The rest of the world uses their country’s version of the one-handed fingerspelling alphabet.
Is international sign language a universal sign language?
International Sign Language (ISL) or “Gestuno” is an artificially devised sign system. ISL is composed of vocabulary signs from different sign languages that Deaf people agreed to use at international events and meetings. It is not a universal sign language despite attempts by some people to put it in this category.
There are records of Deaf people using ISL to communicate going back over 150 years. The “unification” of sign languages was discussed at the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) in Rome, in 1951 before “Gestuno” was first introduced. Gestuno is from Italian meaning “the unity of sign languages.”
ISL has been developed by Deaf people at international events such as the World Congress of the WFD and the World Games for the Deaf (now called Deaflympics) The signs have been selectively loaned from different sign languages around the world, mainly from Europe and North America.
Extensive contact among Deaf people from different nations probably dates from the first International Congress of the Deaf in Paris in 1889. The first international Deaf organisation, now known as the International Committee for Deaf Sports (ICCS), was established in 1924 to host the Deaflympics every four years. The WFD has also held its international congresses every four years since 1951.
ISL has an important role and is very useful for communicating at international Deaf events, and informally when travelling.
What about International Sign Language Interpreters?
Many sign language interpreters who are fluent in International Sign Language find it easier to communicate with foreign sign language interpreters via this method rather than spoken language.
More recently, organisations such as the WFD have begun to provide ISL interpreters at its meetings and conferences to enable the participation of Deaf people from countries where there are no trained interpreters, or where it is too expensive for them to travel to meetings overseas.
The World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), was formally established in South Africa in 2005, and is working together with the WFD and national and local Deaf organisations to try to establish sign language interpreter associations and training courses in countries where there are currently none, and encourage the development of sign language interpreting as a profession. It is particularly keen to develop links and share resources with those in developing countries.
About British Sign Language (BSL)
According to the British Deaf Association (BDA), “British Sign Language (BSL) is the first or preferred language of around 250,000 Deaf people in the UK. It is a language of space and movement using the hands, body, face and head. Around 120,000 hearing people also use BSL, meaning it is used more than Welsh and Gaelic.”
(With contributions from Clark Denmark and Liz Scott Gibson)