How Many Sign Languages Are There?

Sign language is one of the main modes of communication used today by those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Just like spoken language, sign language comes in many forms and variations. The languages are constantly changing and adapting to meet demands of an ever-evolving modern day society.

So, Exactly How Many Sign Languages Are There in the World?

Around the world there are thought to be over 300 different sign languages; however, getting an exact figure is impossible due to the rapid rate at which sign language is growing, evolving, and changing. The number of active sign languages is constantly fluctuating.

What about in America?

When you think about sign language in America you probably instantly think of American Sign Language also known as ASL. This is because ASL is the most commonly talked about form of sign language discussed within our media and educational settings therefore, it is ingrained in our brains to make the instant assumption that sign language in America means ASL.

However, this is not at all the case and in fact America is home to more sign languages than anywhere else in the World which is an amazing achievement in terms of inclusivity.

These languages vary massively in terms of age, origin, and popularity. For instance, ASL originated in The American School for Deaf in 1817 and has between 250000 and 500000 speakers.

On the other end of the spectrum Bamako Sign Language was developed in the urban tea-circles of Bamako by deaf men who would meet after work. Therefore, Bamako is spoken predominantly by men, has dramatically fewer speakers than ASL and is also threatened by the development of American Sign Language.

Interestingly, ASL has also led to the creation of many more sign languages for instance it has heavily influenced Moroccan Sign Language and Nigerian Sign Language as well as many others. Clearly ASL as an individual sign language has influenced how many sign languages there are today.

Which Other Sign Languages Have Influenced How Many Sign Languages We Have Today?

Old British Sign Language which was predominantly in active use from 1760 to 1900 has also been very influential in the world of sign. Much like ASL it led to the creation of more modern sign languages.

Not only did Old British Sign Language lead to the creation of today’s well established British Sign Language which was created in 1990 but it also led to the invention of Maritime Sign Language (1860 – present), South African Sign Language (1860 – present) and Auslan (1860 – present).

Auslan then travelled from Australia and began to be spoken by the people of Papua New Guinea in 1990, the native people put their own spin on it and started speaking what came to be known as Papua New Guinea Sign Language (PNGSL).

However, interestingly the standardised form of PNGSL did not become a recognised language of Papua New Guinea until 2015.

Similarly, the more modern-day British Sign Language also led to further sign languages. One interesting example of this is Northern Irish Sign Language which in terms of lexicon (vocabulary) is based upon a combination of British Sign Language and American Sign language. What makes this even more interesting is that on a syntactic (word order and sentence structure) level it is more closely related to Irish Sign Language.

The exciting and diverse Northern Irish Sign Language has been used from 1920 to present however, as of 2004 The British Government does not recognise Northern Irish Sign Language as an official sign language of Northern Ireland and it only gives this prestigious title to British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language.

So, Now We Know How Many Sign Languages There Are This Leaves One Question, How Many People Use Them?

Sadly, there is not much research done on this topic as shockingly no official consensus in the world includes sign language when recording languages spoken by individuals and households. However, estimates suggest that there are 80 million deaf sign language users but clearly this does not take into consideration the hearing people who learn sign language such as parents, partners of deaf people and teachers.

These “80 million” speakers are not equally spread across over 300 sign languages in fact, far from it. Below are the ten most commonly spoken sign languages and their number of native speakers:

  • Indo-Pakistani Sign Language- 6,300,000
  • Indonesian Sign Language- 900,000
  • Russian Sign Language- 715,000
  • Brazilian Sign Language- 600,000
  • Spanish Sign Language- 523,000
  • Egyptian Sign Language- 474,000
  • American Sign Language- 459,850
  • Persian Sign Language- 325,000
  • Turkish Sign Language- 300,000
  • Japanese Sign Language- 126,000

It is interesting to see that Indo-Pakistani Sign Language has more than six times as many native speakers as the second most common sign language. This could be because of the number of countries that use the language as this includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

Its huge following could also be down to its age, the first research that studies sign language thought to be directly linked to Indo-Pakistani Sign Language was conducted in 1928, this suggests that the language is more than 90 years old and therefore has had plenty of time to spread through families and social groups.

Final Thoughts

As previously stated, there are over 300 different sign languages belonging to over 80 million native speakers. This is a lot more than people usually think that there is as sign language is not a part of many people’s everyday lives.

In America, American Sign Language is still not usually taught in schools despite the fact that it has nearly 500,000 speakers. This lack of education and understanding also leads to a stark divide between the hearing and deaf people within American society and around the world. 

The high number of sign languages is partially because of the fact that there is no universal sign language which is used around the world, therefore communities have formed their own over time and this is a trend which is expected to continue.