Sign Language: A Complicated World Passport

Though many aspects of Deaf culture are misunderstood by mainstream society, awareness of sign languages is beginning to proliferate internationally. However, sign languages tend to exist outside the realm of traditional political boundaries, resulting in a fascinating geographic study of linguistic characteristics and histories around the globe.

Image by Andy Thies

An increasing awareness of Deaf culture [1] has arisen in recent years. From inspirational stories such as America’s next top model and dancing with the stars contestant Nyle DiMarco to gaffs like the fake interpreter at President Obama’s 2013 memorial speech for Nelson Mandela, the perception of Deaf culture is rapidly evolving worldwide.

So-called “hearing people” are now realizing that they within a cultural landscape enriched not only by unique social characteristics like gender and ethnicity, but those with physical characteristics such as deafness and blindness.

There exists much literature regarding the topic of increasing accessibility for Deaf people. However, a look at the categorical geography of the Deaf community worldwide reveals new insights into this rapidly evolving aspect of human culture and the very idea of language itself.

The Language Map

Fundamentally, Deaf culture finds an identity that is both unique if not often misunderstood by mainstream perceptions. Being part of a different culture means that international interactions operate differently. Countries that are fluidly accessible to global English speakers, such as the UK or Australia, are not as easily accessible by Deaf travelers.

The dominant form of sign language in the UK is BSL (British Sign Language). This means that although foreign English speakers can easily communicate in this area, Deaf people from outside the country may not. For instance, the Deaf community in the US largely relies upon ASL (American Sign Language) a language unique from BSL.

This reality establishes communication barriers in countries whose official sign language differs even if the official verbal language is the same. However, the nature of sign language to transcend traditional borders also means that Deaf travelers can often fluently communicate within countries with the same official sign language.

For Deaf Americans, ASL is far more commonplace than English in Africa, Asia, and South America. However, language barriers limit accessibility to places like Europe for Deaf Travelers. Most of these countries have their own distinct sign languages.

Map by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

The proliferation of ASL in less economically developed regions of the world can be largely attributed to the recent introduction of sign languages. Many nations did not include an official sign language even into the late 20th century. Countries that hadn’t yet fully developed a sign language system were highly influenced by ASL. However, it is not unlikely that these countries may, in turn, evolve ASL to better fit their cultural needs, eventually resulting in new unique sign languages or dialects.

To understand the full explanation behind the widespread dissemination of ASL in developing countries, we must consider certain historical aspects. Sign languages were often barred from schools and religious institutions in these regions. When Deaf missionaries arrived, they brought their language to the local people. Because Deaf are culture is driven by a minority community, the ability for ASL to be socially integrated was considerably greater than English in these regions. This is why one can find oddities such as Norwegian Sign Language in Madagascar.


One unique aspect between ASL and English is that they have few overlapping countries. One who is fluent in both ASL and English can practically double the number of countries they can fluidly visit in regards of language. Twenty-three countries are exclusive to ASL, while seventeen are exclusive to English speakers. However, though one could theoretically communicably access these countries with ASL, they would be part of a minority, resulting in the same kinds of barriers found in Deaf culture even within the United States.

Over time, the global awareness of Deaf culture will allow for less barriers in everyday life. This will allow not only for sign language users to more easily engage with mainstream culture in their own country but to experience the rich cultural experiences harbored by Deaf and hearing communities across the globe.


[1] When referencing the community or culture that is comprised by people who are deaf, the word is capitalized as it would be for other cultural groups (E.g. Deaf culture, Norweigan culture, etc.)

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