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How are spoken and signed languages different?

Communication is a basic human need. Language is the primary way to communicate, but its expression is different between the hearing and Deaf communities. Spoken languages are expressed through oral and aural means—spoken with the voice and heard by the ears. Signed languages are expressed gesturally and visually—signed by the hands and face and seen by the eyes.

Sign languages are not derivatives nor are they “simplified” versions of a spoken language. They contain structures and processes different from what spoken languages use. A prime example of this is American Sign Language (ASL). It is not English. It is its own distinct language.

When watching a person sign, you may think “wow, they are so expressive,” but truly that is part of the language. Going back to the previous example of English and ASL, just as the tone of your voice rises or falls within a question in English, as do your eyebrows within a question in ASL. Please see the example below.

The world contains approximately 7,000 spoken languages and 400 signed languages, all uniquely different from one another, made up of their own set of pieces of language, grammar rules, and usage. Linguists and anthropologists have been studying spoken languages for over 2,000 years, whereas sign language research is still being pioneered. That is why Deaf Bible Society has a special team dedicated to finding and researching the world’s sign languages. It is our mission to provide God’s Word in every sign language, so that every Deaf person in the world has the opportunity to see, experience, and share it.

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