What are sign languages?

Around the world we find not only a wide range of different spoken languages, but also different signed languages. In addition, we often find distinct dialects within one sign language. Sign languages are the natural languages of the deaf. They have their own vocabularies and grammars, which are not related to the surrounding spoken languages.

Signed and spoken languages are produced and perceived in radically different ways. They use two different modalities, i.e. two different forms of articulation and perception. Sign languages are called visual-manual languages because they are perceived visually and produced by the hands (manual) as well as by the face, the head and upper body posture (non-manual). Spoken languages, in contrast, use the auditive-oral modality, i.e. sounds are produced in the vocal tract and perceived by the auditory channel. As language systems, however, both modalities are surprisingly similar as they show comparable grammatical structures and neurocognitive foundations. These insights are particularly interesting for us as linguists. Sign languages are an important communicative tool within the Deaf community and a central property of Deaf culture. In Germany, there are about 80.000 deaf people. German Sign Language, however, is also used by the hard of hearing, CODAs (children of deaf adults), interpreters, linguists, teachers and hearing parents of deaf children. Sign languages are wonderful and fascinating languages which we investigate within our team from a linguistic perspective in order to even better understand, describe and preserve them.