History of Sign Language

People have been using hand gestures to communicate since thousands of years ago. Nonetheless, the earliest hand signal systems were not developed enough for the deaf to communicate on a more profound level. It was not until the Renaissance period that scholars began to develop ways to educate the deaf, and their efforts laid the groundwork for the invention of the sign language.

In the 17th century, a Spanish priest by the name of Juan Pablo Bonet published a sign language dictionary and book demonstrating a manual sign language alphabet system. This system consisted of hand-shapes that corresponded to various sounds of speech, and it was used with different methods of reading, speech-reading, and writing for educating the deaf. In 1771, Abbe de L’Epee, a French priest, established a free public deaf school called the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes. Many deaf children from across France attended the school, and they communicated with different signing systems. L’Epee used his students’ signs to develop a standard sign language, and this language is referred to today as the Old French Sign Language.

Deaf education began to take root in the United States during early 19th century. Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, a prominent physician from Connecticut, wanted to find a way to communicate with his deaf daughter Alice. He discussed with his neighbor, Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, about finding a way to teach deaf children how to learn sign language. With the help of his influential friends, he managed to raise enough funds to send Dr. Gallaudet to Europe to study sign language.

Dr. Gallaudet visited the deaf school that was founded by Abbe L’Epee, and he stayed there for several months to study signs and educational methods. After he was sure that he could teach deaf children how to learn sign language, he decided to return to the US. Accompanying him was Laurent Clerc, one of the most capable instructors in L’Epee’s school, and the two men worked together to establish the American School for the Deaf in 1817. Gallaudet studied his students’ signing methods and used them in combination with the French sign language to create the American Sign Language or ASL.

The American Sign Language alphabet is based on the English alphabet, and therefore, it can only be used in English-speaking countries. Deaf people from a country that uses a different alphabet system need a different sign language alphabet. Although ASL is the most widely used sign language in the world, it is by no means a universal language. In the early 1970s, the World Federation of the Deaf published a sign language dictionary called Gestuno: International Sign Language of the Deaf, which consisted of around 1,500 signs. Gestuno is influenced by ASL and European signs, and it has been the language of choice for many international events, such as the Olympics for the Deaf.

Presently, there are many educational materials that provide excellent instructions on how to learn sign language. Those who wish to learn sign language can start by getting a sign language dictionary or book, or attending a sign language course.

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