After a childhood illness left her both deaf and blind, Helen Keller learned to communicate using sign language. She went on to become the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from a college.

She also became a successful author and political activist. Her life story has been an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

Try to imagine what it would be like if you could not hear the sounds in the world around you. Now, think about what life would be like if you were either born deaf or became deaf at a very early age. The inability to hear would also probably affect your ability to speak.

You may have noticed that many deaf people use sign language to communicate, even though there is nothing wrong with their vocal cords. Although it is possible for deaf people to speak and many learn to speak quite well, it can still be very difficult. For those who have never heard sounds, it can be extremely hard to learn how to make meaningful sounds of their own.

Many deaf people prefer to communicate via sign language. Sign language is a unique language all its own.

For example, many people are surprised to learn that American Sign Language is quite different from British Sign Language, even though the United States and Great Britain share English as a common speaking language. American Sign Language has its own rules of grammar that are different from any other spoken language, including English.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet helped to develop American Sign Language from a combination of Old French Sign Language and a sign language that had been developed by a deaf community from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. While American Sign Language and British Sign Language are almost entirely different, American Sign Language and modern French Sign Language have almost 60 percent of their signs in common.

Since the beginning of time, families with deaf children have developed their own forms of sign language to communicate basic ideas. Even people with normal hearing often use hand signs for various ideas.

Do you use any signs regularly? Maybe a “thumbs up” to mean “yes”? Or a flat palm to mean “stop”?

Although such gestures are widely used by those who can hear, American Sign Language goes way beyond simple gestures. In fact, learning sign language is not always easy since most signs have no obvious connection to their meaning.

American Sign Language is both a manual and a visual language. Information is communicated by the shape and movement of the hands and other parts of the body, along with facial expressions. It continues to grow, adding new signs for new words each year.

Some signs convey the meaning of individual words or even short phrases. Some names or words that do not have their own signs must be spelled out using finger spelling. When finger spelling, a person makes the sign for each individual letter to spell out a name or word.


8 Join the Discussion

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  1. I think that sign language is really cool!!! I can’t think of any better way to talk when you are either mute, or deaf. In fourth grade our class was curious in sign language, so then someone brought in a poster. We had lots of fun learning the letters.

    My neighbor’s mom is deaf, but she does not use sign language. She talks just like a normal person, but her words sound a little different.

    I think that tomorrow’s wonder, wonderopolis will blast off into space, because t-minus stands for time minus, and it is usually used when you are counting down to when astronauts blast off. I can’t wait to see if my prediction is right!!! :)

    • Happy Tuesday, Meredith! Thank for sharing this comment today!

      We think it’s AWESOME that you and your classmates were curious about sign language! Learning other ways people communicate widens our view of the world around us and helps us become more understanding of others! You’re a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

  2. I have always thought sign language to be a really interesting language! In fact, in preschool, we learned a new symbol every day! I had memorized the entire alphabet after about a month. Another thing I find really cool is that different countries have different sign language. I always thought that there was only one type of sign language. Imagine moving to England and you had to learn an entire new alphabet to be able to talk to the deaf people there. One time, my friends and I set up a lemonade stand when someone came up to ask for lemonade. He didn’t really talk, he kind of just motioned toward the lemonade and then got out his wallet, but all he had was a ten dollar bill and we didn’t have change. He kind of just made sounds out of his mouth that I couldn’t understand. He made his way home and at first I didn’t realize that he was deaf until my friend who knew the family told me. I really felt weird then, because I had never met someone who couldn’t hear and felt a little bad. I really hope that I can learn sign language again. I also really think that this is a wonderful Wonder of the Day.

    • Thanks for sharing your comment with everyone in Wonderopolis today, Allison! We’re glad you learned so many cool things about sign language! Your comment might also help other Wonder Friends understand what it might be like to meet a person who is deaf and how to help them if you are having trouble communicating. We’re proud of you for wanting to learn sign language again! Thank you for visiting Wonderopolis today! :-)

  3. Maybe Wonderopolis can ask the question:
    “Why would someone who can hear need to use sign language to communicate with another person who can hear?”

    And sensitize your viewers to non-verbal communicators.

    • Hi, Marilyn! Thanks so much for your suggestion about how to make this Wonder even better! We appreciate hearing from our Wonder Friends! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How can you talk without speaking?
  • Why do many deaf people use sign language instead of speaking?
  • Who developed American Sign Language?

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