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I want to start learning sign language. The Wikipedia lists several sign languages depending on real spoken languages, and they all have their origins and families and classifications just like spoken languages, but I also noticed that there is an international sign language.

I would like to communicate with as many deaf people as possible. Should I learn international sign language? Do deaf people learn the international sign language too or only their home country's sign language?

I imagine it works like spoken language, i.e., deaf people just learn the variety of their home country. I don't mind learning several languages, but which sign language should I learn first in order to reach as many people as possible?

I don't have any deaf friends to ask these questions, but I would love to. I like to communicate with people in general.

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I agree with TruthOf42 that your best bet is to learn a local sign language. I see at least two good reasons for this.

The first one is practical. You will more easily find a course on a local sign language than you will on International Sign Language. Also, unless you want to attend international deaf events, knowing a local language will allow you to communicate with the people in your corner of the world. And although two sign languages might be as distinct (or as similar) as two spoken languages, knowing one will bring you a long way in being able to communicate with people who don't natively speak the specific language that you will be learning.

The second one relies on the observation that much like Esperanto, (almost) nobody speaks international sign natively. This means that although you might find material to learn it, you will not have a native speaker teacher. You might also find that since international sign is a devised language, its grammar might be less developed and might not obey constraints that shape natural language grammars. That is, you will not in fact be learning a language.

As to which local sign language you should start learning, that depends on where you live! In my experience, I have found that the Deaf people around me in France knew some ASL although they were native in Italian or French sign language. But, if you live in the UK, for instance, it might be more meaningful to learn British Sign Language. This is because BSL and ASL are not historically related and mutually intelligibile as LSF and ASL are.

  • Thank you! Very good points. I'll start with my local SL. – Xirux Nefer Apr 5 '15 at 15:34
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Learn the language of the local Deaf population. It does not seem that the international signed language is anything but a hodge-podge of signs. ASL (American Sign Language) is spoken through-out North and South America. Keep in mind that signed languages do not necessarily overlap with spoken languages.

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