While listening to this podcast about saving dying languages. A question came to my mind:

Does a deaf person from France understand a deaf person from Russia or any other country?

  • @sumelic I wanted to know whether two persons of different culture/language can somehow (but not fully) understand each other using sign language only.
    – kvfi
    Oct 12, 2016 at 12:31

3 Answers 3


Probably not.

According the Ethnologue entry for Russian Sign Language:

Reported historical connections to sign languages in Austria and France, but not obvious from extensive wordlist comparison (Bickford 2005).

This implicitly suggests that they are not mutually intelligible (that is, that users of Russian Sign Language can't necessarily understand French Sign Language).

In addition, the entry for French Sign Language states the following:

Many sign languages have been derived from or influenced by LSF, but are not necessarily intelligible with it.

But before we stop here, I would like to talk a bit more about the logic behind this question. Perhaps your doubt is due to the following myth about sign languages: that the signs themselves have a direct connection to the referent. In other words, that signing is a form of mimicry.

In reality, sign languages behave in the same way as spoken languages: just like there is nothing in the word horse that necessarily connects it directly to the idea of horses, signs in sign languages do not necessarily have any connection to what they refer to. For this reason, there is a wide variety of sign languages as there is a variety of spoken languages.

Consider this mental exercise: If an American, a Briton and a Russian were asked to imitate the act of swimming through mimicry, it's likely that all of them would come up with their own way of doing it, but the mimicry would end up being similar because the act of swimming is the same for all of them. Now, if users of British Sign Language, American Sign Language and Russian Sign Language were asked translate swimming into their sign language, there is no guarantee that the sign for swimming will be similar across these languages. What's more, they wouldn't be able to come up with their own way to express swimming, they would have to use the sign that is present in the vocabulary of their sign language.

  • I would just add, I'am at the moment learning signed langage for my baby, and the base (action versus the sign) is easy to learn for my other kids, as it's natural move. I would suspect at some point you can express your basic need easilly.
    – yagmoth555
    Oct 12, 2016 at 14:56
  • @yagmoth555: I may be being unfair to you, but my guess is that you're learning baby talk or pidgin, the equivalent of "Me go you house tomorrow". This will get your meaning across, but it is not talking the language. Learining a sign language is like learning any other foreign language, except that in some ways it is more different than any spoken language.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 12, 2016 at 17:08
  • @ColinFine I agree, my comment was more aimed to the question, does a deaf could 'understand' someone from another country. Returning to the base can help a deaf to get understanded was more my point.
    – yagmoth555
    Oct 12, 2016 at 17:50


There are many sign languages that are mutually incomprehensible. It can even occur that the sign languages of countries with the same official language (e.g., English or Spanish) are mutually incomprehensible. This is the case for American Sign Language and British Sign Language.


I would like to add that there are even regional differences for one sign language. I know of someone who failed their BSL exam due to using some regional variations not native to the region she was taking the test in.

As a reason as to why BSL is different to ASL is that

In 1815, an American Protestant minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, travelled to Europe to research teaching of the deaf. He was rebuffed by both the Braidwood schools who refused to teach him their methods. Gallaudet then travelled to Paris and learned the educational methods of the French Royal Institution for the Deaf, a combination of Old French Sign Language and the signs developed by Abbé de l’Épée. As a consequence American Sign Language today has a 60% similarity to modern French Sign Language and is almost unintelligible to users of British Sign Language.

source: Wikipedia

  • 1
    Your answer is an interesting addendum, but please make sure to have (also) answered the actual question. Thus, prepend a short paragraph to your answer, saying that sign languages from different countries are not mutually intelligible and why this is so, thereby answering the original question, then your additional information about regional variants is well in place. Oct 12, 2016 at 16:09
  • in a sense i did with the wikipedia quote but I take your criticism on board and i hope it makes my future answers better. Oct 12, 2016 at 16:48
  • Just edit your post with one or two introductory sentences saying what the example of ASE vs. BSE means for the answer to the question (namely that differeng sign languages are not intelligible), then your answer will be good enough and I'll upvote it. Oct 12, 2016 at 17:20

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