I understand multiple spoken languages. If I hear someone speak (or see a writing in) English, I recognize that it's English not Latvian and interpret the sounds (or letters) as it's appropriate for the English language.

Is that just as easy in sign languages? If a signer understands multiple sign languages (for example, ASL and Russian SL), can they nearly instantly recognize which one is used by someone else?

Or could they misunderstand which language is used and think that some unknown signs are being shown until few sentences in?

And can some signers identify some other sign languages that they don't know themselves? In spoken languages it's possible - don't understand French or Italian, but I can somewhat recognize these languages by sounds and flow when I hear them. Can ASL signers similarly see Dutch SL or BSL and understand that it's being used without knowing that language themselves?

The reason for asking is that I am learning ASL instead of the local sign language due to accessibility of learning material. I wonder if signers will be able to identify it.

  • If I hear a Russian say [xaraʃo] I can "hear" it as [haɹəʃoʊ] but I have no idea what it means. If I hear Kabardian [ɬ'əq'ʷ], I have no idea at all what I just heard. Are you asking if signers can identify "the same sign" in another language, even though they have no idea what it means?
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 3:03
  • 1) If a signer understands multiple sign languages, can they nearly instantly recognize which one is used by someone else? 2) Can some signers identify some other sign languages that they don't know themselves?
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 3:06
  • 1
    @user6726 they're asking whether you can recognize which sign language the other person is using if you are fluent in more than one, and also whether you can recognize sign languages that you aren't fluent in if you're somewhat familiar with them (like I might recognize that Chinese is being spoken, despite not understanding a word). I assume the answer is "sure" to both, but I don't really know.
    – LjL
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 3:47
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    @jknappen-ReinstateMonica I am aware that languages are different. I just don't understand how hard or easy it is to identify a sign language. Does it take a phrase? Or would it be 3 full sentences until one understands you are not making a lot of errors but actually telling something entirely else in a different language?
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 14:07
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    @jknappen-ReinstateMonica I surely mean "identify", I didn't realize this could be mistaken as "understand". I had read all the other sign language questions on this site and knew that mutual intelligibility had already been discussed. Thank you for helping with tags and suggestions. I hope I rewrote my question a little bit better now.
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 23:02

1 Answer 1


This is a specialized version of the question "can people identify languages that they do not know". For example, can a random English speaker identify some stream of speech as Moroccan Arabic, Riffian Berber, or Chukchi? I think the answer depends on when you are asking (the 70's versus now), because now it is easy to experience Riffian Berber speech from the comfort of your home (much harder to do with Chukchi). There is no possibility of correctly identifying Sakha as such language if you have never had any experience with the language. (You might correctly guess at random, or if you've heard Tuvan and Kazakh and can decide that the language isn't one of those, so you can non-randomly guess that it is Sakha). It depends on whether you have had any experience with the target language.

Signed languages are not somehow special in that any ASL signer can recognize, without prior exposure, that so-and-so is using Tanzanian Sign Language vs. British Sign Language. Without any prior exposure, you might guess and be right, but the odds are against being right. However, if you know something about comparative sign linguistics, you might "guess" non-randomly (knowing that X is not British Sign Language, so it might be Australian Sign Language. Likewise one might guess based on knowledge of French Sign Language that X is Dutch, German or Russian Sign Language. This list of sign languages may give you an idea what the historical developments of different languages are. The main impediment to ASL signers being able to recognize Inuit Sign language is lack of exposure, just as people will have a hard time correctly identifying spoken Inuit.

  • Thanks! I was also curious about the signers' ability to identify languages that they know. If I approach someone who knows English in Paris and start speaking English, they will almost instantly recognize the language and understand what I am saying. Would a signer in France recognize ASL within few moves if they know it? Or would it seem like a bunch of strange signs for a minute or two?
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 23:09
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    And regarding the languages that one doesn't know: of course, it's tied to exposure, but I was curious if it works at all. Many people in western societies have an idea how French, German, Russian or Italian sounds like even if they don't speak it at all. Is it common for proficient signers to have an idea how ASL or BSL looks like even if they can't sign in it?
    – Džuris
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 23:13
  • @Džuris I'd make this concept you have in mind (of exposure without actual understanding, and its parallel in sign languages) more prominent in your question, since it doesn't seem to come across.
    – LjL
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 0:17

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