American and French Sign Language


Last night I had a marvelous conversation with a  young man who spoke French Sign Language and Cambodian Sign Language.  How is this possible since I don’t speak more than a few words of French and none of Cambodian?

Those of you who like American Fries instead of “French Fries” (which are not from France anyway, I should add…) may be disappointed to hear that Ameslan, also known as American Sign Language, or ASL, originated in France.  And therein lies a tale that explains what happened last night.

Originally, all sign language in any Deaf community was native to that small community and not understood elsewhere. In fact, the oldest natural language in Europe is Old French Sign Language. However, sign language was “natural” and distinct to each Deaf community. The largest American “natural sign” community was on Martha’s Vineyard where there were high rates of genetic deafness.

Protestant Minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was enlisted to arrange for the education of a deaf child.  His travels to England and Scotland found him rebuffed.  He then traveled to France where he was welcomed at the Royal Institution for the Deaf where they  taught Old French Sign Language and signs developed by Abbé de l’Épée. There, Laurent Clerc decided to return with Gallaudet and they opened the school that is known today as the American School for the Deaf.

American Sign Language (ASL) and French Sign Language (FSL) are, even after divergence when Clerc left France in 1817, 60% shared.  However, English Sign Language (ESL) is almost 100% dissimilar to ASL.  In fact, ASL is use along with native sign in at least 27 other countries and is used in the English-speaking parts of Canada.

When the young man signed, “I want learn.” I understood him and invited him to sit down.  For two hours I learned his FSL and CSL and he learned ASL.  I think some of his FSL signs were more evocative of the thing to be communicated than the ASL alternative, but that’s just me.  There were others there, of course, and I believe it can be said we all had a wonderful time.  Sadly, if the person had been from the British Isles we’d have been using pidgin, at best.

So, if you want to visit France and don’t want to learn French, maybe FSL would do if you’ve any Deaf contacts there.

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