Common Myths About Sign Language

Updated on November 3, 2016
Carola Finch profile image

Carola has worked and volunteered for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.


There is a growing fascination with sign language among the general public. People are signing up for sign language classes in record numbers. Popular TV shows prominently feature deaf actors and aspects of deaf culture. In spite of this, myths about sign language persist, and many people have misconceptions about it.

Elements of Sign Language

Sign language is the natural language of many deaf people. Sign uses various components to express thoughts and ideas such as:

  • head nods or shakes
  • hand shapes
  • movement
  • modulation (i.e. adding emphasis by signing bigger or with more intensity, body position)
  • facial expression (i.e. expressing anger or sarcasm)
  • mouth and tongue (i.e. an open mouth with the tongue out is added to signs like "stupid," or "foolish," or lips pressed together to indicate an activity continued such as driving to a location)
  • palm orientation
  • location

Sign Language Demonstration

Common Misconceptions About Sign Language

There are many common myths and misconceptions about sign language. Here are a few I'd like to address:

Myth: All Deaf People Sign

Approximately 10 percent of deaf people communicate in sign language. There are many reasons why deaf people learn to sign. They may have been born deaf, have deaf parents, or attend schools for the deaf or bilingual sign language/English programs.

Many deaf people choose not to sign for a variety of reasons. For example, some people lose their hearing after learning spoken language through causes such as illness or trauma. They may prefer to speak and lipread. They may chose to use a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device that simulates hearing. They may require notetakers, captioning, or real-time transcription in school or at work.

Myth: Sign Is Iconic

Some signs seem to be iconic—that is, form pictures—such as the signs for combing hair or brushing teeth. Signs are actually based on concepts and ideas. Some incorporate iconic elements while others are more an expression of ideas such as emotional states.

Sign language uses the body in unusual ways to express ideas. For example, American sign language uses the body to indicate a timeline. Signs indicating the past move behind the body, for the present are close to the body, and move forward to indicate the future.

If signers are demonstrating a conversation they have had with someone, they tilt their bodies slightly to the right or to the left to indicate who is speaking. Signers can also use certain handshapes that can represent people, objects, or vehicles and move them to indicate things such as seating patterns, walking, or a car accident.


Myth: Sign Is Universal

Sign language is not universal. Many regions and countries have their own sign language. There are at least 70 signed languages in the world.

American Sign Language is used primarily in the United States and in English-speaking Canada (French-speaking Canadians have their own sign language, Langue des Signes Québécoise). Countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia have their own distinct sign languages.

There is an international form of sign language, but it is mainly used to help deaf people communicate at international events or to communicate information to an international deaf audience over the Internet. This language is not in common usage.

Myth: Sign Is a Visual Form of English

Sign language is a distinct language with its own grammar and syntax. It is not a subset of English. Sign language evolved naturally in the deaf community and became formalized with the help of certain leaders and deaf teachers in schools for the deaf. Signs are not always expressed in the same order as English words because of the directional and visual nature of the language.


English has influenced American Sign Language. Fingerspelling is used when signs may not exist, such as for proper names. The handshapes are based on the English alphabet. Deaf people will create signs when needed as the world continues to change and evolve. English may influence the formation of some signs such as using the hand shape for “v” with movement to form the sign for the concept “victory” as shown in the above photo.

Deaf people will assign hearing people a sign name if they do not have one. Name signs are often based on some characteristic of the person such as wavy hair or a personality trait.

Myth: Hearing People With Basic Sign Language Can Be Interpreters

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) states that sign language interpreting is a highly specialized skill that requires training and an understanding of the RID code of ethics. Like other languages, fluency in sign language takes several years of study. Many colleges and universities offer full-time sign language interpreter training courses.

A basic knowledge of sign does not qualify a hearing person to be an interpreter. Signers need to have a thorough knowledge of sign language grammar and syntax and well as an extensive vocabulary. Interpreters use highly specialized techniques to communicate and follow a strict code of ethics.

There are situations where volunteer interpreting is acceptable, such as in religious or social settings. In these cases, the interpreter must be selected and/or accepted by the deaf person.

Myth: If Deaf Children Are Taught to Sign, They Won’t Learn to Speak

Research shows that deaf children benefit from learning sign language as well as spoken language. Sign language has been recognized by the National Association of the Deaf as the natural language of the culturally deaf. Research has shown that knowing sign language enhances the ability of deaf children to learn to speak English. It gives deaf children a linguistic base from which they can learn spoken language as a second language. Children with a cochlear implant can also benefit from learning to sign.

Concluding Thoughts

Sign is a legitimate, full language in itself with its own grammar and syntax along with its own unique ways of expressing ideas, things, and concepts.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Submit a Comment
  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 

    5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

    Carola, great hub on sign language myths. Congrats on Editor's Choice. This was an intriguing hub about the hearing impaired. Voted up!

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments.

  • karenfritz profile image

    Karen Fritzemeier 

    7 years ago

    I did not know that there were more than 70 sign languages! That was a fascinating fact, and several of these items were new to me. Thank you for an informative hub.


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