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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Do signers from different language backgrounds understand each other’s signs?

When we tell people we investigate the sign languages of deaf people, or when people see us signing, they often ask us whether sign language is universal. The answer is that nearly every country is home to at least one national sign language which does not follow the structure of the dominant spoken language used in that country. So British Sign Language and American Sign Language in fact look really different. Chinese Sign Language and Sign Language of the Netherlands, for example, also have distinct vocabularies, deploy different fingerspelling systems, and have their own set of grammatical rules. At the same time, a Chinese and Dutch deaf person, who do not have any shared language, manage to bridge this language gap with relative ease when meeting for the first time.


This kind of ad hoc communication is also known as cross-signing. In collaboration with the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies - iSLanDS, we are conducting a study of how cross-signing emerges among signers of varying countries for the first time. The recordings include signers from countries such as South Korea, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia. Our initial findings are that the communicative success in these dialogues is linked to the interlocutors’ ability to accommodate to their communicative partner by using creative signs that are not found in their own sign languages. This linguistic creativity often capitalizes on the depictive properties of visual signs (e.g. gesturing a circle in the air to talk about a round object, or representing a man by indicating a moustache), but also on general principles of interaction, e.g. repeating a sign to request more information.

Cross-signing is distinct from International Sign, which is used at international deaf meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress or the Deaflympics. International Sign is strongly influenced by signs from American Sign Language and is usually used to present in front of international deaf audiences who are familiar with its lexicon. Cross-signing, on the other hand, emerges in interaction among signers without knowledge of each other's native sign languages.

by Connie de Vos, Kang-Suk Byun & Elizabeth Manrique

Suggestion for further reading:

Information on differences and commonalities between different sign languages, and between spoken and signed languages by the World Federation of the Deaf: (link)

Mesch, J. (2010). Perspectives on the Concept and Definition of International Sign. World Federation of the Deaf. (link)

Supalla, T., & Webb, R. (1995). The grammar of International Sign: A new look at pidgin languages. In K. Emory and J. Reilly (Eds.), Sign, Gesture and Space. (pp.333-352) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos