It is common for people to ask if sign language is ‘universal’, and when I explain that it isn’t, they say, ‘it should be.’ Well, perhaps. But like spoken languages, sign languages evolve with time, and as is the case with Auslan and BSL, they can end up quite different. However, all sign languages are visual methods of communication, and most fluent users of one sign language can quickly work out how to communicate with people in another sign language. While our sign language came from England, American sign language (ASL) came from France. French sign language is very different from BSL, and all fingerspelling is done with one hand. Hence, ASL is extremely different from Auslan.
I know no French sign language, but one time when I was travelling in France, I came across a group of Deaf French women. As is the custom within the Deaf community, once we each realised we had found fellow Deaf people, we stopped to chat. Since our train was delayed, the chat was a long one. We started by miming obvious things, introducing our names and occupations. As we did so, we showed each other our signs for these things. Within half an hour, we were onto abstract topics of conversation such as planned obsolescence, using a mix of mime, our own signs and the signs learnt from each other.
In the spirit of international communication, here are some signs for other countries. Note that these are Auslan signs – sign language users in these countries often have their own, different, signs for their country.