The history of sign language in European culture

In early times, any bizarre behaviour was condemned. Thus, society used to put disabled people aside, which includes the deaf community.

It wasn’t until 1500, that a Benedictine Spanish monk began to educate some deaf noble children. His name was Pedro Ponce de León, and although he probably wasn’t the first one to educate the deaf, he certainly was the first one to make public demonstrations of his success [1]. His goal was to simplify the spoken language so that hearing-impaired children could communicate in school.

In 1760, Charles Michel de l’ Éppée, a rather groundbreaking French educator, met two deaf-mute twin sisters. The complexity of the sign language they used immediately surprised him and he decided to set up a small school to study and standardize such a communication system. It was precisely then that the world began to realize that it was possible to express human thoughts only through gestures. An entire language was discovered, a language created and developed by the deaf during the two previous centuries. With some of these “natural gestures”, Charles Michel de l’ Éppée began to organize a system of signs specifically adapted to teach French [2].


Pedro Ponce de León

Pedro Ponce de León

Two schools

At this time in history, Europe witnessed the creation of two schools concerning the language of the deaf. On the one hand, there was the French school: gestural. This discipline was meant to allow the deaf to communicate socially through gestures. The German method, also known as the “oralist” practice, was very different: its priority was to teach the deaf to speak.

Oralism became the dominant method after the Milan Coference (1880), where sign language was prohibited. This ban lasted more than 80 years and, although it remained underground, it was the official end of gestural communication.

The French Sign Language (LSF) reappears

May’ 68 awakened a new sensitivity to cultural diversity. Minorities (the deaf community included) gradually regained their rights and freedom of speech. Progressively, sign language found its place in society. In 1973, the “Union Nationale pour l’ Intégration Sociale des Déficients Auditifs” (National Union for the Social Integration of the Hearing-Impaired) was created in France, in order to represent the interests of the deaf community and defend its right to an education system of its own.

From this moment on, everything went from strength to strength: the sign language courses multiplied, LSF’s interpretation was born, as well as LSF’s bilingual education. The deaf could finally integrate into the society around them. Little by little, other countries joined the cause. In Spain, the LSE (Spanish Sign Language) originated, highly influenced by the French and American sign languages.


Already in 1816, Laurent Clerc, professor at the Institut de Paris, had travelled to the United States with the idea of founding the first American school for the deaf. This is how the ASL (American Sign Language) emerged, a direct disciple of the French gestural communication system. When the Milan Conference ban was withdrawn, the LSF and the ASL were finally able to find its way into society.


LSF and ASL, alphabet

LSF and ASL alphabet


Some interesting dates

1973. The UNISDA (National Union for the Social Integration of the Hearing Impaired) is born. France.

1960s. William Stokoe defends the use of sign language and fights against the monopoly of oralism. United States.

1976. The first linguistic observatory of sign language is created. Washington, United States.

2013. The White House recognizes ASL as a community language and a language of instruction in schools. United States. 


Clearly, communication is extremely important in our society. To translate your projects, visit and find the professional translator that suits you best.


[1] La langue des signes 1. Histoire et grammaire. IVT editions. P.18.
[2] La langue des signes 1. Histoire et grammaire. IVT editions. P.21.


One Response to “The history of sign language in European culture

  • I never realised before that the alphabet in ASL and the one in British Sign Language were entirely different! Thanks for the warning – I’ll try and bear it in mind if I ever need to communicate with someone who uses ASL.

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