The Spectrum of Signed Languages

by David Kurs

in Global Connections

Post image for The Spectrum of Signed Languages

(This post is part of the Global Connections grant program and blog salon.)

That sign language is universal is a meme that just won’t die. People seem to think that it would be so convenient for all speakers of sign language to conform to one language.

I was about ten years old when I encountered a deaf person from another country for the first time. Robin was a British friend of my aunt’s, and over the course of dinner I learned how to spell the British alphabet. I’m not a linguist but it often feels to me that British Sign Language (BSL) occupies a position diametrically opposite from American Sign Language (ASL) on the spectrum of signed languages. Much of what Robin said felt like gibberish to me at first, but as the evening went on I was able to infer what he was saying. It was as if my proximity to BSL had resulted in an accelerated understanding of the language.

I would learn, much later on, that conversing in sign language with a person from another country is not so much as the use of one language, but a series of negotiations in which both parties arrive at a halfway point between both languages determined by trial and error, aided by a lingua franca that we call International Sign Language.

Viewing sign language theatre performed in other languages is a similar experience. I might not understand every word that is uttered, but by being present I am able to partake in a cultural and linguistic osmosis that results in an understanding of the piece on my own terms. I am able to understand far more of a French play performed in French sign language (LSF) than a play performed in spoken English, for example.

TCG’s Global Connections grant funded a trip to the Clin d’Oeil festival in Reims, France in the summer of 2013. For a lifelong student of sign language performing arts like myself, the festival was a dream come true: three days jam-packed with sign language theatrical performances from over the world attended by deaf theatregoers from all over Europe and the world.

The “Deaf Party”, located in a venue seemingly picked for its distance from the city limits as to accommodate the throbbing bass beats required to entertain deaf concertgoers, occupied our evenings. An assortment of deaf rock and roll bands, sign language storytellers and poets, and sign language rappers took the stage in succession.

We came from different countries and spoke different languages, but the conversations were lubricated by art that was happening in our midst. I was waiting in line to see a non-verbal performance of Miss Julie performed by Tyst Teater from Sweden when I encountered a series of awkward moments with a tall man standing behind me. I knew I had to initiate a conversation to defuse any further tensions, so I mimicked the Giant from a multimedia version of Jack and Beanstalk presented with dazzling computer animations by Teater Manu from Norway earlier in the day. A conversation about the merits of the piece followed, and I learned that he was an animator from Kazakhstan who had entered his short film in the film competition that was part of the festival.

As a deaf person from America, I am grateful for these connections that allow me to expand my understanding of deaf people and their place in other cultures. More importantly, as a maker and consumer of theatre I am grateful to have access to international sign language theatre. Deaf theatre artists working in Europe arguably enjoy more opportunities to work on the stage than American theatre artists, and their audiences are more conditioned to theatrical experiences than ours are.

I see exciting possibilities for bringing global deaf artists into the ASL theatre community. There are opportunities for cross-cultural learning and exchange. Ipek Mehlum, an actress from Norway, appeared in our co-production of Cyrano (2012). Our actors learned so much from her instinctual and heartfelt style of performance, and I hope she took something home after three months on our stage. We’re looking forward to working with her and other global artists in the future.

I like to think that when people presume that all sign languages are alike, they are in fact thinking about our facility with body language and nonmanual expressions. That is one area that deaf actors truly excel at, and perhaps that’s why we learn other sign languages so quickly once we’re immersed in other countries and in environments such as Clin d’Oeil. The festival excels in what it does, and it’s up to theatre makers like myself to tap the potential for artistic growth driven by cross-cultural collaboration within the international sign language theatre community.


David Kurs is Deaf West Theatre’s second artistic director in its 21-year history. He produced Flowers for Algernon (2013) and Cyrano (2012, in collaboration with the Fountain Theatre). Previously, he served as the company’s artistic associate; was an associate producer and ASL master on Deaf West productions of Pinocchio (2011), My Sister in This House (2010) and Children of a Lesser God (2009); and wrote Aesop Who (2008). He has worked as a freelance writer, director, and producer of a variety of documentary, commercial, theatrical and narrative projects.


The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.