Sign Languages:
Non-Oral Languages of Africa

In Language by Koubra Haggar

Many linguists describe communication in most African regions as being heavily oral. Historically, many stories have been passed down through word of mouth.  But what happens when you do not speak with words, or listen with your ears?  Different types of communication within African cultures are rarely discussed.

 What is not widely known is that  African regions have a long history of non-oral language such as written language and sign language. Sign languages are the natural languages of deaf people and deaf communities. In the past 50 years, an impressive number of sign languages have been studied from a modern linguistic perspective. Nonetheless, only a handful of these studies concern sign languages on the African continent. 

In virtually all of the countries of West and Central Africa, American Sign Language (ASL) is used in deaf education, although it is also often used with other sign language variations (Nyst 2010). Not much is known about the linguistic features of African varieties of ASL. Only a very limited number of dictionaries of West African varieties of ASL has been published to date. The ASL-based Ghanaian Sign Language dictionary (Ghana National Association of the Deaf n.d.) contains around nine hundred signs. Other dictionaries of ASL-based sign languages are Ajavon (2003) for Nigerian Sign Language, GADHOH (2002) for Gambian Sign Language, and Tamomo (1994) for Langue des signes franco-africaine (LSAF), as well as ASL in Francophone African countries, published in Benin. A good explanation for why ASL is used in deaf education is the wider array of resources available to the deaf educational community. Although ASL is mostly used in education, every deaf community across regions in Africa has developed their own variation of sign language that is heavily influenced by the oral languages, cultures and traditional practises around them. 

A good example of this can be found within Malian sign language (LSM). LSM was developed outside the educational environment, and is heavily influenced by gender-based practices as well. Seeing that LSM was conceptualized mostly, if not entirely by deaf men, activities practiced by men influence the different signs that are used. Men often gather at a grin during the afternoon in Bamako where they sit together and converse with tea. This is not exclusive to the hearing community. Deaf Malian men gather at their own deaf grin and these grins become crucial locations for the development of LSM. 

One African variation that has been studied to a deeper extent than the rest is the sign language of Adamorobe (AdaSL), an Akan village in Ghana. It is interesting to observe the extent to which the Akan language has impacted sentence structure in AdaSL. This goes to show that the serial verb structure is indirectly shaped by various characteristic features of the sociolinguistic setting. 

The deaf and hard of hearing communities in Africa have long been a part of the story. They have been neglected and ignored throughout history, but it’s important to start including them when discussing the various types of communication and the various languages within the continent. 

We must ask ourselves crucial questions with regards to how African variations of sign language have impacted the way in which Africans communicate between each other. Have we ever stopped to think about why certain cultures and certain languages use hand motion as a significant part of communication and conveying message while they speak? There is a lack of awareness of the existence of the deaf and hard of hearing communities in Africa. It is important to shed light on these communities and provide proper tools to the numerous schools for the deaf and hard of hearing people across the continent. It is also important to highlight the diversity within the different types of sign languages and to appreciate how they have been impacted and molded by different cultures. It is past time that Signing communities be recognized—not only in Africa, but around the world.