According to the World Health Organisation, there are around 72 million deaf people in the world, and this number is increasing. The World Federation of the Deaf estimates that some 80% of these people live in the developing world and that they use more than 300 different sign languages.

Sign languages are recognised natural languages which are structurally different from spoken languages. An international variant of sign language is used at international meetings and when travelling and socialising. This version is more limited than natural sign language and is considered a pidgin form of sign language. What all sign languages have in common is that they convey meaning visually and have been used throughout history by groups of deaf people, in fact, one of the earliest written mentions of a sign language was in Plato’s Cratylus in the 15th century BC.

In the United Kingdom, British Sign Language, also known as BSL, dates back to the 16th century but was only recognised officially in 2003. Like any language, signing has regional variations akin to regional accents, and it is also a living language that adds new words and concepts. Around 150,000 adults and children use BSL in the UK today.

British Sign Language interpreters help deaf and hearing people communicate with each other. To work in this field, interpreters need a degree in British Sign Language and interpreting as well as a qualification such as a postgraduate or master’s degree in interpreting or translation and a Level 6 Diploma in Sign Language Interpreting. Once qualified, you can expect to earn between 22,500 euros to 39,000 euros per year.

In the United States, students can major in American Sign Language at prestigious schools like Harvard and Colombia University and MIT. As well as becoming an interpreter in this complete, complex language, which has its own grammar and syntax different from English, American Sign Language is a prerequisite for specialised careers in education, health, therapy, and recreational services.

The relationship between the spoken language and sign languages differs greatly from country to country. Interestingly, American Sign Language, which is used in the United States and English-speaking Canada, is a derivative of French Sign Language and is nothing like the languages used in New Zealand, Australia or BSL.

If you have time on 23 September, you might like to spend a little time learning about sign languages or if you already know about them, to raise awareness among those around you, since most people don’t know anything about how many people rely on them. It is also a good idea to share a post on social media to spread the word. When you educate others, you are making a massive difference!