The relationship between gestures and Italian sign language

Think about how many gestures you use on a day-to-day basis. From rubbing your fingers and thumb together to signify money to the quick mime of a hand tipping a mug to ask if anyone wants a cup of tea, it’s probably a lot more often than you realise. But few languages make more use of gestures than Italian.

While the use of gestures throughout Italy is widespread, it has recently come to light that the deaf Italian community has struggled to understand where exactly they fit in. Italian Sign Language is far richer in meaning than the 250 gestures used in daily life by Italians from all walks of life, but it is often overshadowed by the more familiar gestures with which Italians and other Europeans have become accustomed.

In Italy, it may not be too difficult to make yourself understood with gestures alone. Gestures can be considered a form of language in much the same way as sign language, though gesticulating is more of an enhancement than a robust language in its own right. The problem deaf Italians have is that while everyone can communicate with gestures of sorts, very few people understand their sign language, making it difficult to speak to hearing Italians.

This raises an interesting question about the relationship between gesture and sign language in other parts of the world. In countries such as France and the UK, speakers are known for being relatively more subdued in their gesticulating and actions. This provides less of an aid for those who speak the language poorly, but British Sign Language (BSL) and French Sign Language have a much higher status than Italian Sign Language, which is not even recognised as an official language in Italy.

For speakers of sign languages to receive certain rights, that sign language must be recognised by the government. This allows them to receive the assistance of interpreters, for instance in court and in medical situations, and gives them access to signed communications. While Italian Sign Language is popular in the deaf community, Italy still needs to go a long way to ensure that speakers get the same linguistic rights as hearing individuals who use gestures to accompany their every day spoken communications.

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