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Sign Language Across Africa

Most (if not all) indigenous signed languages in Africa today are marginalised, dominated and suppressed by foreign signed languages. Yet well-developed signed languages are cited to have been in use in African deaf communities as far back as the 15th centuries. Over 300 signed languages are used globally. Some have risen to national use, others are at regional level, others, are still regarded as village signs. In Africa only about four signed language varieties have received some kind of constitutional recognition in their home countries – Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. They all have a significant foreign signed language influence. Some refer to them as “foreign-based” signed languages in Africa, while others see them as varieties or dialects of foreign signed languages such as American Sign Language and British Sign Language. Regrettably, the signed language situation in Nigeria can be described as chaotic and confusing. Most signers (deaf and hearing) get trapped in the neocolonial mentality of using American Sign Language , while the rich indigenous signing system is relegated to the background in the name of “local signs”, “gestures”, “pidgin signs” or even “demonstrations”. What is referred to as American Sign Language in Nigeria is best described as Signed English which is neither American nor Nigerian.