During the Q&A time at speaking engagements, I typically get the following two questions:
Is sign language universal?
No, sign language is not universal.  Like spoken language, it can vary depending on the country and the region within a country.
Did you have to learn Haitian Sign Language (HSL) before traveling to Haiti?
No. The current students at the school in Mirebalais were taught American Sign Language (ASL) and mainly use ASL.  As they interact with other Deaf who use HSL, they pick up new signs. And the children love to teach me new signs.
To me, the fun part about any language – visual or spoken- is that it is constantly changing.  For example, some of the words we use today related to technology would have had a very different meaning for our grandparents: text, tweet, or post, i.e.  As new technology emerges, new signs are also created in order to describe the latest gadgets using sign language.
Culture also plays an important role in language development.  Haitians can enjoy mangoes all year round so they have a sign for mango.  Living in Ohio, mangoes aren’t easy to find so Ohioans typically spell-out the word mango using the manual alphabet.  Another culture example is church.  Religion is deeply rooted in the Haitian culture.  Church services are held several times a week at the school, and I’ve seen at least three different Haitian signs to represent the word church.
Thankfully, there is one sign that is the same in both American Sign Language and Haitian Sign Language.  It is the sign that represents the phrase, “I love you.”  It’s can be written as ‘ILY’.  Mostly used to represent love between friends, you’ll see it used as a greeting and almost in every picture of sign language users.  It connects Americans and Haitian, deaf and hearing.
-Tammie Showalter