3 Indigenous Sign Languages That Are Older Than ASL


American Sign Language (ASL) is the most widely used sign language in the world. While its roots can be traced back to 18th century France, sign languages existed in the Americas well before the arrival of Europeans. Native American tribes relied on Indigenous Sign Language (ISL) to facilitate inter-tribal communication—in addition to communicating with deaf members. Today, most deaf Native Americans and their families use ASL, but a small number still understand ISL, and they’re working to keep these dialects alive.

Here’s a look at three ISL dialects from the past and present.

Plateau Sign Language

Plateau Sign Language was used across the Columbian Plateau in the present-day U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Primarily used by the Salish people, the language went extinct in the 18th century.

Inuit Sign Language

Inuit Sign Language is used within Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic. As of 2000, 47 of the 155 deaf tribe members used the language in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. While the language doesn’t have legal protection under federal law, it has been used alongside ASL in the Nunavut legislature since 2008.

Plains Sign Language

Plains Sign Language (PSL) has the largest number of users on our list. Once the lingua franca of present-day Central Canada, central and western parts of the United States, and Northern Mexico, it had over 110,000 users in 1885. It was used across at least 37 tribes, and remains strong among the Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Dialects of PSL include: Navajo, Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibwa.

Also known as Plains Sign Talk, PSL is the most sophisticated indigenous sign language known. It’s recognized in the official courts, education, and legislative assembly of Ontario, Canada.

Preserving Indigenous Sign Languages

Indigenous sign languages, along with many indigenous spoken languages, are endangered. However, activists such as Nikki Sellars of the Xat’sull First Nation have been working to preserve ISL and improve protections under Canadian law. According to activists, integrating ISL into the curriculum at Native American schools for the deaf will be vital for keeping these languages alive.

Language Support and Boostlingo

Although our Boostlingo Professional Interpreters Network (BPIN) doesn’t include ISL interpreters, we provide support for ASL and spoken languages such as Navajo, Mixteco, and Quechua. Our platform includes video remote interpreting options for ASL users and over-the-phone interpreting for languages of lesser diffusion, such as the ones listed above.

Want to learn more about how Boostlingo can provide the language support you need? Contact us today to start your free trial!