While not all hearing impaired people learn sign language as a method of communication, it is a popular choice among the deaf and those who are not totally deaf but simply hard of hearing. It also is popular with those who are frequently in contact with people who have some degree of hearing loss. Learning one of the official sign languages is just one of the many options hearing impaired people may use to assist in communicating with others.
Sign language is actually a broad term to describe a variety of gestural languages throughout the world. A sign language is an entire language made up of symbols, hand gestures, facial expressions and movements that express words, phrases, and ideas, rather than just finger spelling. There are several sign languages in use today, although some are more common than others.
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Among sign language options for hearing impaired people in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is perhaps the most well known. Other options include Linguistics of Visual English (LVE), Systematic Sign Language (SLL), Signed English (SE or Siglish), Seeing Essential English (SEE1), and Signing Exact English (SEE2). Those who intend to study sign language to be able to communicate more effectively with hearing impaired people who know sign language should find out which form of sign language those people are using, because the signals used in the various sign languages may differ. After all, you wouldn't learn French to communicate with someone who only spoke German.
There are a variety of tools, techniques and devices that people who are deaf or hard of hearing — terms preferred within the deaf community over "hearing impaired" — use to assist them in communication and daily life. Alternatives for deaf people who don't want to learn sign language include lip reading and the use of closed captioning. In some cases, hearing aids or cochlear implants may also be able to restore a person's hearing to a point where he can participate in spoken conversation effectively without the need for other techniques.
While some deaf people learn sign language to assist them in communication, this is not what happens in the majority of cases. Many people who become deaf later in life or adopt other means of communication never learn one of these sign languages. Common thought, however, might lead many people to believe that all hearing impaired people know sign language.