One of the myths that prevail is the idea that there is a universal sign language. However, this is not the case. Sign languages have naturally evolved over time in deaf communities and are independent of the spoken languages that surround them geographically. Like spoken languages, sign languages exhibit variation that arises on the basis of region, social or ethnic group, social situation, age and gender.
Sign languages are the first or preferred language for many Deaf people. They are also the ‘mother tongue’ of many hearing people who grow up with deaf family members and they perform a similar range of functions to spoken languages. Due to the lack of reliable figures, it is hard to provide an exact number of how many sign language users there are in Europe. Estimates indicate that around 1 in 1,000 is born with a severe to profound hearing loss. This suggests a population of some 80,000 deaf and 16 million hard of hearing people in the Germany, for example (Deutscher Gehörlosen-Bund e.V. 2015). The total number of sign language users in Germany can be assumed to be much higher.
At European Union level, the European Union of the Deaf estimates that there are some 750,000 Deaf sign language users (Wheatley & Pabsch 2010). On average, Deaf sign language users make up about 0.1% of the whole population in any given country. This does not include people learning a sign language as a second language or children of Deaf parents or other family members. The Swedish linguist, Brita Bergman (Bergman, Britta February 2001. Paper presented at the Official Opening of the European Union/ Council of Europe Year of Languages, Lund, Sweden) has suggested that for every deaf sign language user there are some 10 hearing people who are sign language users; this figure would include children of deaf sign language users, family members, friends, teachers, interpreters, as well as hearing individuals who learn a sign language in order to engage with members of their local Deaf community. This estimate would bring the number of hearing and deaf sign language users in the European Union to 8.5 million.
If we extrapolate these figures to the Council of Europe member states, we can determine that based on an estimated population of 820 million people, we would find approximately 820,000 deaf sign language users and some 8.2 million hearing signers, a total of over 9 million sign language users across the region.