A quick guide to French Sign Language

A quick guide to French Sign Language

by Clara Avrillier

Updated March 20, 2023

French Sign Language (FSL) was created in the 1600s and today is used by roughly 100,000 French speakers in France and parts of Switzerland. Although there are many sign languages across the world, French Sign Language has its own distinct traits. In this short guide, we’ll cover the basics of how the language works — but first, let’s start with a bit of history.

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The history of French Sign Language (FSL)

As is the case with many other languages, French Sign Language has an interesting creation story. It dates back to the 1800s and a Frenchman named Charles-Michel de l’Épée

At the time, deaf people were misunderstood and often incorrectly judged to be unintelligent or uncommunicative. De l’Épée knew this not to be the case after he witnessed twin sisters communicate complex messages to each other through signs. This inspired him to learn the signs himself and, ultimately, to create an entire institute to combat the unjust conditions faced by deaf people. 

While De l’Épée’s work was crucial to the development of French Sign Language, his original system was overcomplicated and difficult to understand. With assistance from the wider deaf community, it gradually evolved into the communication system known today as French Sign Language. 

There are two dates that proved to be turning points for FSL. In 1991, the Fabius Law came into effect. This allowed for FSL’s use in the education of deaf children. Then, in 2005, FSL was written into law as an official language itself. 

How FSL works 

French Sign Language is a visual language that requires the use of facial expressions, body language, hand signs and other movements to communicate. We’ve broken FSL down into various topics to explain how it works in more detail. 


In FSL there are four different types of signs:

  1. Iconic signs. These signs are used on a daily basis and can be understood by hearing people as well as by deaf people. 
  2. Signs from French. Signs inspired by French words that generally use the first letter of the word as the first gesture.
  3. Invented signs. FSL-specific signs. 
  4. Dactylogical alphabet. Used to spell out a word that does not have its own sign. 

The alphabet

The French Sign Language alphabet is also known as dactylogical — in other words, it uses signs made with fingers. FSL requires only one hand, and individuals can choose to use either their left or their right. There are a total of 26 signs, corresponding to the 26 letters of the alphabet. The alphabet is used to spell proper words and names that don’t exist in FSL. 


Most sign languages across the world do not have a grammar and syntax system designed uniquely for them. This is also the case with FSL, but there’s still a basic syntax to follow: time, place, subject, action. 

Time is conveyed through the use of gestures and spatial assignments. The past is behind you, the present is level with your body and the future is in front of you. This structure is significantly different from the French language, which follows a “subject, verb, complement” structure (dive into more French grammar here if you’re interested). 


Visual expressions and body language make up a vital part of French Sign Language. They help differentiate between, for example, two words with similar signs. Likewise, frowning is used as a way to indicate that you are asking a question in FSL. 

Other sign languages

Around 300 different sign languages exist today, ranging from American and British Sign Language to Arabic Sign Language. The first question people often ask is whether French Sign Language is the same as “English” sign language (by which they presumably mean American or British Sign Language). The answer is no. However, they do share certain traits. In fact, American Sign Language is actually based on FSL! 

Another beautiful language 

France is a country with many beautiful languages and FSL is another one to add to the list. Learning French Sign Language is not as complicated as you might think, and it could be a great string to add to your language learning bow.

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Clara Avrillier

Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with many expats looking to move to France. Find out more on her website, ON IT Translations, or connect with her on Linkedin.

Clara Avrillier

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