Braille is a writing system, not a language
Like a language, braille takes time and patience to learn. To someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the raised characters, braille might seem as baffling as a foreign language. But braille is not a language; it is a code, or a writing system, in the way that alphabets and syllabaries are writing systems. Braille is a tactile system of reading and writing used by people who are blind. As is true of any writing system, the process of encoding and decoding braille depends on a shared understanding of meaning between readers and writers. A braille code consists of patterns of raised dots that represent letters, groups of letters, and whole words. Established dot patterns and braille sequences can be utilized to effectively represent any written material on any subject with any type of notation—bestsellers, computer programs, math and science, or music. And, braille is a reliable means of storing information. Braille writing can be recorded on paper, or by electronic storage.
Louis Braille invented the writing and reading system that bears his name to replace a system of raised letters. Louis had learned to trace and read these raised letters in school, but it took considerable time and patience. On the other hand, a braille character could be read by the touch of a finger, and a reader could move across a line of braille characters in much less time than it took to decode the larger raised letters.
Louis lived in France, and so he naturally developed his braille system to read and record information in French. He assigned dot configurations to every letter of the alphabet—the same alphabet characters that we read in English braille. He made these choices with the knowledge that braille characters vary in ease of recognition. The number of dots in a character and the position of these dots within the braille cell affect the ease of character recognition. A character with 2 dots is recognized by the reader more quickly than a character with 4 or 5 dots. Louis also chose alphabet characters that included at least one dot at the top of the braille cell, a dot 1 or a dot 4, for ease of recognition.
English Braille evolved from Louis Braille’s French code, and retained his braille characters for the letters of the alphabet. However, English Braille is fundamentally connected to the organization of the English language. Contractions represent groups of letters that are common in the English language; a few examples are ch, th, ea, ou, ing, and tion.
Today, there are standardized braille codes for 133 languages around the globe. These are documented in World Braille Usage, Third Edition. The trend is towards codifying more languages, standardizing existing braille codes, and promoting access to literacy through braille. When citizens who are blind are able to read and write braille in their native language they have become truly literate.