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American Sign Language: It’s not all in the hands

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Quick note: In case you missed the announcement for what my next language mission is in the e-mail list, don't forget to “like” Fluent in 3 months to see it in your Facebook stream tomorrow! I'll also announce it on twitter tomorrow.

On Saturday I went to the Deaf Night Out here in Austin, where almost everyone (80 or so people that took over the bar) were deaf or hard-of-hearing. After about just 2-3 weeks of part-time work on American Sign Language (since I didn't do anything at all during Austin's SxSW conference/parties), I was able to participate in conversations with several people about many topics… and even joke, all without ever speaking.

This has definitely been a successful mission!

ASL has quickly become my favourite language and I look forward to spending another month in the states later this year to continue working on it (after I take on two more spoken languages, the first one starting next week).

Although I've still got a lot to learn, I thought you might find an overview of the language interesting – based on talking to people about this mission and my own preconceptions, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about how ASL works!

I learned everything here from actual interaction with deaf people (or occasionally, with other learners) and not from books.

Not actually 100% “sign” language

The first thing to note is that it is not actually all in the hands. People presume that sign language is just a more complex form of the game charades. The sign for house looks like a house, therefore every word looks in some way like what it describes, right?

The problem with this is that you can't sign concepts like if, since and so on so easily. But conventions mean that signs for these words do of course exist. You learn them and then you'll recognise and be able to use them, even if the reason they look they way they do may not be so apparent at first.

What I found much more interesting was discovering that a vast amount of sign language is not actually in how you shape or move your hands. There are several other factors at play, a few of which include:

  • Position: The sign for man & woman (or brother & sister) is actually the same if you just look at the hands and how they move or are shaped. But in fact, male words tend to be signed from or around the forehead, with female around the chin. There is a visual male/female separation of the top & bottom of the head. Similarly you sign from or to various parts of your body (usually your chest/arms/head area). A sign could look exactly the same but mean something different depending on where it is in reference to the signer's body.
  • Direction pointed: The palm of your dominant hand may be pointing up, down, left, right, to your body, away from your body or diagonally in some way. Where you point it  (as well as your non-dominant hand) is important for the meaning of the word.
  • Distance & how you move it. While someone could tell you the sign for a particular word, how you sign it would change based on context. To sign “really big”, you would more likely sign big but separate your hands even more, while changing your facial expression accordingly. The sign for driving would change depending on how you are driving for example.

You quickly learn that you should actually have most of your focus on the person's FACE as they are signing. Of course their hands are crucial, but facial expressions introduce both important sense to a conversation (without them, it would be like listening to a monotone conversation in a spoken language) and actually dramatically affect the end-meaning.

  • Eyebrows: Raised eyebrows are used for Yes/No questions and when talking about something positive. When you furrow your brow this indicates you are asking a WH- question (why, where, when etc.) or perhaps talking about something negative.

With this in mind, the sign (i.e. what you do with your hands) is the same for Here and What. But you must furrow your brow when it's the latter (as I tried to demonstrate in the main photo of this post).

And the difference between “The weather is nice today” and “Is the weather nice today?” would be that the latter would include raised eyebrows since the words and order would be the same. Technically you can add in a question mark, but that is not needed most of the time, as it would be in English.

  • Mouth: As well as the ever important use of natural expressions, your mouth is used for contributing to actual meaning. For example, when indicating where something is, you open your mouth wide to imply that it's far, show your teeth to show that it's near and close your mouth (as if you were humming) for average distances. I've also seen people open and close their mouth very quickly (almost looking like a fish) to imply understanding, like “I see!”

There are even other ways you can express yourself using various facial muscles and even your tongue!

Word formation

Like many spoken languages, ASL adds “suffixes” to words, or there are commonalities that link words to particular categories.

For example, -er (or -ist)person words simply end in the same movement after the root verb. So “student” is the sign for learn followed by the –er sign. Writer is write + the -er sign, etc.

Groups of some sort tend to be looped horizontally in front of your body, so the sign for Group, Class, and Family are the same directionally, (arcing front to back) but the shape of the hands change.

One useful way to remember words is that several of them are based on shaping the fingers to be the finger sign of that letter. The three above are G, C & F respectively. “Kitchen” involves a K, “France” uses F, “Water” uses W, etc. (obviously the actual hand position, movement etc. would be different for each of these) This initial letter use is not so extensive, but helps a lot to remember certain key words.

Names of people are sometimes formed similarly – where a character or physical trait of the person is signed and sometimes the fingers are shaped as in the first letter of their name. Sandra, who helped me learn most of my ASL, has just given me my sign name. Up until today now I was just spelling out my name in introductions and didn't elaborate to say what my sign name is, i.e. there is no universal “Benny”, “Mary” etc. sign.

Word order

ASL would be quite dull if it was simply signing English word-for-word. This is what I was initially trying to do and one of the criticisms I got for my first two signed videos was that I was talking at the same time as signing – this is bound to lead to direct translation, and of course it's not something that signers would do (even though everyone I met could speak out loud, even when completely deaf).

In fact, the way ASL works is quite different. For example, the WH- question words tend to be at the end of a sentence. Rather than “What's your name'” It's “Your name what?” (remembering to furrow your brow).”Do you prefer ice-cream or cake?” would be “You prefer ice-cream or cake… which?”

Signing English word-for-word in sign language would probably sound as weird as translating a language like German word-for-word would. This would certainly be frustrating to have to put up with, as shown in the “My deaf lady” video.

Words like “to be” are generally discarded (as they are in other languages I've come across), and sometimes a word like “to” (directional) can just be discarded when it's implied. This makes ASL much more efficient.


Of course, not every word has a sign – so all you have to do is spell it out. Signers do this incredibly quickly – so even if they have to spell a word in a sentence, they end up signing as quick (or quicker) than you would say the equivalent sentence out loud.

I'm told that fingerspelling is more common in ASL than other sign languages. Some words don't even have a sign, or it's not known by the vast majority of people. The word “Portuguese” for example escaped everyone I asked – they would just spell it out, since it's not something they would have needed so much in the past. One person did manage to show me the sign for Portuguese, but he was actually Brazilian (signing ASL) so he's more likely to know 🙂

HS is High School, OK is O, then K. Even the word “no” is a slight variation of what it looks like from switching between N and O. The importance of finger spelling and initial letters in words makes me feel that I'd have quite a lot of work ahead of me even if I was a fluent ASL signer if I was to take on another sign language, since those initial letters come from English in ASL of course. (Although, I'd obviously have a great head start if taking on another sign language!)

Because fingerspelling is so important in ASL, I have to admit that this was by far the hardest part of my challenge. When I didn't know a word I'd ask for them to fingerspell it and they would always do it so quickly! I'd only understand if they did this unnaturally slowly – I'd need to try to read fingerspelling intensively over a few hours to try to get myself more used to it as used in natural conversations. If I knew a sign for a word I'd remember it in a conversation, no matter how fast they did it, and I could even deduce what some mean, but fingerspelling is what would ultimately make me lose track of what was being said.

Best method to learn is definitely communicative

As I've said before, my usual imperfectionist approach of charging in, making a tonne of mistakes, but being social in the process (as I describe in detail in the LHG) has been extremely effective in learning sign language! I'm more convinced than ever that natural social use of languages is the best way to learn any language. No exception

Next time some arrogant academic insists on studying and other wasteful and antisocial activities as the core of language learning, I'd like to ask them how the hell they'd learn ASL that way 😉

Very visual!

It doesn't need to be pointed out how visual ASL is, but it takes this further than I expected! For example, the sign for “show” is actually the same as “I show you” or “He shows her”, but the direction changes (for “I show you” you move from me to you, and for he shows her you move from two points understood as away from signer and observer).

Some things really are easier to describe visually. If you wanted to say that a car swerved and just missed a tree, it would take a lot of words to describe the situation satisfactorily in written or spoken form. But signing it would be much easier! You'd have a marker for a car, sign it driving up to a marker for a tree and show the direction it swerved, while being able to emphasise if the tree was big, if the driver was going fast or slow etc. This is definitely more graphic and efficient in conveying what happened than a bunch of words.

What I really like about ASL is how involved it is in conveying emotions. The above car-swerving could be a surprise, a drunk mistake, a dare etc. and the signer would convey this in his/her facial expressions. This information is simply never conveyed in concise spoken languages unless you are watching an actual video re-enactment / movie of it.

This aspect of sign language leads me to think that it is actually superior in conveying certain information (especially information relevant to socialising,and how people interact) in many regards when compared to spoken language. When you combine this with the fact that signers are more emotionally involved in their words, spoken language seems quite dull in comparison!

What this means is that deaf people tend to communicate in a different way to the hearing. It's more personable and more direct and deaf culture is in itself very unique within America (and likely elsewhere too). I always say that I travel to learn about different cultures, and even though I haven't been to a new “country” this time, I certainly got a nice glimpse into a fascinating new culture while here!

I'll attempt to demonstrate how I've improved since my initial videos by uploading another video on Saturday. I've already shot it and will be editing it this week. It will be interesting to watch even if you aren't so interested in ASL!

In the video I try to convey what I've learned about being more visual, not directly translating, all while (hopefully) making something worth watching and sharing! (Despite my very little experience signing so far) Check out the blog on Saturday to see it 🙂

By the way, if you are curious to look up any words in a “dictionary” to see what they look like when signed, then check out this excellent site that shows videos of people signing a huge database of words!

Hopefully you've enjoyed following along with me in this brief language mission! Let me know what you think in the comments! If you are a signer, do you agree with what I've written? If you aren't a signer, have I piqued your curiosity in the language? I hope you'll give it a try 🙂

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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