ASL: American Sign Language Introduction




Introduction: ASL: American Sign Language Introduction

About: I am, most definitely older than 00010101 and to put it simply, still curious about nearly everything :-) I then tend to read and/or experiment in those areas - when I have the time.. . My two "specialty h…

Pre-amble: an introduction to this introduction -
My apologies for the poor quality of videos: I am still in the learning stages of that particular skill :-)

ASL, or American Sign Language is a language all it's own. There would be no way for an instructable to do the entire language any real justice, but I would like to introduce everyone interested to enough of the language to get a feel for it. There are a few ways to sign also that vary a bit from each other: English (which includes the finger-spelling of one letter at a time), and of course, each language has some of their own signs, and the International signs that are universal. Then, there is ASL, which is what our main focus will be on, as it is looser and more open to interpretation than other forms.

In every country, the language normally employs the sentence structure generated by those that use the language, and they do come across differently from language to language. In ASL, because of not always having a complete word for word relationship in the communication using ASL, sometimes the sentence structure is not as important as how a sign is employed.

I hope to touch on just enough to pique the interest of those that occasionally come into contact with the deaf, or at least to help you feel less uneasy about being around a group that happen to be signing to one another. And maybe, I will inspire someone to take it further, if they think they may need to (or would like to) communicate with any deaf persons.

TOOLS and implements needed:

A mirror can come in quite handy, but is not absolutely necessary.
Patience, you will need lots of this if you plan on going any further with this.
Most of the times it helps to have a partner to communicate with and practice with.
And finally, more patience :-)

Step 1: Fingerspelling: the Alphabet

Let's start with the alphabet, and therefor we have to see what "finger signing" is all about. I could illustrate each letter with a single still picture, except for the letters, J & Z both of which require the hand to move.

Although many of us learned our native alphabet by reciting it to a tune (and this is effective to a point) it does not really assist one in "using" the alphabet. When one gets stuck for a word sign, one can simply spell it out with their hand/fingers so it becomes important not to have to go through the alphabet to remember how to sign a letter (learning them in a specific order promotes association of one letter with the one next to it).

I have found it is better to practice with pangrams (sentences with all the letters of the alphabet in them) :

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dogs back.
Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.
Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz
How quickly daft jumping zebras vex
Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim
Sphinx of black quartz judge my vow.
Waltz, nymph, for quick jigs vex Bud
Bawds jog, flick quartz, vex nymph
Mr. Jock, TV Quiz Ph.D., bags few lynx


A Google search for Pangram will give you an almost unlimited number of them, in the event you become bored with my list. Here is one place that lists quite a few more:

You will no doubt note that I have difficulty signing the letters M, & W. I have always had trouble getting my thumb to reach my little finger. To explain then, the M is signed with the first three fingers downward (pressed together) and slightly curved (palm towards the signer), the little finger tucked in and held by the thumb. The W is much the same sign, but pointing upward, fingers spread, palm away from the signer.

An excellent place to test and practice "interpreting": ASL fingerspell test / practice site

Step 2: How, What and Where

Having mastered the alphabet, it is time to get a few words under our belt. As I mentioned in the introduction, it is not always necessary to sign (for instance) I AM going TO THE store . But one would normally sign: I go store (or; go I store, etc). This is where interpreting (reading) signs becomes difficult for the average person. But that is a whole different learning process.

I am not sure that it is useful to include " numbers" except to say that 1 - 5 is generally represented by the index finger for one (palm towards you the signer), two includes the finger next to it (naturally), three includes the thumb, and then four and five add the remaining fingers one at a time.

There are indeed " sign markers" (indicating ' past tense' , 'comparative' , ' superlative' , ' past participle' , ' adverb' , plurals, and punctuation) but, unless you are in a formal situation and need to use explicit English signing, it is unnecessary.

Starting with the simplest sign to learn, how to say Hi . Bring the fingers up and together, palm away from the signer, move the hand towards the thumb (and back if you wish) (just like you would normally wave :-).

In the event that one would be faced with another signer, one should know the sign for signing : that is done with both hands, formed as fists except the index finger is pointing outwards and slightly upwards, one hand (normally the right) slightly above the other, circle them synchronously keeping one above the other alternately.

Now, a number of you suggested that the word How be shown, so that is the next one:

As illustrated, hold the fingers of both hands, knuckles together, fingers down, turn the fingers inward toward the signer, then open them into a flat, palms up gesture.

Some of you will probably notice that some signs seem to ' indicate' what they are while others are not so obvious. Rest assured that each sign had some reference (at least at one time) to something relating to what is being signed.

Let's get a few more question words before moving on:

What is signed by holding the left hand open, palm to the right, and drawing the right pointed index finger downward from the thumb joint on the palm to the little finger joint on the palm.

Where looks like a ' scolding' :-) With the right hand, palm outwards, make a fist with the index finger pointing upwards (like a we're number one sign), and wave the finger back and forth (like a parent might do when saying naughty naughty :-) . That is the sign of where .

And one more for this step: which : this is signed by making a thumbs up kind of sign with both hands, both with palms inward towards the signer, one higher then the other, and the movement is up and down (while the one hand goes up, the other comes down), alternately, but at the same time.

Step 3: Minding Our Manners

It is always a GOOD thing to be polite. So let's touch on that for a moment.

Thank you: take your right hand, open flat, fingers together, palm towards the signer, and place the finger tips against the chin just below the lips and move from there outward and downward until the palm is flat and face up, perpendicular to the floor.

If someone would sign Thank You to you, you would of course, wish to reply with YOU'RE WELCOME.
This is signed by taking the right hand, like before, palm inward and fingers upward and together, except, that you will be signing a W (index finger and next two only, with the little finger and thumb tucked in), and repeating the same motion and positions as Thank You only with the W.

Please: take the open right hand, palm facing the signer, fingers pointed towards the left side of your body, near the heart area, and move the hand in a circular motion, clockwise (like you were rubbing you stomach), one time around.

A few pronouns are probably needed here too.

I is signed by signing the letter I and moving it towards the signer until it reaches the middle of the upper chest. This distinguishes the letter I from I as in myself.

You is signed simply by pointing outwards towards the other person, closed fist except for the pointing index finger.

One more in this step, since it seemed to be another desired or requested sign, let's look at the sign for DOCTOR:

Right hand, palm upwards and open / flat but facing out from the signer, place the left hand signing the M sign fingertips on the wrist of the right hand, and move the entire sign up and downwards repeatedly (this literally means medical assistance).

Step 4: A Few Common Words

I have my reasons for showing the next few signs.

Go can be signed two different ways: the most common is when referring to one's self. This is done by taking both hands and clenching as fists, only point the index finger upwards, palms in toward the signer, and lowering both hands down until the palms are upward.

The other way is when referring to someone else 'going' : this is more complicated. Take the open right hand, palm toward the left side and draw the hand across the chest and upward, and as you move in that direction, bring the fingers and thumb tips together, ending up slightly higher then one's mouth and to the right side.

Miss as in I miss you , can be signed with an adjusted form of sick:
Open the right hand with the palm towards the chest, pushing the middle finger in further so it gets close to touching the chest before the palm would as you bring the hand closer then slightly upward in motion.

So much is signed one of two ways: one includes the word much in a phrase, the other indicates it without signing it (like we might say: I love you so, with the word much being assumed): this is done by taking the the right hand clenched as a fist, with the index finger pointing upward, bring the hand towards the chin, rotating the palm inward and touching the chin with the fingertip. Of course, the hand is then moved away from the chin and pointed towards the other person to finish the phrase so that one is actually signing I miss so much, you . Which is translated as I miss you so much . This demonstrates the principle I mentioned in the introduction about sentence structure.

Illustrating another principle I mentioned earlier, let's look at the word come .
One signs come, or come here, or come back in the same way: Both hands closed except for the index finger pointing outwards, palms up, arms bent at about a 900 angle. Bring the hands up towards yourself and in towards your chest.

And a sign that is very useful for those that venture away from home: Home

With the right hand, bring the thumb, index finger and second finger fingertips together, pushing the other 2 closed (like you were holding something with those three digits) bring it up to the chin and then move it over to the ear.

I mentioned before that signs have a history and depict an action or object: this is a good one to illustrate that with as it is not apparent from just looking at it. What the sign portrays is one eating & listening i.e. where one has a meal and conversation, that is, home. Neat, huh?

Step 5: Some Requested Signs and the Intro to Some Techie Words

I remember when I first asked about this (since I was not sure I could make a decent instructable and am not sure still), I remember several requests, some serious and many not. So I do want to include some of the more Instructable oriented signs to make this all a little more worthwhile. A word of caution: in the forum where I first brought this up, I had posted a video of a comedian signing the Rap song Ice, Ice Baby: for those that didn't pick up on it, the reason it is so funny is that he is signing literally and the singer is talking slang . So he signs words like ice and baby literally but this would not communicate what the song was speaking of. So, signing a word like will as in I will do that is not the same sign as will as in last will and testament .

For the alarmist in me here are a few:

Fire: Both hands up in front of you, palms towards you, fingers pointed upwards & slightly spread wiggle the fingers.

Smoke: place both hands palms towards each other (left palm up, right palm down) fingers spread, move the right hand in a swirling motion upwards away from the left hand (like smoke rising from the palm).

Knife: holding the left hand closed except for the index finger and second finger pointing to the right side (like signing a U ) take the right hand and sign a U only face the fingers left, and strike the back of the two extended fingers of the left hand.

Got wood: HAVE or GOT: Hold both hands (open the hand flat, then bend at the knuckles only) a few inches out from your upper chest with the fingers and palms faced inwards. Move your hands towards yourself and touch your chest (this sign is commonly done with just the right hand also).
Wood: Holding the flat open left hand, fingers together pointing outward and to the right, palm down at about waist height, take the right hand, flat palm facing left thumb up but not away from the hand, bring the little finger of the right hand down to the thumb of the left, and draw it forward over the left hand towards the little finger of the left hand as if sawing it with the right. Do that twice.

Electricity: take both hands and sign an X in each. Face the index finger knuckles towards each other, and bring them together and then apart a bit. This is normally done at least thrice.

In ASL, battery is signed the same way, but in English Battery is signed with the left hand as a B sign and not an X sign. The rest is the same.

Rocket: make an S sign with the left hand, palm downwards and with the right hand form an R sign. Place that R sign with the wrist against the back of the left hand, then move that R(ocket) upwards away from the left hand.

Engine / Motor: Take each hand, curve the fingers in a cupped manner, spreading the fingers a bit, then bring the knuckles of each hand towards the other, intermesh or interleave your knuckles and rotate the wrists up and down (like gears meshing).

Fuse: Form a D sign with each hand. Point the index finger towards the other hand's index finger so they touch. Bend the index finger of the right hand so that contact is no longer being made.

An alternative way this is signed is to place the hands as described, but instead of bending the finger one moves that index finger upwards (in both cases, it is indicating the breaking of a fuse connection).

Acceleration: Sign with the right hand A , then C , then L then R now immediately make an F sign with the left hand, palm down, and lightly tap the open right hand against the F sign of the left, and with each tap, raise the hand upwards (3 or more times is sufficient).

Circuit: Make an I sign with both hands, and bring the two extended little fingers together, with your thumbs towards you. Then trace a box shape with the little fingers. (Note: since circuit literally means to go around ).

Current: Form an O with both hands, having the right hand higher than the left, palms down, thumbs facing each other, flick both index fingers out so they are pointing out along with the same thing for both thumbs (forming C 's) and closing them again. Do that three times, and then with the right hand sign an R , then sign an I and wiggle your hand back and forth (about 3 times).

Ultraviolet: Sign a U & then sign a V

Volume: Sign a V , an O , and then an L .

Voltage: Sign a V and wiggle it back and for a few times.

Step 6: A Few More Involved Signs

A few slightly more complex signs.

Frequency (as it applies to the electromagnetic spectrum, not to frequency of an occurrence):
Start by opening both hands flat, first raising the left hand to about shoulder height, thumb towards you and palm facing right and hold it there. Bring the right hand up, open and flat, thumb toward you but as you bring it up, bend the hand at the knuckles and making a circular motion brush the fingertips against the left palm in a counterclockwise direction. Then, with the right hand, sign an S, then a W then, with the left hand still holding a palm facing right position, point to the palm with the right index finger and then trace a sine wave out from the left hand in the air.

Resistance: Bring the right hand up and sign an R, and wiggle it back and forth a few times. Then sign an O, and then an R. Taking that right hand, open it if flat, palm outwards away from your body, fingers upwards, bring the left hand around and place it against the right hand, finger to finger, palm to palm. Move both hands together forward and backwards (away from and closer to yourself) a few times. Again, with the right hand, sign an O then an R. Now open the right hand flat again, palm facing left but somewhat downwards (about a 450 angle), and do the same with the left hand. Now you have both hands / arms crossed in front of you.

Vector: Sign a V with the right hand, bring the left hand up and over the right. Point with the index finger of the left hand as if making a line over the V and then wiggle the V back and forth slightly a few times.

Momentum: Bring the right hand up, flat & open and palm towards you, while bringing it up, start to bring the left hand up in similar manner. Pass the right hand out in front of the rising left hand, downwards, then back behind the left hand as the left hand follows suit and goes forward then downward, circling one another.

As with any language, this can only be barely touching on the subject, a mere getting one's feet a bit wet as it were. I do hope this is useful to someone, or at least interesting to some.

Here is another resource worth checking out: Deaf - Blind world signs

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    12 years ago on Introduction

    This is a very nice instructable regarding ASL. I myself know quite a bit of ASL and Exact English. (: If you'd like to learn more, I suggest you read the book The Joy of Sign by Lottie L. Riekehof. It's in ASL and refers to fingerspelling and pronouns as you mentioned in this Instructable along with prefixes, suffixes, and a variety of words and phrases.

    You may or may not be surprised to know that almost every sign in ASL has a sensible origin. It really helps me remember all of my signs. (: It also helps if you mouth what you are saying when you sign. That helps to keep you from going too fast when signing and also helps the correspondant understand you should you sign something incorrectly or shakily. Many deaf people can read lips to an extent.

    Haha, funny story... One of my teachers that's actually professed sign language at a local college was signing about her husband to a close friend of hers.. The sign for husband is boy or male and then marry. Male: Grasp the imaginary brim of a hat with four fingers and thumb. Marry: Clasp the hands, with right hand on top. The friend was terribly confused when she signed about her "boy hamburger". (: Hamburger: Cup the hands as if making a hamburger patty; reverse the position of the hands (right hand on top, then left hand on top). (:


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    the problem with "The Joy of Sign" is that most of the signs in that book are not used by the deaf community. As told to me by a deaf friend,

    "That book was written by a hearing person that had no knowledge of ASL."

    Now weather or not the author is deaf or hearing, I can not say because I know very little about the author....HOWEVER, I used to have that book & ended up tossing it because about 80% of the signs are not used by the deaf, & the other 20% the deaf do not understand.

    I have been an Interpreter for more than 15 yrs so I know at least a wee it of what I speak.

    I encourage everyone, weather you know a deaf person or not, I encourage everyone to at least learn the alphabet....if just 1 life is saved using ASL, or just 1 injury is lessened because of ASL, then learning ASL is worth the while.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    You don't need a reason for ASL to be worth while! But being able to communicate with someone across a room without saying a word is good enough reason for me. The reason I chose to make ASL my second language is that the Deaf don't have a choice in the matters of communication. I can't, with good conscience, expect them to "learn the language". Meanwhile, others who're capable of learning a native language...choose not to? They would rather the natives learn their language? Or whatever the reason. At any rate, I refused to learn a second language simply because others didn't want to learn my native language. I've also studied French, but that was because when I [eventually] take my wife to France, I don't expect others to cater to me. I think they used to call this line of reasoning 'respect'. And I'm not sure if Goodhart or another mentioned it, but one of the best ways to become fluent in Sign is to sign with the Deaf. Most of the deaf individuals I've met because I attended Deaf meetings or groups [only because it was a course requirement]. You'll learn the nuances of the Deaf community: such as which words are finger-spelled as opposed to signed, words and phrases unique to the Deaf, and regional differences in signs. Also, technology-based signs are continually being brought into the language. And as SIRJAMES mentioned, a good amount of signs in books [though they may be considered proper] aren't used by the Deaf community in casual conversation. I'm not into linguistics or ASL interpretation, but I enjoyed my many college ASL courses, Deaf groups, and simply learning something other than "language x, y or z". Anyway, I get excited when people are interested in learning ASL; or even English sign. I know the Deaf community appreciate the effort of us speaking folk learning their language. Of course Latin is also a must-know, imo.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I am not familiar with the book, but from what I've learned of ASL, i.e what is used is not universally used.

    Check out this MIX :-)


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    I apologize, the book is: The Joy of Signing, not Sign. (:


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I do believe that is one of the 3 books I have on hand. But thanks for thinking of me, and my apologies for the late reply.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    In Step 2, Image 1, It Should Be "Deaf People" instead of "Deaf Persons". It Has Bad Grammar.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Umm...There where 3 People...Erm , Persons There XD


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    2 persons, 3 persons, 1,599 persons, but they are all "people" collectively as a singular word. Persons is plural. But grammar has been changing as words change too. So who am I to say.... ;-)


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    everyone has their opinion I suppose :-)


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    *were And it depends on the situation. In a lot of older writings it was taught that "persons" is a gramatically correct plural for the word "person". It wasn't until recently that the term "people" has become popular and labled as socially correct. In this situation, neither word would be gramatically incorrect.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I admit that the first thing I thought when I saw the title was "ASL= Age Sex Location"

    That wasn't creepy at all.

    This is an awesome Instructable.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    I'm sorry, I must have missed something :-)