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American Sign Language


When ASL is more appropriate:

Maybe you read the PSE sections and decided that you wanted to move full-force into the Land of ASL. This decision, although not at all a bad one, is to be taken seriously. Remember that, contrary to popular belief, learning American Sign Language is as challenging and time consuming as learning any other second language. The grammar, sentence structure, syntax, and such are all completely different than that of English. However, if you’re up to the task and you have realistic expectations (meaning you don’t expect to be fluent in one year), this can be a rewarding and wonderful experience.


Where can I take classes?

Sign language classes are offered throughout the community at schools and colleges, churches and recreation departments. Some of these are excellent, and some are very poor. The classes may be ASL, PSE, SEE or some mixture of all. Instructors may be experienced, professional educators, or people who have only taken a few classes themselves. Buyer beware!

As stated earlier, Sign language instructors should have native or near-native fluency in ASL. (Remember that it takes years to become highly fluent in any foreign language). Fluency in the language could be evidenced by RID certification or NAD or state Quality Assurance (QA) ratings in interpreting, or by an advanced or superior rating on the SCPI (Sign Communication Proficiency Interview). Be wary of instructors who just recently took classes themselves.


Explanations & Examples of Glosses & Translations:

There are no exact English translations for ASL signs. As you read in the section about conceptualization, since there are no direct translations, we give each sign an English “gloss,” which is basically the closest English word to match the meaning of the ASL sign. There are many ASL signs that simply do not have an equal in English. This is something you will learn to convey as you progress. For now, keep in mind that the glosses are not specific words represented by signs, but the closest word to match the meaning. A couple of examples might be:


English phrase: HAVE TO (I have to go to the store)

ASL gloss: NEED ( I need to go to the store)


English phrase: GETTING ON MY NERVES (You are getting on my nerves!)

ASL gloss: BOTHERING-me (You are bothering me!)


Basic Grammar In ASL:


Like any other language, American Sign Language has its own set of grammar rules to follow. ASL, at times, tends to be a bit more flexible than other languages, but there are still specific rules that must be followed. I will cover just a handful of rules to get you started understanding the way the sentence structure works. Remember, ASL is NOT English on the hands. If you have to go to the store, you’re not going to sign each of those words if you’re truly using ASL. Let’s proceed.


  1. Eye contact is a requirement in ASL (and actually any time you are conversing with a Deaf individual). If you look away from a signed conversation, even if it is simply because you are used to that from the Hearing culture, it is a sign to a Deaf person that you’re not interested and can be very offensive). Make sure that eye contact remains throughout the conversation, looking away only when you need to do so for a reference point (discussed later). If someone approaches you, hold your hand out to that someone and finish your conversation. If you cannot do that, simply apologize to the Deaf person and quickly answer the other person (remember to continue to sign if you are in the presence of a deaf person, even if you’re not talking to them).
  2. Facial expressions are as important in ASL as the signs themselves. There are actually specific facial expressions for certain grammatical concepts. Even if you are not trying to follow the grammar, you should always show facial expression when you sign. Watching a signer with a blank face is like listening to a speaker with a monotone voice: boring and often confusing.
  3. Topic/Comment -- In these sentences, the topic is always described first to give the reader an idea of what you’re discussing. Instead of signing “He’s mad because the dog bit him,” you would sign “Dog bit him, he’s mad” (or DOG BITE HIM, MAD HE). Also, your eyebrows should raise as you state the topic and your head should bend slightly forward.
  4. Tense comes first. In order to place a sentence in a specific time frame, it’s important to let the reader know when you’re referring to. If you wanted to tell someone, “I couldn’t sleep last night,” you would simply acknowledge the time first: “Last night, I couldn’t sleep.” (or LAST NIGHT All-NIGHT TOSS-AND-TURN). Again, for the tense (LAST NIGHT), your eyebrows should raise and your head should bend slightly forward.
  5. Yes/No Questions -- This type of sentence requires you use a specific facial expression. If you signed YOU WANT EXERCISE without the correct facial expression, it could be perceived that you are telling someone that they want to exercises. Instead, make sure that you raise your eyebrows and tilt head forward while you’re asking, in order to show that you’re looking for an answer. In longer sentences of this type, you will describe the topic first and then ask the question at the end of the sentence. For example, if you wanted to ask if that blue house across the street is theirs, you would sign HOUSE BLUE ACROSS-STREET, YOURS? While you are signing the question part of the sentence only (YOURS), you would use the non-manual signal of the raised eyebrows and tilted head.
  6. WH- Questions -- These are questions that are asking who, what, why, when, where, how, and how much. They’re looking for answers; not simply a yes or no. Again, in this type of sentence, facial expression is of the utmost importance here, too. Also, the question usually comes at the end of the sentence. An example would be: WANT EAT DINNER, WHERE? As you sign the question word (WHERE?), you need to squeeze your eyebrows together (this is different than a Yes/No question), tilt your head forward and hold the sign for the question word a few seconds.
  7. Pronominalization -- This is a big word that basically means pronouns (I, he, she, him, her, it, they, their, etc.). This can turn into a rather lengthy explanation, so I will attempt to summarize. If you are referring to a person, place, or thing that is in your presence, you will sign the sign for the word (HOUSE, etc.) or fingerspell the name (M-A-R-Y) and then you will point to the reference. From then on, any time you want to talk about that specific reference, you simply point to it. For example: “My friend, Mary, wants to meet you, She used to live in Chicago,” would be signed: MY FRIEND M-A-R-Y (point to Mary) WANT MEET YOU. SHE (signed by simply pointing at her) FROM CHICAGO.  If the person or object is not in your presence, then you would sign or fingerspell the reference and then point to a place in space. From then on, whenever you point to that particular space, your audience will know you mean that reference. MY FRIEND F-R-E-D (point to the right), HE (point right) DEPRESSED. That space will continue to mean FRED until you put a different person or thing in that reference place.
  8. Rhetorical Questions -- These are questions that the signer asks and then answers himself. The signer isn’t actually asking a question that is expected to be answered by whomever they are conversing with. An example would be: I grew up in Philadelphia: I GROW-UP WHERE? PHILADELPHIA. Or “I’m not feeling well because I have a stomach-ache,” would be signed: I SICK WHY? STOMACH-ACHE. The non-manual marker (facial expressions, etc.) are similar to Yes/No Questions, except the eyebrows are raised when the question is signed (I GROW- UP WHERE? PHILADELPHIA would have the raised eyebrows on WHERE?).
  9. In a simple sentence, the verb can be placed before or after the object. For example: ME WANT SWIM or ME SWIM WANT are both correct. Same thing applies to adjectives. It is very common for the adjective to come after the object. HOUSE BLUE, WOMAN PRETTY, DUCKLING YELLOW, although some signers do not follow this all the time.
  10. Conditional Sentences -- In these sentences, first the condition is described and then the outcome. SUPPOSE JOE NOT SHOW UP. DO-what YOU? You can also use a fingerspelled loan sign of I-F. It can be used interchangeably with SUPPOSE, but is often used to emphasis the condition: I-F YOU WIN, YOU CHAMPION. Raised eyebrows and forward head tilt accompany the condition part of the phrase (I-F YOU WIN, SUPPOSE JOE NOT SHOW UP, etc.).
  11. Negation -- This is making a positive statement into a negative one. You can negate a thought by placing a negative sign (NO, NOT, NONE, NOTHING, NEVER, NOT-YET, DON’T WANT, NOT-POSSIBLE, NO-GOOD, ILLIGAL, NOT-FAIR, NOT-WORTHWHILE, WON’T, REFUSE, CAN’T, DON’T, DENY,  DON’T BELIEVE, etc.) before the verb or by first describing a topic and then signing the appropriate negative sign or simply giving a negative head shake. An easy way to negate something is simply shaking your head. You could sign I DON’T-LIKE LOBSTER, or you could sign I LIKE LOBSTER while shaking your head and signing LIKE. Simple, eh?

 Mouth Morphemes In ASL:


There are so many mouth morphemes and this truly is a very advanced part of ASL. I will go over a few well-known mouth morphemes that you should keep in mind while signing. Keep in mind that without photographs, this may be hard to understand. I recommend the book and video set entitled, “DEAF TEND YOUR,” or the video, “Mouth Morphemes.” Here are a few to keep in mind. In general, where the word is underlined in the example is where the mouth movement will be.


MOUTH MOVEMENT / DESCRIPTION / EXAMPLE:                        

CHA / big (height, length, size) / MOTHER WANT COFFEE LARGE

TH / clumsy, lousy  

Puffed Cheeks  / very fat, long ago, many / POINT JAPAN SUMO WRESTLER WOW FAT

Clenched teeth / very many, huge, smart, sexual climax, dark, dangerous / BELT (DARK) BROWN

Tongue out & down / not-yet, ugh, accident, lousy,  erratic, hungry, exaggerate / TEACHER NOT-YET COME CLASS

STA-STA / struggle, long process

Pursed lips / work hard, read carefully, sorry, hearing  person, persevere, secret

Pursed lips with twiggled nose / characteristic, the way it is

Puckered up lips (mmm) / write, drive, read, curious, medium-sized, comfortable / POINT SOFA COMFORTABLE

Puckered up lips with “AWFUL” sign / interesting, wow

FOR-FOR / what for, why, how come / I SIT TTY YOU COME BOTHER FOR FOR?

PAH / finally, big success

POWOO (Pow-oo) / stricken, forget, boom

WATT / don’t want, want  / MY WIFE DON’T-WANT EAT FISH

SOO tired, cold, dirty, delicious, good riddance, curious, close call

SOWvery cold, very tired, very hard, very embarrassed

FISH / finish, stop it / MY HOMEWORK FINISH

PUTT / tend, give in

POW / explode, hit hard, trigger a gun, repress, hot temper

SHH / use exceedingly, make out, poke fun, wild time 

MUM-MUM  / win an unbroken series of games, nab  many suspects

FK / skip work, ignore

PS-PS / fancy, chic

PO / competent, good at, smart

PTH / melt, smash / HOT SUN ICE CREAM MELT

BRO / burned out bulb, broke

OFF / take down, take off, remove

M-M-M / Oh I see, interesting / OH I DIDN’T KNOW INTERESTING


MA-MA / obsessed with money

BOW / light burn out, eye pop out 



Conveying Concepts, Idioms, etc.


As stated above, ASL is about concepts, not words. In this section, I will go over a few phrases and idioms and show you how you may translate them. Please keep in mind that I offer only one alternative and that there are many different ways to convey an idea.




1.  My Mother is fit to be tied.                               MY MOTHER ANGRY

2.  Computers are a piece of cake.                  COMPUTERS EASY

3.   I had a ball at the party.                                I HAD-A-GOOD-TIME PARTY

4.   We’re really late! Shake a leg!                     WE LATE HURRY

5.   Let’s talk turkey.                                                WE-two SERIOUS DISCUSS

6.   We work day in and day out.                       WE WORK EVERYDAY

7.   She took my story at face value.                 SHE ACCEPTED STORY TRUE

8.   You need to bear in mind                             YOU NEED REMEMBER

9.   She’s always running off at the mouth       SHE ALWAYS EXAGGERATE

10. We need to get down to brass tacks.         WE NEED FOCUS

11. The teacher jumped down my throat.      TEACHER BAWLED-OUT-me

12. I really need to hit the road.                         I MUST LEAVE FAST

13. Don’t worry, it’ll all iron out.                           WORRY DON’T ALL HARMONIZE WILL



Bright-eyes and Bushy tailed                              EXCITED BRIGHT

Heart of gold                                                           SOFT HEARTED

Jack of all trades                                                    CAN DO ANYTHING

Turn over a new leaf                                             CHANGE LIFE

Lend an ear                                                             LISTEN

Full of hot air                                                            SILLY  

Get back to the salt mines                                   WORK

Need 40 winks                                                        NEED SLEEP

Beating a dead horse                                           WASTING TIME

Behind the 8-ball                                                   IN TROUBLE

Latest bells and whistles                                        FANCY TECHNOLOGY

Talking through his hat                                         FOOLISH TALK

Put on a pedestal                                                   HONOR




TRAIN GONE ZOOM                                                I won’t repeat (This is used between friends.

                                                                                    It may offend some)

FEEL GOOD ME                                                        I’m proud of myself

I.I.I. FINISH YOU                                                        Stop bragging!

THINK EASY YOU                                                     You think you’re so smart? You try it!

MIND FREEZE ME                                                      I can’t think

HOLD IN ME                                                              I can’t express myself

EYES-OPEN ALL NIGHT                                           I tossed and turned all night

PEA BRAIN                                                                You’re dumb

GUN SHOT                                                                 I agree 100%

FUNNY ZERO                                                             That’s not funny

HEART ZERO YOU                                                     You have no heart

ME ZOOM PAST EYES                                              I don’t understand anything

MIND EMPTY                                                             My mind is a blank

EXPERT YOU                                                              You’re skilled                      






"Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it." ~ Robert Frost