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Communicating in Sign

Creative Ways to Learn American Sign Language (ASL)

About The Book

American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary means of communication among the 22 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in this country—and those who live and work with them.
Communicating in Sign revolutionizes the way ASL is taught by offering a beginning vocabulary based on the grammar and syntax of native signers and illustrating the eye contact, facial expressions, and body language that accompany hand and mouth movements. This breakthrough approach to mastering ASL, written for a general audience, is an invaluable resource for anyone eager to learn a language that is rapidly becoming part of our mainstream culture and also for educators, businesses,and organizations working to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Communicating in Sign places ASL within the context of Deaf culture and etiquette, delineating the components that contribute to its depth and richness.




American Sign Language (ASL) is a beautiful language full of emotions. When we speak, we use our vocal chords, tongue, mouth, and ears. When we sign we use our hands, eyes, lips, jaw, and sense of touch. Our sense of touch, our feeling sense, springs to life when we sign. As we make the signs for emotions, we are really expressing how these emotions touch our body and our soul. If we are hungry, if we are happy, these basic feeling states easily transcend the spoken word. Learning to express emotions in American Sign Language is the key to understanding its power and immediacy.

The Five Basic Components of ASL

Imagine that you cannot speak or hear. You must find a way to communicate your feelings to others. Immediately, the almost unconscious physical responses to emotions that our bodies naturally make become our most basic vehicle for expression, instead of merely enhancing the words we speak. These physical responses are sometimes so second nature to us that we do not even realize our bodies communicate as strongly as our words. The band Extreme has a song that asks what someone would do to show she or he cared if the words I love you were taken away. To show love in ASL, we must speak it without words -- at least without words as we know them. The five components of American Sign Language come from the ways we can use our bodies to communicate and from our powers of observation to understand whatever emotion is communicated to us. The five components, in order of importance, are:

1. Eye contact

2. Facial expression

3. Body language

4. Mouth movements

5. Hand movements

Eye Contact. Communication is impossible unless your partner is looking at you. Looking away signals the end to a conversation and can be a great source of distress for the speaker if she or he is interrupted or distracted unexpectedly by a break in eye contact. Breaking eye contact is often a sign of anger or rudeness.

Maintaining eye contact is so important to communicating successfully in ASL that, within the Deaf culture, it is inappropriate to sign "Excuse me" when inadvertently disturbing a conversation between two other people. To draw their attention away by focusing it on your own interloping presence is considered more intrusive than simply moving along as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.

Hearing people must make a special effort to understand the importance of eye contact and a Deaf person's reliance on it. For example, a hearing student can listen to the teacher while taking notes or even while looking out the window. A Deaf student must watch a sign language interpreter to understand what the teacher is saying (or watch while the teacher signs).

Facial Expression. Facial expressions convey adjectives, adverbs, intensity, superlatives, and even denote pronouns through head movements toward or away from someone. Think about it. Is the person driving the car spaced out, sleepy, or fully attentive? Facial expressions comment on the action conveyed or present the opinion of the speaker in relation to it. For example, if you are unhappy that your little brother has a larger portion of chocolate ice cream than you do, your expression would show dismay as you nod toward him and sign the sentence, "He has more chocolate ice cream."

Body Language. Our bodies react naturally to the stimuli presented by the world around us. We move away from things we don't like or that we fear. We approach things we are curious about or are attracted to. Simple observation of another person's instinctive movement toward or away from outside stimuli can speak volumes about his or her tree feelings. In ASL, these body movements are incorporated into the performance of signs to give richness and depth to the concepts communicated.

Mouth Movements. Mouth movements in sign language don't necessarily mean English words formed by the lips. Grammatically, mouth movements can depict sizes and shapes. For example, when referring to a wide or large object, the speaker blows out his or her cheeks. When referring to a thin or small object, like a piece of wire, the speaker purses the lips or sucks air in.

Hand Movements. The formal signs or hand movements of ASL cannot be separated from the four preceding components of the language. All components are essential for fluent conversation. ASL is a language based on relationships in space and pictorial concepts, not on English words. It is important to remember that formal ASL signs are not always strict synonyms for English words, strung together to form sentences in exactly the same manner. As English is the first language for most of us, the transition to ASL can be difficult and will require some special effort. As in many other foreign languages, one sign in ASL can mean several different things, depending on facial expression, body language, or any of the other essential components.

As you learn to communicate in sign, it is important to embrace its physicality, its visual beauty and movement. Hearing people are often taught from childhood that it is not polite to express emotion graphically in public settings. The well-chosen word substitutes for the body that quakes inwardly with unspoken emotion. A blank-faced expression does nothing to promote communication with Deaf people. As we learn to become less inhibited about showing the way we feel and as we worry less and less about so-called proper or improper ways to express ourselves, the richness of communicating emotions in ASL will add depth to our very understanding of what it means to feel each precious human emotion. Exploring the ways that emotions touch us will help us empathize with others and make strong emotional connections to them.

Feeling Emotions with Your Body

Using your hands, face, and body to communicate is called nonverbal communication. In this way, you begin to think in pictures and three dimensions instead of English words.

Let's begin. Below you will find a list of ten emotional states. Think about how you feel whenever you experience each emotion.

* Fear

* Anger

* Surprise

* Shock

* Happiness

* Sadness

* Tiredness

* Frustration

* Amusement

* Excitement

Now, read the list again. Stop at each word and concentrate on the natural movements your body, face, and hands make when you feel this emotion. With a partner, or in front of a mirror, try to demonstrate each one. Let's compare your interpretations to the way most people naturally react to the emotions listed and to the way dictionaries define the experience of each. Common facial expressions are illustrated.

Fear n. A distressing emotion caused by an anticipation or awareness of danger; a feeling of dread or apprehension. v. To be afraid.

Our natural reaction is to lean away from something that makes us afraid. Sometimes we get a butterfly feeling in our stomachs and a tightening in our lungs. When we experience fear and show it, our bodies tend to lean away, shoulders back, eyes looking directly at or above the frightening thing, jaws tightening, and the head tilting back. Practice this several times in front of a mirror. Remember, however, the most important aspect here is to experience the emotion and feel the body's natural reaction. Imagine that Martians have invaded Earth, as did millions of frightened Americans during the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

Anger n. Emotional excitement brought on by a strong feeling of displeasure.

When we are angry, our fists clench, eyes squint, lips squeeze together, and jaws tighten; and our bodies tend to stand still.

I began with the intense emotions of fear and anger because, even though they can be considered negative, the intensity of fear and anger are easy for all of us to understand -- as we have surely experienced them at some time in our lives. But, in hearing society, it is socially unacceptable to show these emotions in a physically expressive manner. We are taught to use our tone of voice to convey the message of discomfort or displeasure. In ASL, tone is accomplished through intensity of gesture, facial expression, and movement. The larger the gesture, the more intense the feeling; the smaller the gesture, the more subtle the feeling. Let your body follow its natural inclination to respond; allow yourself to begin to feel a bit out of control. Have fun with it.

Surprise n. An unexpected girl or event. v. To astound or astonish with unexpected wonder or amazement.

Surprise can be a happy, light feeling. Imagine a time in your life when you experienced a pleasant surprise. Perhaps you were surprised with a special gift or embarrassed by a surprise birthday party. When we are surprised, our eyes and mouths open wide, our hands move upward (palms facing up), and perhaps we even touch our faces. We may step forward, and the upper body leans in the direction of the surprise.

Shock n. A source of great emotional disturbance. v. To affect with surprise, terror, etc.

Shock is an intense, extreme emotion. When we feel shock, our hands usually stay near our sides, palms facing downward, and our feet are planted solidly on the floor. The mouth opens wide, while the eyes feel like they want to leap from their sockets. Most of our facial muscles tighten. For this one, you'll really want to see yourself in the mirror!

Happiness n. A pleasant feeling of well-being and/or contentment.

Really think about something or someone who makes you deliriously happy. Happiness makes the face feel like it is shining: Our eyes glow and our lips almost touch our ears because of our bright, open-mouth smiles. Our hands tend to draw into the body as if we planned to hug ourselves. Go ahead! You are happy!

Sadness n. A deep feeling of unhappiness, grief, or depression.

When you recall a sad experience, and truly feel it, you will immediately become aware of your body's reaction -- the opposite of how you reacted when you experienced happiness. When sad, our smiles turn into frowns, our hands tend to move downward, our eyes droop, and our upper bodies tend to feel heavy. Perhaps the shoulders move downward while the chin wants to touch the chest.

Tiredness n. Extreme fatigue or lethargy.

When we feel tired, our shoulders slide into our arms in a long shrug. Our lips pucker into a sigh, and our eyes can barely stay open.

This practice of emotions has made you tired! Now is a good time to pause and take a deep breath. After a short break, continue on to the remaining emotions on the list.

Frustration n. An unsettling feeling of disappointment or dissatisfaction.

By now, you may have actually experienced this feeling -- frustration -- while exploring your body's natural expression of emotions. How do our bodies show this frustration? We may feel like we're running but can't reach the finish line. Our chins want to tilt back, and our eyebrows are knitted. We want to throw our hands into the air; with our palms facing forward.

Amusement n. A pleasant feeling of being entertained.

Now, it is time to go right ahead and laugh. Release your tension and frustration and feel amused! When amused, the head moves back while the jaws move back and forth as we release air from the back of our throats.

Excitement n. A strong feeling of arousal to activity.

Let's get excited about learning ASL! Again, we will feel ourselves smile, while our heels lift from the floor and our hands move to the upper body. Our feet and hands may even feel like dancing!

Communicating Emotions with Formal ASL Signs

Hold that feeling of excitement while you study the formal ASL signs for each of the emotions on our list. You will be most pleased to discover how closely the formal signs match the nonverbal, natural movements you have just practiced. Remember, ASL is a three-dimensional language, but the illustrations appear in two dimensions. By practicing the detailed, easy-to-follow instructions, you will learn to properly form and understand the formal signs for our ten emotions.

FEAR. Take both hands and open them, extending your fingers. Now, with palms facing your body and the fingers of your left hand facing those of your right hand, move both hands toward each other in front of your chest in one motion. Your fingers do not touch. Remember to lean your shoulders back slightly and use your face to show a fearful expression.

ANGER. The most common sign for anger is one hand (preferably your dominant, or writing, hand) in front of your face with the palm facing in and your fingers crooked like a claw. The use of two hands, as illustrated, adds intensity to the meaning.

SURPRISE. Assuming you like the surprise, feel your facial expression. Your eyes open wide...okay. Take both hands and make fists in front of your lips with the thumbs facing but not touching your eyes. Open your pointer fingers and thumbs wide to form a "C." This shows your "wide eyes" at feeling surprised.

SHOCK. Technically, you can use the same sign as "surprise" but change the facial expression to show shock. Shock and surprise are sometimes closely related in feeling. There is another sign that more precisely fits the direct meaning of shock. Point to your forehead with your dominant hand. Then, place both hands in a "C" or "claw" position in front of your chest, elbows bent. Palms face the floor. This sign literally means "mind-numb," the experience of shock.

HAPPINESS. Face the palm of your dominant hand toward your body. Place your palm on your chest and move it upward repeatedly, touching your chest. You can use both hands to emphasize a strong feeling of elation. Allow your happiness to show in your posture and facial expression.

SADNESS. We all know the long face we make when we are sad. The sign for "sad" actually seems to pull the face down even longer. Pull both of your hands down from your eyes (without touching), keeping your fingers spread, palms facing in, and thumbs out. You can be very sad by intensifying your facial expression and making the sign very slowly.

TIREDNESS. Face the palm of your left hand toward your body and place your fingertips on your upper chest, fingers touching the chest and thumb facing toward the ceiling. The wrist is bent to allow for this position. Do the same with the right hand on the right side of your chest. Now, moving both hands at the same time, drop your elbows, allowing the wrists and arms to fall down while your fingers touch your chest. Naturally, you will feel your shoulders drop and you may even breathe a sigh.

FRUSTRATION. The expression face a brick wall illustrates the concept of the formal sign for "frustration." Move the back of your dominant hand under your chin so the backs of your fingers touch your nose. Knit your brows.

AMUSEMENT. Using your dominant hand, palm facing the body and fingers together, rub your chest repeatedly in a circular motion, which indicates pleasure.

EXCITEMENT. With palms facing your chest, spread your fingers. Bend the middle fingers toward your chest to touch your upper chest. Now, move the middle fingers in an upward motion, still touching the chest. Alternate the movement quickly, first right, then left. Your facial expression and how fast you move your hands will show different degrees of excitement.


At the end of each chapter, you will find practice exercises, games, or dialogues to make learning ASL even more fun. These exercises are designed to be played in a group or individually. They can be played in a formal classroom, at home with friends or family, or anywhere you feel comfortable.

Emotion Charades

1. Write each of the ten emotions from our list on individual index cards. You may want to make more than ten cards by adding other emotions or feelings to the list. Here are some to try:

* Thirsty

* Love

* Worry

* Dizzy

* Guilty

* Pain

* Hate

* Ashamed

* Confused

* Upset

* Innocent

* Joy

* Proud

* Sick

* Hungry

* Arrogant

Descriptions of the formal signs for these emotions and feelings are listed under "Additional Vocabulary," on page 16.

2. Give one card to each member of the group. Be sure only the person holding the card sees it.

3. Each person should remember the emotion written on his or her card.

4. Collect and shuffle the cards. Place all the cards face up on a table or the floor. The players should stand in a circle around the cards.

5. Anyone can start. The idea is that the players take turns demonstrating the emotion written on their cards. Use the natural body gestures learned in the first part of this chapter. The formal signs may be practiced after the game.

6. After the first person demonstrates their emotion, anyone in the group who recognizes it may step forward and pick up the card for that emotion. The card is shown to the demonstrator. If the card is correct, the demonstrator should nod. No voicing, please! If the card is not correct, the demonstrator should shake their head. Other players may begin to pick up cards until the emotion has been correctly identified.

7. The person who held up the correct card becomes the next demonstrator and shows the emotion written on the card they received at the beginning of the game. Continue taking turns until all of the cards have been identified.

8. Now, you may individually, or in a group, practice the formal signs for these emotions and feelings.

Emotion Charades is a great icebreaker for a beginning sign language class. Students quickly learn a vocabulary of over twenty emotions while establishing the basic skills to fluency in ASL, discovering each of its five essential components. Using body language, feeling, watching, gesturing, employing facial expressions, and having a sense of the space near and around the body are integral to understanding American Sign Language.

Silent Movie

We've all seen silent movie actors and laughed at their use of what now seem to be elaborate gestures to get the characters' feelings across to movie-goers. In this exercise, players must act out an emotional drama for the audience to identify.

1. All players write a sentence on a card that could be a dramatic line of dialogue between two people in a movie. For example, "'Nell, the Mounties will never save you,' said the dastardly villain."

2. The cards are collected, shuffled, and placed in a pile. Players choose partners and each pair chooses a card from the deck.

3. A random audience member reads the line of dialogue on the card aloud while the players must react with the emotions evoked by the words.

4. Audience members call out the emotions successfully portrayed by the actors.

5. Play continues until each pair has given two grand performances!

In the next chapter, we will go one step beyond the simple expression and identification of emotions to explore the big picture painted by natural gesture. Anyone can use natural gesture to describe situations or events, ask questions, tell stories, and more. In fact, without knowing it, we all make use of natural gesture every day -- when we look at our watch to say it is time to go and when we raise a hand to hail a taxi. Natural gesture forms the basis of the way in which words or concepts are put together in American Sign Language to make phrases, clauses, and sentences; that is, natural gesture informs the syntax of ASL. Let's take a look at the big picture.

Additional Vocabulary

ARROGANT. Oh, what a fun sign this is! You have heard the expression "a swelled head." Well, that is the concept for this sign. Using your index finger and thumb, form a "C." Your other fingers remain in a fist. With both left and right hands making the shape, place your left hand on the left side of your head (fingers and thumb pointing toward your scalp). Do the same with the right hand on the right side of your head. Imagine you are placing a crown or halo on your head as you move your hands (still with crooked thumb and index finger) away from your head, as if your head had swollen with an inflated ego. The farther away you move your hands, the "bigger" you represent the arrogant person's head to be.

CONFUSED. This sign uses the "C" or "claw" handshape. To show you are confused, first point to your forehead with your dominant hand. Then, place both hands in the "claw" position with one hand palm facing upward and the other hand palm facing downward, the palms of both hands face each other. Move each hand in a circular motion. Be sure to knit your brows to complete the sign.

DIZZY. Using your dominant hand, curve all your fingers and thumb to form a "C" or "claw" handshape. Since we generally feel dizziness in the area of our heads, this sign is made by moving the "C" or "claw" handshape in front of your face, rotating it in a circular motion, palm facing your face. Remember to include the natural facial expression associated with feeling dizzy (unless, of course, you are feeling dizzy -- in which case your expression already says it all!).

GUILTY. Make a fist with your right hand. Extend your thumb and index finger to the left. Place this symbol (it also represents the letter "G") on your left upper chest. This sign is formed with your right hand whether you are right- or left-handed.

HATE. Using both hands, touch the middle finger of each hand to its thumb. Now, with palms facing downward and fingers pointing outward, flick your middle finger from your thumb, still pointing away from your body. Imagine you have a sticky piece of lint you are trying to get off of your fingers. Also, remember that when you strongly dislike something, you want to push it away.

HUNGRY. Using your dominant hand, curve all your fingers and thumb to form a "C." Take the "C" hand and touch fingertips and thumb to chest. (This means, of course, your palm is facing your chest.) Now, keeping this handshape, move your hand down the middle of your chest once and stop before you reach your stomach. This sign represents food traveling down your esophagus toward your stomach.

INNOCENT. As always, facial expression is important for this sign. Imagine someone has blamed you for something you did not do. The facial expression you naturally show and feel is the correct one! Now, make fists with both hands. Bring your left fist, palm facing inward, to your left cheek without touching. Bring your right fist, palm facing inward, to your right cheek. Extend the index and middle fingers of both hands toward your lips and move both hands forward away from your face.

JOY. See "happiness" on page 11. "Joy" and "happiness" use the same handshape and movement. To show joy, make your sign more emphatically, as "joy" is a more intense emotion. Let your face show how joyful you are!

LOVE. The word love is rich with meaning. There are different signs to express the many connotations of love.

1. The most general sign for "love" is to make a fist with both hands and cross your arms over your chest forming an "X" over your heart.

2. For an even deeper meaning, such as "cherish" or "care," put the palm of your dominant hand under your chin and bring your fingers and thumb down into a fist that touches your chin.

3. The universal sign for "I love you" is also used for greetings and good-byes. It has become so popular, you may have seen the design used for necklaces, pins, keyrings, and other jewelry. Use one hand or for emphasis, both. Extend your index finger and thumb forming an "L." Keeping these fingers extended, lift your little finger. Your middle finger and ring finger are touching your palm. Now, with the "I" (little finger) and "L" (thumb and index finger) still extended, direct the sign toward the person you love, palm facing them and the back of your hand facing you. (Note: The thumb and little finger, when extended, form the signed letter "Y." Hence, this handshape represents "ILY," meaning, of course, "I love you.")

PAIN. Imagine feeling a sharp pain. Take the index finger of your right hand and the index finger of your left hand and point them toward each other, moving them sharply to show pain. You can show how severe this pain is by your facial expression. The sign can be made directly over the part of the body where you are feeling the pain. This is particularly helpful for health care professionals. For example, if you have a headache, form the sign for pain with index fingers pointing toward each other in front of your forehead. If you have a pain in your neck, form the sign in front of the part of the neck that hurts. (Note: This is also the sign for the figurative expression "pain in the neck." You indicate the difference between the literal and figurative meanings by context and facial expression.)

PRIDE/PROUD. Make a fist with your dominant hand. Keeping the fist, take your thumb and move it on your middle chest from your stomach up toward your neck. Think of "Casey at the Bat" and the button that popped from his uniform shirt as his chest swelled up with pride!

SHAME/ASHAMED. You know that old expression "hang your head in shame." Well, that's how you sign it, too. Your head -- chin and eyes down -- moves to one side. You may add your hand in a cupped position: With the fingers together, cup your hand and turn the palm toward and away from the face so that the back of the fingers touch your cheek, palm facing out, fingers pointed upward. This may feel a bit awkward at first. Be sure you turn your head away from your hand, not into it.

SICK. With palms facing toward your body, spread your fingers straight up and bend the middle finger of each hand toward yourself. Touch one middle finger to your head and one to your stomach. You can feel this sign, as we tend to feel sickness in our heads and stomachs most often.

THIRSTY. Remember how your throat feels dry when you are thirsty? Even your lips tend to pucker. Well, that's the sign: Simply add the index finger (palm facing in) of your dominant hand tracing your throat from chin to Adam's apple one time.

UPSET. Taking your dominant hand, use your index and middle fingers to make a "V." Then take the "V" and turn it, moving downward, several times in front of your stomach. During the motion, your index finger should touch your chest and your middle finger, your stomach.

WORRY. Using both hands, point the fingers upward with thumbs pointing toward your face. Move your hands in a circular motion in front of your face. One hand will move down as the other moves up. Imagine troubled waters as your expression conveys deep concern.

Copyright © 1998 by Amaranth and Flying Hands

About The Author

Diane P. Chambers is a nationally certified ASL interpreter and college-level instructor, and is president of Flying Hands, a firm dedicated to linking the hearing and Deaf communities. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (July 8, 1998)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684835204

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