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Sign Language 101: Understand the Foundations of Expressive Hands

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are currently more than 1.5 billion people or approximately 20% of the world’s population, that live with hearing loss, with 430 million of them with disabling hearing loss. And those numbers are projected to continue to rise in the upcoming decades.

For millions of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as for their family members, sign language is the primary method of communication. However, there are other people who may also use sign language for easier communication, such as people with cerebral palsy, autism, apraxia of speech, and Down syndrome.

What Is Sign Language?

Sign language refers to a visual and manual method of communication that uses hand signals, gestures, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning rather than spoken words.

However, there is no one universal sign language that is used around the world. Each country has its own sign language, and some even have more than one.

The precise number of sign languages is unknown, but it’s estimated that there are more than 300 different sign languages today with their own grammar and lexicon that are used globally by over 72 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The most used sign language in the world by the number of native signers is Indo-Pakistani Sign Language, which is used by an estimated 6.3 million people native to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It’s followed by Chinese Sign Language and Indonesian Sign Language (4 million and 900,000 estimated users respectively).

English has three varieties of sign language: American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), and Australian Sign Language (Auslan). ASL is used by an estimated 459,850 people, BSL by 80,000, and Auslan by 10,000.

Different sign languages not only use different signs, but also different gestures, facial expressions, and body language. In addition, every sign language has unique grammar and syntax rules that can change and evolve over time.

Similarly to spoken languages, different groups of people create ways of communication that are specific to their cultures, while also reflecting the richness and complexities of local and regional speech. Even within the same language, there are many specific local and regional accents, variations, jargon, and slang in using and understanding different sign languages.

Can I Teach Myself Sign Language?

Yes, you can teach yourself sign language, but it is faster and better if you do it with deaf and heard-of-hearing individuals. The sign language alphabet is the first place to begin learning any sign language. Here, we’ll use American Sign Language as an example. In ASL, there is a unique sign for each of the 26 letters in the English alphabet.

To help you begin, here’s an ASL alphabet chart offered for free by the American Society for Deaf Children, a non-profit organisation that supports and educates families of deaf and hard-of-hearing children and advocates for high-quality programs and services:

ASl Alphabet

Is the ASL Alphabet One Hand?

ASL requires the use of only one hand, and its users typically sign with their dominant hand (i.e., right-handed people use their right and left-handed people use their left hand to sign).

For example, the letter “A” is signed by holding up a fist of one’s dominant hand, with the thumb on the side. The letter “B” is signed by holding up the dominant hand, with the palm facing out, four fingers pointing up, and thumb tucked in, and so on.

How Do You Say Basic Words in Sign Language?

Once you learn the individual letters, you can use the method called fingerspelling to form complete words. Although many words use a unique sign, fingerspelling can provide an effective way of communication even when you’re not familiar with the unique sign for a particular word.

For example, the word “cat” in ASL is signed by touching the thumb and index finger together a few times and drawing them slightly away from the face, while leaving the other fingers up and open. This sign essentially mimics stroking a cat’s whiskers. However, if you don’t know this sign, you can use the fingerspelling method to sign the letters “C-A-T” (see chart above) to communicate the same thing.

Here are some basic words to learn how to sign:

Hello

Touch your forehead, near your ear with the side of your open hand and move the hand away from your head.

Hello

Yes

Make a fist and bob it up and down. The movement resembles the nodding of a head in agreement.

Yes

No

While holding your fist up, spread your middle and index fingers, and your thumb. Tap them together twice for a “No” sign.

No

Thank you

Bring your open palm to your chin, and tap it lightly with your four fingers. Move your palm away from your face to complete the sign.

Thank you

Please

Make a round, clockwise motion on your chest with your hand.

Please

Sorry

Form “A” with your hand and rotate your hand on your chest a couple of times.

Sorry

Stop

One hand should be extended with the palm up. Tap the extended palm with the side of your other palm and the right angle.

Stop

Eat

Form a letter “O” with your hand and tap your month with it.

Eat

Drink

Form a round shape with your had as if you are holding and drinking from an imaginary glass.

Drink

Restroom

Restroom

Walk

Walk



Goodbye

Goodbye

Tips for Learning Sign Language

To learn how to sign, it’s crucial to keep your hands relaxed and composed so you can learn to sign quicker and more effectively, without tiring your hands out. That may take some time and effort so be patient, watch how others sign, and practice in front of a mirror or on camera as much as possible.

The key is to make sure each letter is clear to the person you’re signing. You should always focus on your form so your message can be fully understood.

When fingerspelling, it’s essential to hold your hand(s) at the height of your shoulder and in one place while spelling each word, pause between spelling words, and remain at a consistent pace.

It’s also important to hold your hand(s) steady while fingerspelling, except in the case of a word that has a double letter (e.g., “account”) when you can either bounce your hand(s) between the repeated letters or slide the letter slightly to the side to indicate the repetition.

Also keep in mind when learning sign language that facial expressions and body language are an essential way of communicating tone and feeling, same as with any type of language.  

In the following clip, William G. Vicars, Ed.D teaches basic ASL to a sign language beginner using an innovative and interactive question-based approach:

Brief History of Sign Language

A 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de León is the person credited with developing the first formal sign language for people who are deaf and hearing impaired. It was, at least partly, based on hand gestures used by Benedictine monks in silent communication, as well as those used by Native Americans and other tribes in trades with Europeans.

Ponce de León created a teaching method for sign language that is considered the basis for all sign language systems now used around the world. Consequently, Juan Pablo Bonet, a Spanish priest, built on Ponce de León’s work by exploring new communication methods. In 1620, he published a book that established a manual alphabet and a method of oral education for people with hearing disabilities.

Linguists and historians believe that ASL, the primary sign language used in the United States and English Canada, evolved from Old French Sign Language around 200 years ago. On the other hand, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom use varieties of sign languages that are unrelated to ASL. These sign alphabets use two hands, while ASL and French Sign Language use one.

As previously mentioned, although sign languages are primarily used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as by their family members, they are also used by those who are physically unable to speak, or have a disability or condition that creates a difficulty with oral language communication.

We hope this brief overview can help you understand the basics of sign language: its use, variety, complexity, brief history, and how to start learning it on the example of American Sign Language.

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