10 Things You Should Know
About American Sign Language
Dr. Nanci A. Scheetz, CSC
Professor, VSU
Dr. Susan Easterbrooks
Professor, GSU
1. American Sign Language (ASL)
is Not English on the Hands
• ASL is a complex language used within
and among members of the Deaf
• It is “a complete natural language, quite
independent from English” (Lane,
Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996).
2. ASL Is A Visuo-Spatial
• Signed messages are produced in the
signing space.
• ASL is based on visual perception and
visual conveyance of ideas, information
and feeling concepts
• In essence, space provides the backdrop
for the expression of the language.
ASL is a Visuo-Spatial Language
• Space is used to…
– Convey noun/verb relationships
– Identify nouns and pronouns
– Refer to individuals who are not present
– Illustrate time sequences
– Reflect spatial relationships
– Express distance between locations
– Compare and contrast
3. American Sign Language has
Grammatical Features
• Some of these features include:
– Use of Space
– Indicating Tense
– Temporal Aspect
– Prepositions/Locatives
– Classifiers
– Topic/Comment
– Conditional Sentences
ASL Grammatical Features
• Negation
“WH” Questions
“Yes”/”No” Questions
Directional Verbs
• Rhetorical Questions
4. English Word Endings Are Not
Used to Depict Tense in ASL
• English word endings such as:
– “ing” as in Walking
– “ed” as in Walked
– “s” or “es” as in Walks are not part of ASL
Indicating Tense in ASL
• In American Sign Language…
– Time is generally indicated at the
beginning of a sentence
– Tense indicators such as now or
today can be signed at the beginning
to designate the tense
– Yesterday, recently, before and long ago are frequently signed to
indicate past tense
– Future tense can be indicated by signing future, will, tomorrow, or later
Indicating Tense in ASL Continued
• English establishes tense with verb inflections such as
“ed”, “ing”, etc. and time adverbials may occur at the
beginning or end of a sentence
• Once tense is established in ASL it is not necessary to
repeat it in every sentence
• When a change in tense occurs within a narrative a new
tense indicator appears alerting the listener to the time
1. Prepositions in English
Locatives in ASL
• English prepositions may pose a challenge
to deaf individuals because they are
frequently represented in ASL through the
use of locatives.
• When prepositions are signed in English
the English preposition is represented;
however when the preposition is not
represented in ASL the meaning may be
• When signing sentences in ASL such as:
– “I am going to the store” the word “to” is incorporated
into the sign for GO-TO
– “Put the plate in the cupboard” the word “in” would be
incorporated into the sign for PLATE and the location
would be designated by sign movement and location
in space.
6. Adjectives in English and ASL
• English and ASL are both rich with adjectives.
• However, each language represents them differently.
• Adjectives in ASL may be placed before or after the
noun. After the noun they create a pattern that is contrary
to English structure.
• When describing a tall man with red curly hair in ASL you
could sign either: MAN TALL HAIR RED CURLY or TALL
Classifiers Used as Adjectives
• Classifiers can be used as size and shape
specifiers (SASS)
• In these instances they can be used to describe
the visual characteristics of an object or a
• Once an object is identified it can be described
using a classifier
Classifiers Representing Size and
• Several classifiers that are used to show size
and shape. Two of them are:
– CL:F (“F” handshape) is used to show a small round
object such as a coin, piece of candy, a spot on an
animal, etc.
– CL:B (“B” handshape) is used to show a large pile, a
big stomach, a handful of something
7. Negation
There are several ways to form negative sentences in
Non-manual markers: produced in isolation
Negative headshake
Eyebrows squeezed together
Non-manual markers: combined with signs
Negation Continued
• No is used in response to a Yes/No Question
• None can be used to indicate zero quantity and can be
signed before or after the verb
• Not and never occur either before the verb or at the end
of the sentence thus producing a negative consequence
8. The Verb “To Be”
• ASL shows the verb “to be” in a variety of ways:
– Incorporating it into the verb phrase “I am going to work”
– Including it as part of a reference for a noun or pronoun as in the
sentence: “She is over there” or
– Including it as part of a descriptive adjective as in: “He is tall”
– English sign systems have signs for is, are, was, were, am, and be.
However, these are not signed in ASL.
9.The Role of Fingerspelling in
American Sign Language
• Fingerspelling is a manual representation
of the language that is spoken.
• In ASL it is used to represent:
– Proper names
– Titles
– Addresses
– Words that there are no signs for
Fingerspelling Continued
• Fingerspelling is a process of spelling out
English words where there is no sign equivalent
in ASL.
• The fingerspelled alphabet corresponds to the
English alphabet
• When fingerspelling the signer produces the
handshapes in a rapid sequence, pausing
slightly between words (Easterbrooks & Baker,
The American Manual Alphabet
10. ASL Does Not Use A Written
• ASL is produced visually with signs
simultaneously communicating information and
other grammatical information.
• Signed messages are produced in the signing
• Unlike spoken language that follow a linear
order, sound by sound, word by word, and can
be represented in a written format, ASL is
produced visually.
ASL Does Not Use A Written
Format Continued
• As a result, information that students
comprehend visually/conceptually may become
challenging if sign to print connections are not
• When teachers/interpreters provide students
with the sign to print link the opportunity for
reading comprehension to occur is enhanced.
10 Things to Remember
1. ASL is Not English on the hands
2. ASL is a visuo-spatial language
3. ASL has grammatical features
4. English word endings are not used to
depict tense in ASL
5. Prepositions in ASL are shown in
10 Things to Remember Continued
1. Adjectives in ASL may be placed before or
after the noun
2. There are several ways for form negative
sentences in ASL
3. The verb “to be” is signed differently in ASL
and is not represented by English signs
4. Fingerspelling plays a role in ASL
5. ASL does not use a written format
• Easterbrooks, S. & Baker, S. (2002). Language learning
in children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Boston,
MA: Allyn & Bacon.
• Scheetz, N. (2001). Orientation to deafness. Boston, MA:
Allyn & Bacon
• Scheetz, N. (2005). Forming connections: understanding
the difference between ASL and Contact Signing.
Unpublished document
• Scheetz, N. (in press) Building American Sign Language
Skills. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.