Starter Signs

Just started signing? I've got you.

On this page, view the top resources to begin learning American Sign Language. You'll learn some key conversational signs, the basics of sentence structure, and context around the language, who uses it, and how to approach learning.

1. Beginner Conversational Vocabulary

By the end of this video, you'll be able to engage in a signed conversation with some key, common, and important words and phrases.

2. Some ASL Basics

Now that you know a few signs, let's briefly go over what ASL is and isn't:

ASL is American Sign Language, the visual language used by millions of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people across the United States and Canada.  It is a full-fledged visual language, with complex morphological and grammatical structures equal to that of any spoken language.  ASL has a rich vocabulary and grammar unique from any spoken languages. It is the language cherished and shared by the Deaf Community.

ASL is not gesture, pantomime, spelling out English words, English on the hands, or universal. These are common misconceptions, but before you begin learning, it's important to understand...

3. The ASL Fingerspelled Alphabet

American Sign Language has a set of 26 handshapes that represent the written English letters of the alphabet.  As mentioned above, fingerspelling is typically used for proper nouns - names of people, brands, etc. - and are not used to manually spell out every letter of English. That's called the Rochester Method, and is not language, and is not "ASL".  

That said, the alphabet is important to know! It can get you started communicating when you don't yet have a full vocabulary, and can allow you to introduce yourself by name and know the name of anyone you meet!  Here's an intro to the alphabet. Don't worry if you don't immediately remember every letter; keep practicing as much as possible and you'll get there.

Fingerspelling tips:

Practice tips

To practice fingerspelling, do it as much as possible!  First, memorize the handshapes, and then begin fingerspelling everything and anything you see. You can also use the tool at - this allows you to watch a hand progressing through letters and then guess a word. 

When you begin signing with others, don't be afraid to ask them to repeat themselves or slow down. Use the signs learned in section #1 above!  "Sorry, please repeat again, slowly."

4. Pronouns

Pronouns in ASL are simple to learn, because the same hand shape is used for all the pronouns, and it's the location and orientation of the hand that tells who you're referring to. This video demonstrates, and the text below will summarize.

Indexing pronouns

INDEXING pronouns are those that reference the subject or object of a sentence. The English translations would be words like she, he, I, you, they, we.  Those are the pronouns you'd use for the subject of a sentence -- that is, the "doer".  In English, the object of a sentence would take a slightly different pronoun: her, him, them, us. ("I" and "you" remain the same in English, regardless of place in the sentence.) 

In ASL, these words are all produced with the index finger pointing toward the person in question:

Possessive pronouns

POSSESSIVE pronouns are those that indicate ownership.  These use space similarly to indexing pronouns. However, we change the shape of the hand (the handshape) to a flat, extended palm, to change the meaning. This would now translate to English words like his, her/hers, my/mine, your/yours, their/theirs. 

5. How are you?

Now that you know the pronouns, let's look at a common question: How are you? Here's a quick intro to asking and answering that question. The first video includes generic responses, and the second video introduces a range of emotions.

6. A word on word order

Naturally, you'll want to begin putting signs together and making sentences.  In the beginning, you might do this in English word order. That's okay, but know that it won't be true ASL yet!  Just as different languages of the world have different grammar rules, so too does ASL have its own grammar that dictates the order in which you present words.

You might also be looking for "little words" like a, the, to, is, are, and so on. Remember again that ASL is not English on the hands. As a result, English words and ASL signs do not always have a 1:1 ratio! Some English words don't translate into a single ASL sign, and vice-versa! Many ASL signs do not translate to a single English word. For articles and helping verbs like a, is, and so on, many of these concepts are included in the other sign. For example, when you point to yourself, this can mean "me", but can also mean "I am". So as you learn, keep an open mind, and refrain from expecting for the English sentence to be mapped exactly into ASL. It'll free you up to begin learning the language, as it is, with its own vocabulary and its own sentence structure.

Let's dive into that next!

Click here to see a summary of the most common ASL grammar rules to know.