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...
Sign languages are full languages possessing vocabularies and grammatical features comparable to those of any spoken language.
Although ASL takes advantage of the visual mode of communication and makes occasional use of what might be perceived as mime, there are rules that govern signing. ASL is so much more than simple mime.
Although ASL does have a fingerspelled alphabet, fingerspelling is used primarily for names of people, places, and businesses, and is not used for normal communication.
ASL is not the same as spoken English; it has a completely different vocabulary (not all signs have an exact English translation!) and a separate grammar. This is proven by the fact that American Sign Language is not mutually intelligible with British Sign Language, even though both countries speak English.
As mentioned above, ASL is used in North America, but other countries and regions of the world all have their own native sign languages. These languages develop independent of one another and of the local spoken languages. They are also mutually unintelligible; each sign language has its own unique vocabulary, and so knowing one does not guarantee you'll understand someone who speaks another.
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.
Location: Keep your hand in the space in front of your shoulder, where it's easy for someone else to view without looking away from your face.
Movement: Aim to maintain your wrist in about the same spot; avoid bouncing the letters around too much, or pressing the hand forward. The more you keep relatively still, the easier it is to "read" your fingerspelling.
In general, if you do move, it should be in an outward direction - away from you. Don't run away with the word, but if you do move slightly one way or the other, it should be outward. So if you're fingerspelling with your right hand, the letters would progress out toward your right. For the left, the hand would move leftward.
Double letters: For two of the same letter in a row, you can either re-produce the letter (such as for "M", you might release the three fingers and then place them back on the thumb, or for "L" to gently press it outward again) or slide it slightly outward.
Palm orientation: The letters should be formed facing away from you, as shown in the video. Don't turn your hand to look at it so YOU see the letters; the palm should generally be facing outward.
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 ASL.ms - 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."
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 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:
I, ME: point to yourself
YOU: point to the person you're speaking to
SHE / HE: point toward that person
If the person is physically present, point directly to where they are located.
If the person is not physically present during the conversation, you can establish a referent point for them. Basically, you'd point to the space beside you and treat that space as if the person were there. For example: "My friend, (point), he is learning ASL." Then everyone else in the conversation understands that that space is now "your friend", and if they want to refer to him, they'll point there as well.
Notice there's no difference in gender here; ASL does not distinguish between male and female pronouns.
THEY / THEM: point toward that group of people, and likely move your finger in an arc movement to capture the group.
WE: This one is a little trickier, with a few versions:
General "we": Use your index finger to draw an arc from your near shoulder to your far shoulder. (Near or far with respect to the hand you're signing with.)
A quantifiable "we": If you're effectively saying "the two of us" or "the three of us", up to the
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.
Once again, there is no difference between the male or female versions of this sign.
For "our"/"ours", you take the flat palm in toward yourself, fingers upward, and again draw an arc from your near shoulder to your far shoulder.
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!