10 Tips to Help You Sign like a Pro - dummies

By Adan R. Penilla, Angela Lee Taylor

This article is all about providing you with ideas to practice and polish your American Sign Language (ASL) signing skills. So if you’re reading this, you’re on the right track.

Watch Yourself and Others Sign

Recording yourself sign helps you see what others see when you sign. Watching interpreters lets you see how they make facial expressions and how they use signs in context. Watching others sign also gives you the opportunity to read how they sign. Standing in front of a mirror is helpful, but it is real time and you can’t go back and see the terrific job you did or where you would like to improve. However, recording yourself allows that opportunity. Keep in mind, you can be your own worst critic or your biggest fan; it is all in the perspective.

Discover Multiple Signs for Communicating One Thing

You can sign one thing in many different ways. The more ways you know, the more versatile you’ll be. Even if a particular sign doesn’t suit you, someone else may use it, so it’s helpful to know it. For example, you can sign do in a number of ways. Ask a person who’s been signing for a few years to show them to you. Keep a mental file of various signs that you observe, and soon you will possess a wealth of information that will allow you to be a resource for other signers.

Practice Your Signing — with Others

There’s no substitute for practice. Use your time wisely by taking every opportunity to ask questions and fingerspell every advertisement sign. And go out of your way to meet as many Deaf people as possible. Sure, having a formal education in American Sign Language makes you a better signer, but practicing your skills with the Deaf person on the street can teach you things that a formal education can’t, such as Deaf culture and Deaf idioms in action. Set yourself up for success: When you are fingerspelling, start with small simple words and graduate to longer ones. When you are fluid with the smaller ones, you will see the improvement.

Always Fingerspell a Name First

Name signs serve as identification and were originally used to talk about someone when the person wasn’t present. The Deaf community — not hearing folks — gives name signs, which may be based on a person’s initials, physical characteristics, or personality traits. However, a person’s name must be established before you can use his name sign or talk about him. If you don’t fingerspell a person’s name first, you’ll only cause confusion as to whom you mean.

Adjust Your Eyes; Everyone’s Signing Is Different

Personalities tend to come out in Sign, just as they do in English. Some people talk fast and sign fast, and others want to give you all the details. Just as no two people talk alike, no two signers sign alike. By being open to the different ways that people sign, you can grow to understand the variety of signing styles as easily as you can understand most English speakers in the United States. If you don’t understand someone at first, don’t give up; get the context of what they are talking about, adjust your eyes to their signing, and be patient. Skill is its own reward.

Use Facial Expressions like Vocal Inflections

Imagine talking without any high or low pitches — speaking only in a monotone, with few clues to emphasize your point. Your conversation would be boring and hard to understand. The same holds true when you sign. If you sign about someone being angry, look angry!

If you want to convey your joy, you need to show that joy, and if something scary happened to you, look scared! As a general rule, the clearest facial expression is an authentic one. You achieve this by practicing actual expressions: Put on a big smile for joy, frown when you want to show sadness or unhappiness, and frown and scrunch your eyebrows together to convey a feeling of anger.

If you are not an emotional person by nature, flip through magazine advertisements and see all the different expressions people use for different circumstances. These are paid actors, they know how to work it.

Journal Your Progress

Keeping track of your linguistic experiences — the good and the bad, the conflicts and resolutions — helps you map your progress and remember the ins and outs of Deaf culture. In your journal, maintain a separate section of terms and the various ways of signing different concepts; that helps you compare the similarities and differences among terms and concepts, expand your vocabulary, and see the bigger picture of the Deaf world. Sharing your journal with a certain Deaf person whose signing abilities you aspire to imitate is a great compliment to the person. But make sure you change the names in the conflicts and resolutions part to protect the innocent!

Get Some Signing Space

Signing and talking affect where you sit or stand. Because signing is manual, give signers a little room to converse. If you need privacy, go somewhere private to have your conversation. And make sure that you don’t stand with bright light or the sun directly behind you, because whoever is watching you sign will only see your silhouette — a big giveaway that you’re just a beginner.

Because ASL is a physical language, two signers having a conversation need more space than hearing people do. Also, walking right between two people who are signing is perfectly acceptable in the Deaf world; you don’t need to say “excuse me.”

Don’t Jump the Gun

Sometimes, when you’re watching someone sign, you may lose that person and not understand her meaning. Don’t lose heart. Try to let the person finish the thought; you may put it all together at the very end, after she has finished signing all the information. Then, if you still don’t understand, just explain that you didn’t catch everything, and let the person know what you did catch.

Stopping someone and asking for clarification or waiting until the person is finished to see if you can make sense of things are two techniques used by many signers and interpreters. Both techniques have a place in Sign.

So breathe, stay calm, and ask specific questions for clarity. This is how you develop your confidence.

Watch the Face, Not the Hands

You can find most of what you need to know on a signer’s face. A person’s face conveys moods, pauses, any information that can be demonstrated through mouth shapes, and how an action is done (slowly, quickly, sloppily, and so on). If you focus on a signer’s hands, you miss a lot of crucial information; instead, focus on the signer’s face and shoulders. Use your peripheral vision to watch the hands. By doing this, you see the whole signer, and you’re apt to better understand the conversation. On an added note, signers can point with their eyes so watch the complete person.