American Sign Language (ASL) is the language used by the deaf and hard of hearing in the USA and in English-speaking Canada. Even though it is not a universal language, it is quite popular.  

Many people decide to learn ASL with the intention to become certified sign language interpreters and facilitate communication between hearing and deaf communities in a variety of situations. Others, however, are simply curious to learn a few facts about ASL and master some useful phrases that they can use with friends and relatives who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

What You Need to Know About ASL 

Before starting to learn American Sign Language, you need to be aware that it is a mature language, which is completely independent from English. ASL has its own grammar and rules that need to be learned. The best approach to learning ASL is to treat it the same way as learning any other foreign language.  

Here are a few facts that you need to know about ASL: 

  • ASL is not a universal language – this means that by learning to sign it you will be understood only by those who speak it. ASL differs from British or French Sign Language, so do not expect to be able to freely communicate with any deaf or hard of hearing person around the globe. 
  • ASL has regional differences and dialects – ASL is not different than any spoken language in the sense that it is a naturally-evolved language. As a result, it also has its regional differences and dialects. You can find that some signs differ slightly in different parts of the USA.  
  • ASL combines hand gestures, body language and facial expression. In order to form a question, you need to follow the specific ASL grammar rules by placing the interrogative word at the end (in most of the cases) and accompanying it with the right eyebrow movement. For Yes/No questions your eyebrows should be up, while you keep them down for a who-what-where-when-why question. Your hand and body position also alters the meaning of certain words and phrases.  
  • ASL has an alphabet – using your fingers you can sign each of the 26 letters in the English alphabet. Usually this is the first step in learning ASL. Once you learn the signs of the alphabet you can practice fingerspelling words such as your name.  

You may also be curious to know that brain damage affects the ability to sign the same way it affects the ability to speak. If a person who uses ASL suffers a stroke, they might be unable to communicate in ASL. They can still be able to do some signs but either unable to form a sentence or to form the signs properly. Similarly to a speaking person with brain damage who might be able to produce sounds but unable to use the language.  

10 Top ASL Phrases That You Need to Learn 

Determining which are the most useful phrases in ASL that one has to learn depends on many factors. Are you going to use the signs with your family or friends? Do you want to be able to ask someone out or get help in case of trouble? The difference in the first learned phrases may also come from your intentions.  

In case you are learning to sign with the intention to master the language either for personal or professional use, you may want to master phrases such as: 

  • I apologize, I am still learning sign language 
  • Please, sign slow. I don’t understand 
  • I want to practice my sign language 

Watching Nyle DiMarco’s TOP 10 Basic ASL PHRASES for Beginners on YouTube will give you an idea how to sign these phrases.  

As you can see, the phrases are similar to those that you would use with a native speaker of a foreign language that you are learning. We ask them to speak slower or to repeat and we usually apologize for being just beginners. 

One other reason to learn a few phrases in ASL is that you have friends and/or relatives who are deaf or hard of hearing and you want to show them your respect and understanding. In such a case, it is a good idea to learn signing the following 10 phrases: 

  • I love you 
  • What’s wrong? 
  • That is very good 
  • Good job! 
  • How is your day? 
  • Try again! 
  • Calm down 
  • Do you want a hug? 
  • Let’s get coffee 
  • Let’s go out for a walk 

Nyle DiMarco signs some of them in his video, while the others you can also find on YouTube in American Sign Language (ASL) “Phrases” (01) by Dr. Bill Vicars.  

 ASL and the New Modern Words  

Every language changes and evolves with time and so does American Sign Language. The same way Oxford Dictionary adds new words and word meaning and usages to English every year, ASL needs to evolve and incorporate the new modern words. 

After the introduction of words such as selfie or photobomb in English, ASL also had to offer a sign for these words. The process of adding a new sign is pretty much the same as adding a new word to a spoken language. New signs appear and start being used. They are debated and altered until a unified sign is accepted as official. This may take some time since there is no official dictionary of American Sign Language that reflects any new addition to the language.  

Lifeprint.com is a website managed by Dr. Bill Vicars that offers an easy to use dictionary that translates English into ASL. Dr. Vicars tries to keep the dictionary up to date and to include newly introduced signs as well.  

If you have friends and/or relatives who use the American Sign Language, it is a good idea to learn some basic phrases or fingerspelling so that you can communicate easier with them. In addition, this also reveals your interest and respect towards a new language and the possibilities it offers.

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