The Complete Guide to Sign Language

Sign language is a visual language that uses hand shapes, facial expressions, and body movements to convey meaning and enable communication for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. As the primary language for the Deaf community, there are hundreds of different signed languages used all over the world. This comprehensive guide will explore what sign language is, the different types, how to sign, and why learning sign language is important.

Key Takeaways:

  • Sign language is a full-fledged natural language with its own grammar and rules.
  • American Sign Language (ASL) is the predominant sign language used in the United States and Canada.
  • Other common sign languages include British Sign Language (BSL), Australian Sign Language (Auslan), and French Sign Language (LSF).
  • Sign language involves forming signs with your hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements.
  • Learning just a few basic signs can help you communicate on a basic level.
  • Taking sign language classes is the best way to gain proficiency in signing.

What is Sign Language?

Sign language is a visual-spatial language that uses hand shapes, gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to convey words, concepts, ideas, emotions, and other information. It has its own complex grammar and linguistic rules just like spoken languages. Sign languages are natural languages that emerge naturally in Deaf communities.

Sign language should not be confused with pantomime, which uses only gesture and facial expressions to mime actions, concepts, or ideas. Sign language is an actual language with its own syntax and grammar conventions. It contains sign vocabulary made up of signs, just as spoken languages contain word vocabulary made up of words.

Sign languages aren’t universal and they aren’t simply gestured versions of spoken languages. Different sign languages are used in different regions just like with spoken languages. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are completely different and not mutually intelligible even though they share English as their written/spoken counterpart.

Types of Sign Language

There are over 300 different signed languages used in Deaf communities around the world. Here are some of the most common:

American Sign Language (ASL)

  • The predominant sign language used in the United States and English-speaking parts of Canada.
  • Has its own distinct grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.
  • Uses one-handed, two-handed, and finger spelled signs.
  • Approximately 500,000 people use ASL as their primary language.

British Sign Language (BSL)

  • Used in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
  • Different from ASL with its own grammar conventions and signs.
  • Related to French Sign Language.
  • Around 151,000 users.

Australian Sign Language (Auslan)

  • Used by Deaf community in Australia.
  • Has similarities to British and New Zealand Sign Language but is its own language.
  • Approximately 10,000 fluent users.

French Sign Language (LSF)

  • Used in France and parts of Switzerland and Belgium.
  • Uses one-handed and two-handed signs.
  • Closely related to American Sign Language with some mutual intelligibility.
  • Around 122,000 users.

German Sign Language (DGS)

  • Used in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Liechtenstein.
  • Uses signing space near upper body and face.
  • Related to Danish, Dutch, French and Luxembourgish signed languages.
  • Around 16,000 users.

Chinese Sign Language

  • Standardized form used in education based on Beijing Sign Language.
  • Dialectal variations exist between regions and provinces.
  • Incorporates characters from Chinese writing system through finger spelling and iconic signs.
  • No reliable estimates on number of users.

Indian Sign Language

  • Lacks standardization with huge regional variation.
  • Based on local sign languages developed in Deaf schools and communities.
  • Influenced by American Sign Language introduced in some Indian schools.
  • No data on number of users across India.

This is just a small sample of signed languages used worldwide. There are many more signed languages specific to regions, countries, and even villages around the globe. The key thing is that sign languages are diverse, complex languages in their own right.

How Sign Language Works

Sign language utilizes three main components to share information and convey meaning:

Manual Signs

This refers to signs made with the hands, fingers, and arms. Hand shapes, orientations, locations, and movements combine to form signs that represent words, phrases, or concepts. Just like spoken words, signed words can stand on their own or combine with other signs in sentences.

For example, the ASL sign for “thank you” involves bringing the dominant hand, shaped in a fist, down onto the open palm of the the non-dominant hand. The placement near the chin and the movement away from the mouth represents the concept of gratitude.

Non-manual Markers

Non-manual markers refer to facial expressions and body movements that accompany signs to convey meaning and intonation, just like tone of voice. Movements of the eyebrows, head tilts, shoulder raises all add contextual information to manual signs.

Puffing cheeks can indicate something is large or blown up. Furrowed eyebrows show intensity or importance. These non-manual markers lend nuance and depth to the language.

Finger Spelling

Finger spelling uses hand shapes that correspond to letters to spell out names or words that don’t have established signs. Each letter has a designated hand shape. Spelling out words letter by letter through finger spelling allows signs for new words to be seamlessly incorporated.

Put together, these components allow for complex communication of anything that can be said with a spoken language from casual conversation to academic lectures. Sign language has evolved naturally over time within Deaf communities to meet all their linguistic needs.

Why Learn Sign Language?

Here are some of the top reasons for learning sign language:

  • Communicate with Deaf or hard of hearing friends, family, coworkers or customers. Even learning a few basic signs allows you to say hello, exchange introductions, express gratitude, and handle simple interactions.
  • Gain employment opportunities. Sign language skills are in demand for education, social services, customer service, medical, and government jobs. Being able to sign opens up your prospects.
  • Interact with young Deaf children. Sign language is the ideal way for hearing parents to communicate with Deaf children before reading/writing skills develop.
  • Appreciate Deaf culture & art. Knowing sign language lets you participate in Deaf culture events, poetry, theater and get to know the Deaf community.
  • Learn a second language. Signing exercises different parts of your brain. It enhances cognitive skills, memory, visual-spatial awareness, and quick thinking.
  • Communicate in loud places. Signing allows you to converse at loud concerts or clubs, through windows, or under water – anytime speaking is difficult.
  • Develop signing skills. Just like spoken languages, sign languages takes time and practice to gain true fluency and mastery. Dedication can lead to expert proficiency.
  • Teach baby sign language. Using simple baby signs with infants and toddlers facilitates communication well before speech develops – enhancing parent-child bonding.

Overall, sign language is an enriching skill that allows you to communicate with more people in more situations – breaking down barriers and bringing people together.

How to Learn Sign Language

Here are some tips for getting started learning sign language:

Take an In-Person or Online Class

The best way to fully learn sign language, including its nuances and complexities, is through an academic course. Look for classes at local community colleges, universities, Deaf cultural centers, community education programs, or private tutoring services in your area.

Online courses and tutoring services via video chat are also increasingly available, allowing you to learn from experts anywhere. Make sure instructors are qualified and Deaf/signing natives whenever possible.

Get a Sign Language Dictionary or Phrasebook

Dictionaries and phrasebooks for major sign languages contain photos/illustrations of proper hand shapes and movements for each sign along with definitions. They also provide common words and useful phrases to jumpstart signing skills.

Watch Sign Language Videos

YouTube has countless instructional sign language videos teaching vocabulary signs, sentences, numbers, the alphabet and more. Watching native signers helps you pick up proper positioning and signing flow. Videos also let you practice and get feedback on your own signing.

Use Sign Language Apps

Apps like The ASL App and Sign School have free lessons, dictionaries, quizzes, games, and other tools for getting familiar with sign language basics at your own pace through interactive mobile learning.

Interact with Signers

Finding events for signing practice in your community or chatting with signing friends/contacts online helps reinforce signs learned and exposes you to more conversational signing at your level. Immersion accelerates proficiency.

Practice Every Day

Daily practice, even 15 minutes a day, goes a long way when first learning sign language. Drill signs, fingerspell the alphabet, watch instructional videos, and use new signs throughout your day. Consistency leads to mastery.

With the right mix of academic learning, immersive practice, and daily reinforcement – anyone can learn sign language. Start with the basics and grow your skills over time.

Sign Language for Beginners

Here are some helpful tips for complete beginners just starting to learn sign language:

  • Focus first on mastering the entire manual alphabet. Finger spelling will allow you to communicate any words you don’t know signs for yet.
  • Learn simple signs for common objects and activities like bathroom, drink, eat, help, more, stop, thank you, walk, etc.
  • Practice numbers, days of the week, months, and other useful standards to handle basic questions.
  • Use facial expressions like furrowed eyebrows or puffed cheeks to convey feelings without knowing specific signs.
  • Find phrases for introducing yourself and exchanging names as a starting point for conversations.
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes. Being understood is more important than perfect signing.
  • Look up the 100 most commonly used signs and practice using them together in short sentences.
  • Learn signs for people and places most relevant to your everyday routine and use them repeatedly.
  • Mimic signs exactly as shown rather than improvising – precision matters with hand shapes, movements and facial cues.
  • Sign as much as you can, even if only signing “thank you” or other short words throughout your day.
  • Use apps, online dictionaries, YouTube tutorials, and classes to build up your vocabulary over time.
  • Enjoy the learning process! Sign language is a journey that takes time, patience and practice.

Sign Language for Parents

Here are some tips for parents looking to use sign language with babies or young children:

Start simple – Focus first on basic signs like “more”, “eat”, “milk”, “all done” rather than full sentences. Try using signs whenever you speak to your child.

Reinforce consistently – Using the same signs during daily routines helps children learn. Keep practicing the same signs until your child starts signing back.

Respond immediately – React excitedly and reward with hugs/praise when your child makes any effort at signing to reinforce communication.

Add signs slowly – Introduce new signs one at a time every week or two based on your child’s needs and interests like “book”, “sleep”, “play”.

Make signing fun – Incorporate signs into songs, nursery rhymes, games like peek-a-boo, and other engaging interactive moments.

Sign yourself – Set an example by signing when talking to your child. Siblings and caregivers should learn signs too for consistency.

Don’t worry about perfection – Focus on consistent sign use rather than perfect hand shapes. Approximations are fine as long as the meaning gets across.

Be patient – Children may pick up signing at different paces. Keep signing daily and wait for your child’s signing readiness. Progress will come.

Starting sign language early promotes communication, reduces frustration, and strengthens the parent-child bond. But any age is a great age to get signing!

Sign Language for the Workplace

Sign language skills can enhance employment opportunities and job performance. Here are some workplace applications:

  • Customer Service – Serve deaf customers more effectively at stores, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses.
  • Healthcare – Communicate with deaf patients, family members, and staff at hospitals, clinics, dentist offices, pharmacies, etc.
  • Education – Teach deaf students as a teacher or aide. Sign language interpreters are also essential.
  • Government – Enable deaf citizens to access services at social services, courts, DMV, public safety, elections, and recreation departments.
  • Tourism & Entertainment – Make cultural institutions, tourism attractions, concerts, theaters, and festivals more accessible.
  • Religious Services – Welcome deaf congregants at places of worship and make services, counseling, classes, and events inclusive.
  • Meetings & Presentations – Sign language interpreters allow deaf colleagues and audiences to follow meetings, trainings, lectures, and public talks.
  • Media Production – Create signing content for television, streaming, social media, and other productions to reach deaf viewers.
  • Tech Support & Remote Work – Assist deaf customers/colleagues via video chat and helpdesk platforms.

Sign language creates more diversity, equity, and inclusion across all industries and roles. Both basic and fluent signing skills are becoming increasingly valued and demanded by employers.

Sign Language for Travelers

When traveling, sign language can help overcome communication barriers:

  • Learn key phrases – Know signs for basics like “bathroom”, “help”, “how much?”, “thank you”, “where is..?” etc.
  • Carry a translation guide – Pocket phrasebooks, mobile apps, or translation cards enable key sign exchanges.
  • Mime and gesture – When in doubt, act it out. Gesturing can get the point across when you lack local sign language skills.
  • Learn the alphabet – Finger spelling out names and words letter by letter can fill communication gaps.
  • Download a dictionary – Having a visual dictionary app on your phone provides signing options.
  • Hire an interpreter – For complex overseas matters like medical care or legal issues, hiring a qualified interpreter may be advisable.
  • Connect to local Deaf community – Local Deaf residents and organizations may help you pick up useful regional signs.
  • Observe and imitate locals – Pay attention to any signing you see by local people and do your best to follow their lead.
  • Be patient and creative – Keep an open, understanding attitude as you and locals find ways to communicate successfully.

Sign Language Resources

Here are some helpful online resources for learning and practicing sign language:


  • – Free categorized video lessons teaching American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary and grammar.
  • The ASL App – Subscription video dictionary with over 3,000 ASL signs demonstrated clearly. Mobile app available.
  • Bill Vicars – YouTube channel with full ASL lessons for beginners to advanced levels.

Classes & Tutoring

  • Gallaudet University – World-renowned university offering online and in-person ASL courses at all skill levels.
  • Start ASL – Online ASL classes taught live in virtual classroom settings by Deaf teachers.
  • Sign Language Master – Online lessons, immersion workshops, and personal tutoring sessions in ASL.
  • Deaf U – ASL classes taught by instructors from Gallaudet University available online or in select cities.


  • Signing Savvy – Website and app with searchable ASL dictionary containing thousands of high-quality video signs.
  • ASL Pro – Extensive online dictionary for ASL vocabulary with example sentences and quizzes.
  • Handspeak – Website with searchable illustrated guide to ASL signs including variations.
  • Spread the Sign – Dictionary featuring signs from various countries in international sign languages.

Sign Language FAQs

Is sign language the same everywhere?

No, sign languages vary by country and region just like spoken languages. American Sign Language (ASL), for example, is different from British Sign Language (BSL) and Japanese Sign Language. Deaf people from different places won’t necessarily understand each other’s signing.

Is sign language just a simple gesture system?

No, sign languages are complex natural languages distinct from pantomiming. They have their own vocabulary, grammar rules, syntax, dialects, and cultural nuances. Sign languages express abstract ideas just like spoken languages.

Are sign languages universal?

There is no universal sign language. Deaf people from different countries where different sign languages are used cannot automatically understand each other without some commonality like knowing international sign (a pidgin sign system). There are hundreds of signed languages worldwide.

Does everyone use the same manual alphabet?

Most Western sign languages use the same one-handed manual alphabet adapted from French Sign Language. But some countries like Japan and Korea use two-handed alphabets. Alphabets differ between sign languages just like written scripts for spoken languages.

How do deaf parents teach their deaf children sign language?

Deaf parents communicate with their deaf children through sign language instinctively, the same way hearing parents talk to their hearing babies. Deaf babies pick up their parents’ signing naturally through immersion and interaction within Deaf culture and communities where sign language proliferates.

Can people with hearing understand sign language?

Yes, anyone can learn sign language. Hearing does not affect the ability to visually comprehend signs, just as speaking is not required for understanding a spoken language.

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