How to make signs – the mechanics of sign language

DefinitiveBabySignCom - Pumpkin PileDo you remember when we started that we were going to use ASL as our backdrop to baby sign language, and how we were going to honour this system since it was a true living language? Well now is your time to shine! While you might never become a true expert in ASL, you might come across someone who uses the language. Therefore, it’s highly suggested that you learn the basic rules to use sign properly. While generally speaking, it’s not a big deal how you do it you might find that doing things “a bit off” leads to being a “bit embarrassed.” Besides, learning to do things properly is only going to take a minute or two anyway, so we might as well take the time to start off on the right foot. Think of it as a small investment now leading to a big payoff later. So let’s get through this as painlessly as possible!

When a sign involves just one hand, then use YOUR dominant hand. For most people this is their right hand. In fact, most ASL instructions are written with right handed people in mind. If you’re left handed, then simply swap “left” in for “right” in the instructions and voila. That was easy! But there’s a bit more. In ASL if you use the wrong hand and switch part way, it is considered stuttering. Make sense right? In two-handed-signs both hands can sometimes take part in no particular way, and will usually parallel each other such as the sign for FINISHED which is done by flipping the open “5” handshape from palm up to palm down as if to show that there is nothing left.

Other times, each hand has specific roles which will be made clear when reading the baby sign language dictionary. In most cases, there will be movement from the dominant or “action hand”, while your non-dominant hand or “base hand” remains still. An example of such a sign is DANCE where your non-dominant hand is laid palm up like the dance floor, and the dominant hand with fingers in a “V” handshape is moved across it as if dancing. In the sign for MUSIC, your non-dominant hand stays still and the dominant hand moves over the other as if strumming an instrument. This sounds complicated, but it’s really not, just use your dominant hand to do all the work and use your non-dominant hand for support! When your baby signs, don’t worry about which hand they use. Most babies haven’t fully decided which hand is their dominant yet and will switch back and forth several times before settling on one or the other.


Above: The dominant hand moves rhythmically from side to side over the forearm that is held over the chest in the ASL sign for MUSIC/SING.

Next, always pay attention to the shape the hands form during the sign, referred to as “handshapes.” Some signs use a particular handshape pattern that is often a letter or number from the ASL alphabet. Referring to the ASL alphabet before learning signs or while learning signs, is encouraged because it will help you with a good number of the handshape mechanics. Signs are also specific in the location in relation to the body that they are made. Some are made near the head, whereas others are made near the chin or chest. Your baby is only going to loosely follow the handshape and location where the signs are supposed to be made and this is just fine. The next rule is obvious. Make sure you pay attention to the movements the signs make and the palm orientation. Some signs involve hand movements away from the body, some toward the body, while others make arcing motions and so forth. Usually these movements are linked to the things or actions that that they are trying to replace making them easy to remember. Finally, be sure to use proper facial expressions while you sign. When asking if your baby wants MORE, use a questioning expression with eyebrows up and wide eyes or a stern face to show disapproval such as when signing the word BAD or NO.

See, that wasn’t so bad!

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