Hesperian Health Guides

Sign Language

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.


HealthWiki > Disabled Village Children > Chapter 31: Deafness and Communication > Sign Language


In most villages and communities people use and understand many gestures or signs made with their hands. Most of these signs are ‘common sense’, or look something like the things they represent. Some children’s games use hand signs. For example:


“Here’s the church.” 2 hands with fingers intertwined. “And here’s the steeple.” the hands with index fingers touching and pointing up.
“Open the doors.” the thumbs moved aside to revieal fingers.
DVC Ch31 Page 266-4.png
“And see all the people.”

When a family has a deaf child, they begin to use the local signs and also to invent new ones of their own. For example, at a village rehabilitation center in Mexico, a family arrived on muleback with their 6 year old deaf son. The boy got nervous and wanted to go home. So he pulled on his father’s shirt sleeve and made these sounds and signs:

YOU and ME LET’S GO (home) RIDING THE MULE, PLEASE!
DVC Ch31 Page 266-5.png
the boy pointing at his father, meaning YOU. the boy pointing at himself, meaning ME.
the boy saying "Mu!" and making a hand sign that means RIDING the MULE.
Mu!
the boy saying "Unh!" and making a sign that means PLEASE.
Unh!


The family had begun to figure out its own sign language, without having been taught it. The boy himself had made up the sign for ‘RIDING the MULE ’.

The sign language that families develop with their deaf children is usually not very complete. Communicating is often still difficult. However, people have joined together to create sign languages which are complete languages. There are hundreds of different sign languages, but there are 3 main types:

a child speaking while making a hand sign.
BOOK
  • National and regional sign languages. In nearly all countries, deaf people have created their own sign languages, in which they can learn to communicate as well and nearly as fast as hearing people. Different hand signs represent different things, actions, and ideas. The structure (grammar) of these languages is different from the spoken language, and may be difficult. These languages are preferred by people who were born deaf. Examples are American Sign Language (ASL), which is used in the USA and Canada, and Mexican Sign Language.
  • Sign languages based on spoken languages. These languages have the same organization and grammar as the local spoken language. They are easier for hearing persons to learn and for persons who became deaf after they learned to speak. Sometimes they use the first letter (finger spelling) of a word as part of the sign. This is harder for children to learn who cannot read, but can make learning to read easier and more fun. Examples are English Sign Language and Spanish Sign Language.
finger spelling signs for the word BOOK.
B
O
O
K
  • Finger spelling. Each word is spelled out with hand signs that represent the letters of the local alphabet. This method of ‘writing in the air’ is slow but exact. It is easier for persons to learn who can already read and write. For English, the British use a 2-handed system and the Americans use a one-handed system. Try to learn the system that is most used in your country.
DVC Ch31 Page 267-1.png

Many deaf persons combine these 3 systems. With other deaf persons they use mostly the first, with hearing persons or a ‘translator’ they use mostly the second, and finger spell difficult words. When ‘talking’ to someone who does not know sign language, they can write down what they need to say—or use a letterboard.

Learning to sign

If possible, contact the Association of the Deaf in your country, and see if you can get a guidebook to sign language adapted to your local area or spoken language. If this is not possible, you can use the local signs and gestures, and invent more signs of your own.

On the next few pages we give ideas for making up signs, and examples for common words. Most are signs used in American Sign Language. You will want to change them to fit the gestures, customs, and language of your area. Here are some ideas:

  • Choose signs that will not offend the local people. (Deaf people already have a difficult time being accepted.) Here are some examples:
In the USA a pointing finger is used to indicate different persons (me, you, her, them). In some countries it is not polite to point a finger, so an open hand is used. In other places even pointing with an open hand is not polite, and people point with their lips.
DVC Ch31 Page 267-2.png
using an open hand to indicate YOU and ME.
YOU
ME
a boy using his lips to point toward a woman.
HER
In the signed alphabet used in the USA and Canada the letter ‘T’ is made like this. However, in many countries, this is an offensive gesture.
a fist with the thumb between the first 2 fingers.
Therefore, in this book we also use the ‘T’ sign from Spanish and Danish. an open hand with tip of thumb and index finger touching. Also avoid confusion. For example, the sign for “WHERE” in the USA is a common gesture for “NO” in Mexico.
an index finger moving fron side to side.


  • Use local signs. If people in your area already have a gesture or sign for something, use that instead of a new or foreign one. For example:


The American sign for NO is this: Some countries use this sign for NO: In Jamaica NO and NOT are often said by a negative look and shake or tilt of the head.
illustration of the above: NO in American Sign Language.
a different sign for NO.
saying NO by tilting the head.
NO, NOT ME
The American sign for SLEEP is this: In Nepal this sign is used for SLEEP. It is understood almost everywhere.
DVC Ch31 Page 267-11.png
DVC Ch31 Page 267-12.png


  • Use hand shape, position, movement, and direction to make different signs. The expression on the face also adds to meaning. For example, here are signs for MOTHER:
in Brazil in Australia in Spain in Thailand
DVC Ch31 Page 268-1.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-2.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-3.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-4.png


  • Try to make signs look like the things or actions they represent. To do this you can use a combination of hand shapes and movements.
TREE DISH POCKET BABY TURTLE
DVC Ch31 Page 268-5.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-6.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-7.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-8.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-9.png


  • Figure out patterns and series of similar signs for related things and actions, and for opposites.
    For example:
STAND SIT DOWN JUMP PUSH PULL
DVC Ch31 Page 268-10.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-11.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-12.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-13.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-14.png

See other signs with fingers as legs in "Examples of Signs".

  • Learn new signs by pointing to things.
DVC Ch31 Page 268-15.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-16.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-17.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-18.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-19.png
WHAT
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
(is the)
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
SIGN
FOR
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
(Point to object.) DOG


Or if you can read and write, use finger spelling.
DVC Ch31 Page 268-20.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-21.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-22.png
DVC Ch31 Page 268-23.png
WHAT
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
(is the)
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
SIGN
FOR
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
D O G


  • Combine signs for things and actions to communicate ideas or sentences. The arrangement of words does not need to be the same as in the spoken language— and you can leave out ‘extra’ words like “the” and “a.” Also, words like “to” or “from” can often be left out or can be indicated by the direction of a motion.
Set the table.
DVC Ch31 Page 269-1.png
PUT or SET
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
TABLE


Will you give me a banana, please?
DVC Ch31 Page 269-2.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-3.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-4.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-5.png
BANANA
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png

(peeling motion)
GIVE
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
YOU to ME
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
PLEASE


  • Decide whether or not to use letters of the alphabet to make some signs. In some sign languages the first letter of a spoken (written) word is used as the sign for that word. At first this will mean nothing to a child who cannot read, and will be harder. But it can help prepare the child for learning to read and to finger spell. Again, be systematic:


The sign for ‘W’ is WALL WATER WATERMELON
DVC Ch31 Page 269-6.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-7.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-8.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-9.png
1.
DVC Ch31 Page 269-10.png
2.
(Tap with finger.)


Be sure that letter-based signs agree with the word in your language. In Spanish, “watermelon” is “sandía,” so the English sign makes no sense. The Spanish sign is: SANDÍA
DVC Ch31 Page 269-11.png (Tap with fist.)


  • You can make up signs for people’s names by using the first letter of their name, by showing something that stands for that person, or both.


If María looks like this, you might sign her name like this:
DVC Ch31 Page 269-12.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-13.png
1.
DVC Ch31 Page 269-14.png
2.
Sign ‘M’ for María, and then the sign for ‘glasses’.
DVC Ch31 Page 269-15.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-16.png
DVC Ch31 Page 269-17.png
TAKE
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
the BOOK
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
to MARÍA
(Move hands in direction it should be taken.)

HOW TO ASK QUESTIONS


WHAT? What time is it?
DVC Ch31 Page 270-1.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-2.png
or
DVC Ch31 Page 270-3.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-4.png
TIME?
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
WHAT
What did you do last night?
DVC Ch31 Page 270-5.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-7.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-6.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-8.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-9.png
PAST
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
NIGHT
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
DO
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
WHAT
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
(shrug)
YOU
WHERE? WHEN? WHY?
DVC Ch31 Page 270-10.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-11.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-12.png
WHO?
WHICH?
HOW MANY, HOW MUCH?
DVC Ch31 Page 270-13.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-14.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-15.png
What is your name?
DVC Ch31 Page 270-16.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-17.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-18.png
YOUR
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
NAME
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
WHAT?

Note: ‘Is’, ‘are’, ‘am’, ‘was’, and ‘were’ are often not used, as in “What is your name?”


DVC Ch31 Page 270-19.png
IS
QUESTION MARK
DVC Ch31 Page 270-20.png
Use before or after a statement to turn it into a question. (motion of milking cow)

EXAMPLES OF SIGNS

The signs shown here are mostly used in the United States (American Sign Language). A few are from Nepal, Jamaica, and Mexico, because these seem easier to understand. We have chosen signs for things and actions that should be useful for early learning and group games with children. We include them mainly to give you ideas. Change and adapt them to better fit your area.

  • Arrows
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png in the drawings show the direction of hand movement to make the sign.
  • Wavy lines
DVC Ch31 Page 270-22.png used with a sign mean a shake of the hand or fingers.
  • Dotted lines
DVC Ch31 Page 270-23.png show how the sign looks when it begins.
  • The darker sign is how it looks when it ends.

Note: A few signs shown here are based on letters of the alphabet (for example, ‘it’ uses the letter T, and ‘we’ the letter ‘W’). Change these signs if you speak a different language, or if you want to avoid signs based on letters.


I, ME YOU THEY, THEM MALE (MAN) FEMALE (WOMAN)

Note: The male and female signs are used as the base to make signs for boy, girl, father, mother, etc.


DVC Ch31 Page 270-24.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-25.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-26.png
or
DVC Ch31 Page 270-27.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-28.png
FATHER MOTHER BROTHER SISTER BOY GIRL
DVC Ch31 Page 270-29.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-30.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-31.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-32.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-33.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-34.png
GRAND FATHER GRAND MOTHER FRIEND BABY MY YOUR
DVC Ch31 Page 270-35.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-36.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-37.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-38.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-39.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-40.png
HE, HIM SHE, HER IS, HER, THEIR, YOUR IT WE OUR
DVC Ch31 Page 270-41.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-42.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-43.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-44.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-45.png
DVC Ch31 Page 270-46.png
Direct sign toward person. Or point to object.
GOOD
or THANK YOU
BAD HAPPY SAD CLEAN/ NICE DIRTY/ PIG
DVC Ch31 Page 271-1.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-2.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-3.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-4.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-5.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-6.png
HOT COLD SMALL LARGE DOWN UP
DVC Ch31 Page 271-7.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-8.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-9.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-10.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-11.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-12.png
UGLY
PRETTY
FAT
THIN
WEAK
STRONG
DVC Ch31 Page 271-13.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-14.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-15.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-16.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-17.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-18.png
INSIDE OUTSIDE UNDER TIRED SICK ANGRY
DVC Ch31 Page 271-19.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-20.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-21.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-22.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-23.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-24.png
HUNGRY EAT FOOD THIRSTY DRINK WATER
DVC Ch31 Page 271-25.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-26.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-27.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-28.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-29.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-30.png
MILK SOUP BREAD BOWL SPOON TOILET
DVC Ch31 Page 271-31.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-32.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-33.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-34.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-35.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-36.png
(motion of milking cow)
HOUSE VILLAGE, COMMUNITY, SCHOOL MONEY
DVC Ch31 Page 271-37.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-38.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-39.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-40.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-41.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-42.png
CITY, TOWN in America in Nepal in Mexico
BLIND DEAF HEARING AID FORGET REMEMBER UNDERSTAND
DVC Ch31 Page 271-43.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-44.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-45.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-46.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-47.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-48.png
RED
GREEN
BLUE
YELLOW
BLACK
WHITE
DVC Ch31 Page 271-49.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-50.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-51.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-52.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-53.png
DVC Ch31 Page 271-54.png
COME GO BEGIN STOP GIVE HAVE (possess)
DVC Ch31 Page 272-1.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-2.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-3.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-4.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-5.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-6.png
WANT DON'T WANT SEE LOOK HEAR LISTEN
DVC Ch31 Page 272-7.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-8.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-9.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-10.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-11.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-12.png
TALK MAKE WORK USE PLAY GAME
DVC Ch31 Page 272-13.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-14.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-15.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-16.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-17.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-18.png
TAKE (carry) BRING PUT HELP (assist) TEACH LEARN
DVC Ch31 Page 272-19.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-20.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-21.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-22.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-23.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-24.png
STAND LIE DOWN WALK RUN SLIP FALL
DVC Ch31 Page 272-25.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-26.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-27.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-28.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-29.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-30.png
SIT SQUAT LIKE LOVE DRAW WRITE
DVC Ch31 Page 272-31.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-32.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-33.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-34.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-35.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-36.png
CHICKEN
COW
HORSE
GOAT
BULL
DOG
DVC Ch31 Page 272-37.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-38.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-39.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-40.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-41.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-42.png
DAY MORNING AFTERNOON NIGHT YES NO
DVC Ch31 Page 272-43.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-44.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-45.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-46.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-47.png
Nod hand like head.
DVC Ch31 Page 272-48.png
HAT SHIRT PANTS SKIRT SOCKS SHOE/ SANDAL
DVC Ch31 Page 272-49.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-50.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-51.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-52.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-53.png
DVC Ch31 Page 272-54.png
FUTURE PAST It is going to rain. It rained.
DVC Ch31 Page 273-1.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-2.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-3.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-4.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-5.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-6.png


FUTURE sign
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
RAIN PAST sign
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
RAIN
NOW It is raining. Throw the ball to her.
DVC Ch31 Page 273-7.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-8.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-9.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-10.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-11.png
RAIN
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
NOW BALL
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
THROW
DVC Ch31 Page 270-21.png
(to her)
As you sign 'THROW', move your hand in 'her' direction. (Separate signs are not needed.)

NUMBERS (one of many systems)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DVC Ch31 Page 273-12.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-13.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-14.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-15.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-16.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-17.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-18.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-19.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-20.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-21.png
11 12 13 14 15
DVC Ch31 Page 273-22.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-23.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-24.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-25.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-26.png
16 17 18 19 20
DVC Ch31 Page 273-27.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-28.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-29.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-30.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-31.png
21 22 50 100
DVC Ch31 Page 273-32.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-33.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-34.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-35.png
Plurals (more than one) Plurals can be made by repeating the sign several times, or by signing the number and then the thing:
CHILD CHILDREN
DVC Ch31 Page 273-36.png
(Motion like patting.)
DVC Ch31 Page 273-37.png
(Repeat sign next to first.)
DVC Ch31 Page 273-38.png
BANANA
3

ONE-HANDED SIGN ALPHABET (American)



A B C D E F G H I
DVC Ch31 Page 273-39.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-40.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-41.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-42.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-43.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-44.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-45.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-46.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-47.png
J K L M N O P Q R
DVC Ch31 Page 273-48.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-49.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-50.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-51.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-52.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-53.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-54.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-55.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-56.png
S T T U V W X Y Z
DVC Ch31 Page 273-57.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-58.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-59.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-60.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-61.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-62.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-63.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-64.png
DVC Ch31 Page 273-65.png
American Danish




This page was updated:07 Jun 2018