Conversational ASL: What to Do When You Don't Know a Sign

You’re thinking about going to a Deaf event… finally.

You’ve been practicing, working up the courage, and have decided you’re going this week… but oh hell, what if I’m signing something and my mind goes blank… or I don’t know how to sign something??

So you want to be confident and capable with conversational ASL, but you’re not sure what you should do if you’re signing along and don’t know a sign!

In this video I show you 3 quick fixes for when you’re stuck and nearing panic.

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(P.S. in an upcoming video I’ll go over what to do when someone signs something to you and you have NO IDEA what they just signed)


You’ve got 3 options and none of them include not going to the Deaf event and signing with people.


1) Describe what you’re trying to say with other signs.

Explain what you mean with the signs you do know. For instance, you want to sign what your hobbies are. 

You don't know the sign for hobbies, so you maybe sign THINGS MYSELF LIKE DO and then continue on with the thought. 

(Surprise! That’s pretty close to how you actually sign it (ENJOY + list)


2) Use classifiers to show it

Show what you mean with classifiers. 

I would recommend a mix of signs + classifiers (or just pure classifiers) to show what you’re trying to say.

For instance, you want to talk about the process of building a fire, but ohmygosh, that's a lot of signs you don't know, but you don't want to just drop the conversation awkwardly and skulk away in shame. NO! 

You know what to do! 

Explain it, show it, with classifiers. You can use the signs you do know, describe with signs, and use those classifiers to show what you mean. 


3) Fingerspell it

You may be thinking, well shouldn’t this be my first choice? Not really.

Use this last.

If you're pretty well versed in ASL and have been using it for quite a while, then yeah, this can be your go-to method. 

However, if you're new, I'd discourage you using this method every single time. 



Okay, I lied, there’s 4 options.

The 4th is my preferred method:


4) Fingerspell + describe

This is a combination of method 1 and 3. You can do this one of two ways. 

Describe the sign or concept, then fingerspell the word, term, or phrase. 


You can fingerspell the word, term, or phrase and then describe it using signs. 

For instance, the term, Ring of Fire.

You can sign what this means-- the volcanoes, etc, etc and then sign THAT NAME WHAT? fsRING OF FIRE 

Or you can do this: 

fsRING OF FIRE KNOW?  then describe with signs 


For yourself, you do this: 

  1. Fingerspell a word + KNOW + describe

  2. Describe + THAT NAME WHAT? + fingerspell


Word of warning

Remember you do not make up your own signs!!!!! You can set up a sign or abbreviation for the moment in that one conversation, if it’s something you’ll be talking about over and over again, but it’s not an official sign and should be used one time.


Your challenge

Pick two methods -- okay pick 1 of the first 3 and then the 4th method -- and practice these methods on a few concepts you're not sure how to sign. 

Share your results in The ASL Club and maybe you can learn the new sign as well! 

I've got a worksheet with some words, phrases, and concepts you may not know how to sign right now. Use them to complete your challenge! 

After that, you'll have several to use throughout your ASL practice time. 

Will you do that? 



QUESTION of the day:

Which of the first 3 methods will you try first? What is a sign or concept you don’t know how to sign? Scroll through the comments and, even if you know the sign for it, reply to others and share how you’d sign it using methods 1, 2, or 4.