quick tip

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.




ASL Receptive Practice: Where Do I Look When Someone Signs to Me?

When someone is signing do you look at their hands, their face, the body, their eyes?

If I look at their eyes, I’ll miss what they’re signing!

If I look at their face I’ll just try to read their lips and miss their signs.

If I look at their hands, is that rude?



Where to look when someone signs to you

Test your new skills out on this practice video…

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Here's the answer to all these questions:

Look at the neck.


Say what!?



You’re not staring at the neck, you’re looking in that area. You get the hands, the shoulders, the face all in one glance.



Think of it like driving a car.

You look out your main windshield (the neck area), and every few seconds or moments, you’ll flick your eyes to the rear view mirror, the side mirrors, and out your side windows.

All the while returning back to your windshield.



When watching someone sign, you’re not going to be flicking your eyes around like crazy.

You want to take in the scene and look at specific areas when appropriate. Fingerspelling, look more to the hand without losing sight of their face/mouth.


When possible, make eye contact. When they’re being ultra expressive, make sure you pay closer attention to their face.


How to be receptive friendly

This is also why you, as a signer need to have a smaller signing space than you think.

Keep it tight in here in this box to help others to see the whole view.



Sometimes I refer to watching someone sign like looking into those old magic eye pictures. Now, I was never ever ever able to see one of them, so I’m just basing my analogy on what everyone told me to do.


Relax your eyes and see the entire picture without staring intently at one spot.


The exception would be when you need extra clarification (like repeated signing because you missed/misunderstood something).


ASL receptive practice how to

Your next steps are to practice your new receptive gaze as much as you can while it's fresh in your mind. 

Watch videos in ASL and practice looking at the neck area, while keeping a wide gaze on the other areas of the signer. Slightly flick your eyes to the important areas, as well as make eye contact where possible. 

The more you practice the more natural and comfortable this will feel. Soon you'll realize you're making eye contact quite a bit, as well as understanding everything they're signing at ya! 

That's when you know it's par-tay time! 


Receptive practice video 

I went an extra step so you didn't have to do anything crazy, like do a Google search, or a YouTube search, and wade through crummy videos-- I made a receptive practice video for you!! Yes YOU! It's a short video that gives you a chance to try out the new skill and see how you do. 

You can watch the video as many times as you'd like, or move on to longer videos when you have the time. 

It's FREE to watch, just click the big pink button, enter your email and you'll be taken straight to the video



Where have you been looking when watching folks sign? Did you watch the practice receptive video and try out your new skills? How’d it go?






Learn ASL in 31 Days: Numbers Refresher #1

Lots of people have contacted me to let me know that ASL numbers just aren't working for them.

I get it, I do. Numbers can be the hardest signs to understand receptively. They can get lost in the midst of signs and all of a sudden you realize you missed something.

I'm going to break down the numbers for you into smaller segments and then go over them and do some practicing with you! I'm hoping that numbers will become much easier for y'all.