Some curriculum developers believe in a prescriptive approach (telling you
what "should" be done), I believe in a descriptive one (telling you what
"is" being done).
American Sign Language is constantly changing, developing, and growing to
fill the needs of the Deaf Community.
The Deaf Community
as a whole decides over time whether to accept or reject any
particular sign or usage of a sign.
Language is a lot like a caterpillar. As a caterpillar moves forward
quite often it gets bunched up in the middle.
It would be silly to
say that the head or the tail isn't "part of" the caterpillar.
Obviously they are both very much indeed part of the body of the
caterpillars move like this is because they have a LOT of segments and not
all segments are ready to move forward at the same time.
This is the same as
the Deaf Community. Our community has many segments and not all
segments are ready to move forward on adopting any particular sign at the
same time. Therefore you will get some people who adopt a sign early,
a bunch in the middle, and some who are slow to catch up.
As instructors and curriculum designers our job is to keep an eye on the
caterpillar and make informed choices regarding when to decide a sign is
"popular enough" to teach to our students. For example, when I saw that the
sign for Obama ("O-flag" version) had become sufficiently widespread I went
ahead and posted that version to my website and listed it as one of several
variations of the sign.
In a meeting a while back, a colleague expressed that he felt the "O-flag"
sign wasn't reflective of ASL "rules" (as codified by a popular author in
a book about name signs) and that the "O-flag" sign seemed like it had been
influenced too much by English.
I replied that as a lexicographer (dictionary maker) it isn't my goal to
prescribe what signs
"should be" it is my goal to describe what signs are actually being used
in the Deaf community. He
replied that as a teacher my job is to make sure the students know the
"right way" to sign.
To which I agreed totally. To me the "right way" to sign is the way of
signing that is being done by the majority of the native Deaf community.
I strive to show numerous variations on my website. In the local
(in-person) classroom it is my job to be
aware of which signs are used locally by native Deaf adults. In the classroom I show students the
sign that is generally used in our region and--when appropriate--I mention
that they might see it done other ways and give examples.
It is important for ASL teachers to get "out there" in the community and see
what is being signed and be aware of the evolution of signs. For
example, the "OBAMA" sign continued to undergo change--becoming
more "ASL-like" with only two movements (instead of three) and using a
simple O-B handshape transition. It is common to see the president's name spelled out
or done with a single movement that snaps from an "O" to a sideways "B" --
sort of representing a "flag."
As I go about the process of deciding which signs to post to the Lifeprint
Online ASL Dictionary and the Lifeprint Lessons I have found that a
systematic multi-step approach is the best way to go:
First I think about what sign I personally use. I am Deaf (hard of
hearing) and prefer to spend my time in the Deaf world. So I consider where I
learned any particular variation of a sign and why do I think it is valid. Next I consider how my
signs it. Next I compare numerous American Sign Language dictionaries and textbooks
to see how the sign is demonstrated in the literature by other experts. Often the
dictionaries conflict with each other but generally a dominant sign tends to
emerge. After doing a thorough review of the literature it is time to
interview a cross section of Deaf adults who have extensive experience
For example, I teach ASL at California State University, Sacramento
where (as of this writing) there are four full-time PhD-level ASL instructors and about 10
part-time instructors (most of whom are native Deaf) with decades of
ASL teaching experience. In addition to my coworkers, the majority of my
friends are Deaf. My wife's first language was ASL (simultaneous
bilingualism: Bi/bi approach). I go to a Deaf church. Most of my close
friends are Deaf (or Codas, or terps). On a frequent
basis I interact with a cross section of d/Deaf adults. This is what
is known as being immersed in the Deaf Community. I make it a goal to interview a
minimum of 10 advanced Deaf signers as to how "they" do the sign that is
being considered for posting to the Lifeprint dictionary. I also drive my
interpreters nuts (or perhaps amuse or entertain them) with my frequent
interruptions of their interpreting to ask them how they sign various signs. Freelance interpreters are particularly helpful in this regard
because they see and interact with numerous Deaf individuals from a wide
variety of signing backgrounds.
The next stage of investigating a sign is to consider how the sign is done
in other locations and decide which version is more widely used. I've lived
in California, Utah, Texas, Indiana, Oregon, Maryland, and Washington D.C.
(at Gallaudet in Benson Hall). My friends and co-workers have lived all over
Next I post the sign online to my website where it is exposed to the
scrutiny of thousands of individuals--many of which email me for the express
purpose of telling me I’m “wrong” and that their version is better. :) Or
they will see me in person at a meeting and come up to me and tell me the
sign I’ve got posted is “wrong.”
Two recent examples:
The sign for “party.”
On my website I indicated that one of the variations of the sign “PARTY” was
the same as the sign for “PLAY.” A colleague emailed me to say that "PARTY"
and "PLAY" are distinguished by differences in the movement of the signs. He
indicated that the right way to sign PLAY is that the arms stay stationary
and the wrists twist. He stated that for the sign PARTY the wrists stay
straight and the arms swing back and forth.
Of course I switched into lexicographer mode and immediately started
surveying a large number of skilled local signers as to how they did
the sign PARTY.
After quite a bit of additional research I remain convinced that both the "swinging"
version and the "twisting" version are in widespread use. It is
also apparent that as time goes on
the versions of "PARTY" that use a twisting movement are becoming
So which way is the “right way?” I believe it is safe to say
several versions of PARTY are right (used by adult native Deaf people), but an interesting note told to me by one of my interviewees, Erika
Geiger (d/Deaf), was that while she was a student at CSD (California School
for the Deaf, Fresno) her class
was planning an event. During a planning meeting the students began
discussing having a party as part of the event. Erika did the sign "PARTY"
using "P" hands and a twisting movement. Her teacher replied that "ahem" it
was going to be a "party" not a "partay!" (Spelling intentional.) Erika
explained to me how the teacher deliberately inflected an "old stuffy" sign
for PARTY (a controlled, somewhat slower, larger, side to side swinging
movement using "P" hands) to emphasize that this would be a classy "party"
and not a rowdy party. (Interesting: Deaf School, Deaf student, Deaf
teacher, classroom full of Deaf students, and both examples of the PARTY
sign were 'initialized" with and English letter. So you tell me, should an
ASL dictionary include initialized version examples that are in
widespread and long-term use among Deaf people?)
Another example: The “Hanukah” entry.
I posted a sign for Hanukah at Lifeprint and soon after I got an email from
someone who knew the “right” way to spell Hanukah in
<<I let you know your lesson is H and Hanukah is wrong spells and Its
actual is meaning: Hanukkah
To which I replied,
According to dictionary.com there are three accepted spellings:
"Hanukkah or Hanukah also Chanukah."
But now I have a vote from you for the longer spelling.
Thanks for sharing your comment.
Then in December I signed “Happy Hanukah” to a coworker who
promptly told me that my
palm orientation was “wrong.” I thanked him for the correction and went about having a merry
But of course I grabbed my lexicographer’s hat and started digging around –
uncovering the following versions of HANUKKAH (or Hanukah / Chanukah)
Palms forward version: Michigan ASL Browser, The ASL Handshape Dictionary
and "Learning ASL" (book).
Palms backward version: Lou Fant's "ASL Phrase Book", Elaine Costello's
"Religious Signing" (book), and Deafvideo.tv (http://www.deafvideo.tv/video/watch/31389/).
Unusual version: Aslpro.com - at the time of this research they were using a
very stylized movement that ended up “palms back.”
4: * Both palm back and palm forward versions: Random House ASL Dictionary (two
So you can see why it is important for us language “professionals” to be
careful about claiming to be
"right" and telling others they are “wrong.”
This near constant process of refinement via critique and research helps me
become quite comfortable listing the variations that I do at Lifeprint.com because I
can verify them from my interviewee pool, as well as in the literature and
online. The research also gives me a feeling for which signs are gaining
prominence and which ones are fading away. For another example of this
process see: MEXICO (http://lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/m/mexico.htm)
and scroll down to the notes/discussion area.
I’m fortunate to have a great team of curriculum developers who teach using
Lifeprint (LP) as their “text” and frequently submit ideas for improvements.
What is really neat about LP is that it is so easy to make improvements. It
is rare that a day goes by without something being added, scrapped, fixed,
or revised. The LP that exists today will not be the same that exists
I welcome all questions, comments or suggestions regarding Lifeprint (LP).
Knowing what people think allows me to keep making this a better resource.
Thank you for your interest.
William G. Vicars, Ed.D.