Learn Sign Language Online (ASL Classes)

ASL 1 – Unit 3

In this unit as you learn sign language online, you will learn about the five sign parameters.


*Remember: In ASL 1, we have videos for the vocab words that are required to take the course. If you wish to learn more than is required, you can look up the remainder of the vocabulary words in your printed ASL dictionary, or on one of the many ASL dictionary websites.


Read this outline, and then watch the conversation in action on the video clip. Try to recognize what is being said. Watch the video again until you can follow the conversation without the outline.

“Are you deaf or hearing?”

“I’m hearing. Are you deaf?”

“Yes, I’m deaf. Are you taking ASL?”

“Yes, I am taking ASL.”

“Where are you learning ASL?”

B: C-S-U-N.

“Really? What is your teacher’s name?”

B: “B wave(long hair)”
“(name sign)”

“That’s great.”

Conversation Explained

When you meet a Deaf person for the first time, they will usually ask you a common set of questions. They will most likely ask if you are deaf or hearing, where you went to school (if you are deaf), where you learned American Sign Language (if you are hearing), if your instructor is deaf, etc.
These questions are strongly rooted in Deaf culture. They tell the person how you are connected to the Deaf community and what you have in common.

When you meet a deaf person for the first time, be prepared to share this information:

  • Your first and last name
  • If you are deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing
  • Where you learned or are learning American Sign Language
  • Your instructor’s name
  • Whether your instructor is deaf or hearing
  • Why you are learning ASL

“Are you deaf or hearing?”

This is a wh-word question because it requires more than a yes or no answer. Using the sign WHICH is one possible way, and is a common way, to ask a question that involves selecting “one or the other” answers. It involves shifting your body slightly to one side for one of the possibilities (DEAF), shifting your body slightly to the other side for the other possbility (HEARING), and coming back to the neutral position to sign WHICH with the wh-word question facial expression. You will notice this in other videos as you learn sign language online.

“I’m hearing.”

This sentence is a simple affirmative statement. The head nod is what makes this an affirmative statement. You will learn more about the different types of statements in Unit 6 as you learn sign language online.

“Are you deaf?”

This is a yes/no question. Yes/no questions require only a yes or no answer and are signed with a specific facial expression that includes raising your eyebrows. You will learn more about yes/no questions in Unit 6. With regard to word order, in ASL, repeating the pronoun (in this case, YOU) is very common. You could sign “DEAF YOU?” but repeating the pronoun in yes/no questions is more often used.

You may have also noticed by now as you learn sign language online that words such as “are” are not signed. This is because the question is shown with a certain facial expression. ASL also does not use articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the.” Most small words are implied within signs and facial expressions in ASL. So, if you notice that a word is left out in a signed sentence, see if you can figure out how that word is conveyed in that sentence. You will eventually get used to what words are not necessary as you learn sign language online.

“Are you taking ASL?”

This is another yes/no question. The sign “TAKE-up” is glossed this way because it is different from the sign “TAKE.” “TAKE-up” translates into “taking” as in “taking a class.”

“Where are you learning ASL?”

This is a wh-word question. Perfect ASL grammar would include the wh-word coming at the end of the sentence. However, it’s important to know that even fluent signers don’t follow this rule 100% of the time.

“B wave(long hair)”
“(name sign)”

In this part of the conversation, Christine uses her teacher’s name sign to give his or her name. In this case, the name sign is formed by waving the letter B to indicate long hair. If someone is Deaf or involved heavily in the Deaf community, then he or she might know a lot of people by their name signs. If Cristian didn’t know who she was talking about in this conversation, Christine would have then fingerspelled the teacher’s name.

If you only learn sign language online, name signs may be completely new to you. Name signs are used to identify and refer to people who are both present and not present and eliminate the need to fingerspell a person’s name repeatedly. There are three kinds of name signs used by Deaf people–arbitrary, descriptive, and a hybrid of both. Arbitrary name signs use the first letter of the person’s name, descriptive name signs are based on one of the person’s physical characteristics, and hybrid name signs use the first letter of the person’s name as well as one of the person’s physical characteristics.

Hearing sign language students normally receive a hybrid name sign in an in-person sign language class to use in the classroom. However, you’re not supposed to use these name signs outside of the classroom. You can only receive an official name sign from a Deaf person once you have been involved in the Deaf community. You cannot create your own name sign–it must be given to you by a Deaf person. And even if you do receive a name sign, you should always introduce yourself by fingerspelling your full name first and then signing your name sign.

The Five Sign Parameters

Just like how we see English words as the arrangement of letters, there are five basic sign language elements that make up each sign. If any of these parameters are changed when creating a sign, the meaning of the sign changes.

The five parameters are:

  1. Handshape – This is the shape of your hand that is used to create the sign.
  2. Movement – This is the action that makes the sign.
  3. Palm orientation – This is the orientation of your palm.
  4. Location – This is the location of the sign on your body.
  5. Non-manual Markers – This is the various facial expressions or body movements that are used to create meaning.

The fifth element, non-manual markers, has only recently been included with this list.

American Sign Language is a very expressive language, and understanding these elements will give you a better understanding of how signs are made and what makes them different.

Parameter #1: Handshape

All signs are formed using a specific handshape. Below are some common handshapes used in American Sign Language. It is important to know the names of these handshapes because ASL classes, dictionaries, and instructors use these terms to describe how to create signs. Changing the handshape of a sign changes the meaning of a sign, so it is important to know how to accurately form these handshapes.

learn sign language online

Parameter #2: Movement

The movement of a sign is the action that is used to create the sign. The movement can be in a circle, up and down, forward or backward, etc. If you change the movement of a sign, you can change the meaning of a sign.

For example, for the sign “chair,” you move your dominant hand up and down twice and for the sign “sit,” you move your dominant down once. A simple change of movement changes the meaning of that sign.

Your Dominant Hand

You have a dominant and non-dominant hand. If you are right-handed, your right hand is your dominant hand. If you are left-handed, your left hand is your dominant hand. If you are ambidextrous, choose one hand to use as your dominant hand, and stick with it.

There are three types of signs when it comes to what hand you will use:

  1. One-handed signs: Use only your dominant hand. (i.e. MAN)
  2. Two-handed signs where both hands move: Move both your dominant and non-dominant hand. These signs normally use the same handshape and movement for both hands. (i.e. SCIENCE)
  3. Two-handed signs where one hand moves: Move your dominant hand and keep your non-dominant hand stationary. (i.e. DRAW)

In the video below, I will demonstrate each type of sign. Notice which hands I use for each sign.

Your non-dominant hand will never move unless your dominant hand is moving the same way. This may be difficult to control as you learn sign language online, but it is very important for when you move into more complex signing. You don’t want to get confused!

Noun-Verb Pairs

Noun-verb pairs are signs that use the same handshape, location, and orientation, but use a different movement to indicate the difference between the noun and verb.

In English, the difference between a noun and a verb can be expressed with an affix like “threat” versus “threaten.” In ASL, the difference is expressed by movement.

A signed verb usually has a single, continuous movement while a noun usually has a double movement.

An example of a noun/verb pair is the sign for CHAIR and the sign for SIT. To sign CHAIR, you would do the motion twice. To sign SIT, you would do the motion once.

Another example of a noun/verb pair is the sign for DOOR and the sign for DOOR-OPEN.

In the video below, I will sign some examples of noun-verb pairs:

Comprehension 3.1

Turn to page 5 in your workbook. I used the video below for the Number Practice in Unit 2. This time, you will be looking at the signs instead of the numbers. Mando and I signed 10 phrases. Write down the 2 words used in each phrase. The first one has been done for you.

End of Unit 3

Great job! Keep going! The rest of the five parameters will be discussed in the next unit as you learn sign language online.

Are You Enjoying the Class? Share Your Thoughts!


  1. nekodaschmidt

    Why are there some vocabulary words that don’t have videos showing how the words are signed? I don’t understand…

    1. Michelle Jay

      We don’t have links to all the vocab in ASL 1–just the words required to complete the course. As mentioned in the Introduction, if you wish to learn more than is required, you can look up the remainder of the vocabulary words in your printed ASL dictionary, or on one of the many ASL dictionary websites. 🙂

  2. Angela Brown

    i think maybe the signing could be slower instead of moving from one to the next so quickly. Barely have tine to write down the answers before they move to the next one.

    1. Michelle Jay

      Hi Angela, We’ve found students like to pause the videos between each question to write down their answers and to possibly go back to watch it again if they need to. 🙂

  3. Elissa D. G.

    Adding to the question posed above about the vocabulary words… It’s great that you encourage looking up words besides those specifically required for this curriculum, but how are we supposed to know what the word we’re looking up might be? Are we supposed to assume the two words in the phrases are related and look it up that way? I know the word for “key” but I don’t know the other word included in that phrase. If I’m remembering correctly, the first word for the last phrase is soda, but I don’t know about the other one. I don’t see any vocab lists. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t there, just that I’m having trouble finding them… Should I just look up words that relate to the ones I know, or what? I like this curriculum by the way, it’s pretty cool, and the videos are a plus… though at the moment a lot of it’s review since I’ve taken ASL before, but that was several years ago and I’ve forgotten at least half of what I learned… lol.

    1. Michelle Jay

      Hi Elissa – Great question! This would be the words on the vocabulary lists that don’t have videos. Hope this helps! 🙂

  4. Elissa D. G.

    Actually… Never mind. I think I found what I was looking for…

  5. M. Laura

    Thank you for your work, I love this website. I’m Hungarian and now for me this is the only way to learn ASL. I’m glad to you! 🙂

  6. Mary H

    I noticed on “are you learning sign language?” and “where are you learning sign language?” different videos however the word “sign” is done 2 different directions. One is going forward and the other is going backward. Which is the correct one? Its a little confusing.

    1. Michelle Jay

      Great question! The sign for SIGN can be signed going either forward or backward.

  7. Stephanie McPhillips

    I’m confused about the sign for deaf. In a previous lesson vocabulary, and in video Comprehension 3.1, deaf is signed as pointer finger taps the ear, then the mouth/chin. In the vocabulary in this chapter, it’s signed as pointer finger tapping the chin and then the ear. Is this interchangeable?

    1. Michelle Jay

      Yes, the sign for DEAF can be signed from ear to chin or chin to ear. 🙂

  8. Remy

    I noticed that in the previous unit with “DEAF” as a vocabulary word, she taps near her ear first, then her chin, and in this unit, in the phrase “Are you deaf?” she taps her chin first then near her ear. Are both considered correct?

    1. Remy

      Oh, just saw you answered this! Thanks! 🙂

  9. Kara

    I’m having a bit of a hard time with the word who. At first I thought that it was bringing three fingers down like a w which would make sense but now I’m having a hard time figuring out how many fingers it actually is.

    1. Michelle Jay

      For the sign WHO you use the L-handshape with your thumb on your chin and bring your index finger toward you twice.

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