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How To Learn Sign Language

Context in Sign | ASL Ponderings


Hello, I’m Rogan and welcome to a new ASL Ponderings! Today, I want to talk about context. I’ve noticed this is something that’s very common with ASL signers. As in English, ASL has many different ways of signing something. But also, ASL has many ways to sign the same word in English. For example, run. It can mean the physical action, running. Or a sink, water running from the faucet. Or more, different ways. This can be a problem in the ASL community when people don’t really think about how to sign something. Example: running joke. Many will sign it [running-physical] joke. But that doesn’t make sense because it’s not physical running. Some will sign it [running-motor] joke. [running-motor] is more for machines, a motor running. So… [running-continue] joke. Something like that. Another example: I’ve been meaning to ask. Many will sign “I’ve been [meaning-definition] to ask.” But that doesn’t work, because this is for definition of a word, not wanting to ask. So “I’ve been wanting to ask” is how it should be signed. Another example that’s very common: key, meaning important. Not key, like for a door. But many people will sign this: these are [key-door] points. [key-door] points doesn’t make sense. Because that’s for a door, [shows action of key in door]. So it really should be signed [key-important] points. Those are very basic. One word in English that is constantly “mis-signed” is make. This word…has many definitions in English. Many will apply a sign wrong. I’ll give you a few examples. Make, the first thing that comes to mind is [make-create]. Like creating, make art. I make art. I make you do your homework. [make-force], make you. [pah], made it, [pah]. By a hair, made it by a hair. Many people will sign this one like [make-create] it by a hair. [make-create] it, no you don’t make it. You [made-arrive] it, [made-arrive] by a hair. [make-create] money. No, you [make-earn] money. [make-earn] money. I’m sure there are more examples for this word, “make.” But that’s one common thing I see many people misapplying a sign to. I will do it myself too, I sometimes mis-sign and catch myself, back up then re-sign it right to match the concept. Really, I just want to encourage ASL signers to try and be more aware of how you sign things, like [made-create] it. Not that, [made-arrive] it, [pah] it. And I guess that’s all for today. BUT my next ASL Ponderings — I did question whether I should include it in this one or should I separate it and make another video. So I typed a basic outline for this, and I was looking at it. Yeah, I’m making a separate video. Because this has more in-depth analysis of a word, etymology, and such. So I decided it’d be better to hold that and make another video. So this is a little short today, but that’s fine. Sure! Hope you enjoyed this video, and let me know about any ASL concepts you want me to discuss. Or maybe something you’re curious about, don’t understand about ASL, or whatever. Let me know of anything else you want to know about, anything. And I will be in the comments. Don’t forget, I have Patreon and ko-fi, linked below. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all linked below. And… Thanks for watching, see you next time.

24 Replies to “Context in Sign | ASL Ponderings”

  • I literally never thought of this which I guess means I'm signing correctly and not like a fool hahaha. another thing I noticed is the word "be/am" there isn't a a sign for it. like instead of "this will be a building when it's finished" a sign like "become" would be appropriate. Also "became sick" not "got [received] sick" just realizing how asl has it figured out rather than English with one word for 80000 scenarios

  • I do have a question. How the heck did you caption yourself? The reason I ask is I made a couple of videos where I was signing and I couldn't just apply my transcripts onto them on YouTube. So I took a longer way: I basically captioned my clips before uploading them on YouTube. It was a biggest pain in my butt. Any suggestions or advices are welcome. Thank you!

  • Tbh, the word "make" is something I struggle with. I always knew I wasn't signing it right, but no one would ever correct me and I never saw most of the alternative signs that made more sense. I tried to sign it ….idk how to describe it, I guess a little less English where I knew how, but it hasn't been something I actually learned before. So thank you for this video. That'll help a lot in the future.

  • Haha! perfect example about "make." Any suggestion for this phrase, "make sure?" Every time I sign it, it didn't feel right and I couldn't figure out what is the proper concept to sign that phrase.

  • Super vid! My signing would make you cringe sooooo hard. I'm so used to having to SimCom as my life is very much in the hearing world. This makes it hard for me to sign "important" because I will still be mouthing the word "key"". When​ I fudge up my ASL while communicating with other ASL users, I do hope they'll help me… but without losing focus on what in trying to say!

    I think it's really too bad a lot of us Deafies didn't even have ASL classes growing up. In school, we had to take English class even though we were already reading and writing in English. Also, because I'm Canadian, the hearing students were required to learn a second language (usually French) but because of the complexities of having a sign language interpreter for these classes, we Deaf kids were discouraged from participating. I was taken out of these classes and instead met with a "speech therapist". WHY couldn't I have taken ASL classes instead?!

  • I've been signing in church ministry for over a year now. I'm hearing, but started learning sign 12 years ago when I had some Deaf co-workers, and Deaf at my church, so was surrounded by Deaf 6 days a week! I am not a certified interpreter (probably never will be) and I make certain our church never claims that we provide "ASL interpreted services", but "sign language interpreted services," because I know on our team of 7 hearing interpreters, 5/7 of us are definitely signing more PSE than ASL. But, I've also noticed a huge increase in my awareness of context when signing in the last year!! SimCom makes this extremely difficult.
    I'm teaching a class using ASL university with Dr. BIll Vicars, to anyone 13+ in my community, and I always try to have Deaf person present to keep my teaching accountable. We are 9 lessons in and my students are starting to notice when I'm teaching and using SimCom (for the Deaf and for the students to see) that my words in English do not "match" my signs. Like with "MAKE." Depending on context, I will use "PREPARE" for making food, "INVENT" for making something like creating the world, or "creation," "MAKE" for something actually made by someone, or skip the English word "make" entirely if it is something like "I made a mistake," and instead just sign something like "I MISTAKE I." Honestly, the further I get in my signing, the less I find myself using signs like "MAKE." There are usually contextually better signing choices.
    If my head is in the game, my English will say, "make," but my hands will match meaning. My students will often stop me and ask why I chose a certain sign. That excites me, because it means they notice the linguistic variance. Being able to see it is the first step to changing your thinking into more ASL. When I've been interpreting for a long stretch (greater than 1.5 hours), it's like I feel my brain slip. My mind literally gets exhausted from existing in two languages. I fall out of my "zone" where I can hear the English and shift it conceptually into ASL, and instead, I hear English and then sign English. Which is terrible and I watch the visual cues from the Deaf when it happens. I very obviously stop making sense to them! Luckily, since we have a team, no one interprets more than about 30-45 minutes, which is great, because it's so essential to stay true to context, which is honestly about what interpreting and ASL is all about.
    I love your videos, because you have CC, but no voiceover. This is awesome to me, because it means I don't become "lazy" when watching your videos by relying on hearing to interpret your signs. You are an extremely clear, yet, casual signer, and your videos challenge me, without overwhelming me. Thank you.

  • Something that we've discussed in class are the two signs for "take", "take-literal" (a bottle of water) and "take-figuratively" (a class). We also talked about "English signs" for example, 'we' or 'breakfast/lunch/dinner'. This video made me think of those examples from class!

  • Question: which "make" would you use in the sentence "That makes me sad," or "That made me think"? In class we were told to use the sign "cause," but I never see people doing that. Usually I see the regular "make" in that context.

    Another annoying one in English is "get." = acquire, become, understand…

  • I am so happy you made a video about this. I am an ASL 4 student so we are really learning about signing in ASL versus PSE and etc. We are also reviewing what this video is about. For example, yesterday I was signing about gay marriage and I kept signing "wedding" instead of marriage. My professor then signed both to show us the difference. Sometimes you know what you mean but sign something else.. Also, I wanted to know if it would be considered rude or bossy to ask someone if they understand. For example, I work with a Deaf woman and sometimes I sign to her and she looks confused like her nod is more of a timid nod. I am not always sure she understands what I am trying to sign since I am not fluent yet.

  • Thank you for the ponderings, as a…. novice signer I can say that I have too, pondered the same things (made it, making money, ect.) I have asked Deaf friends in the answeres have csrried to vast, it was like English… I didn't know how to explain myself so I changed to a concept I was more comfortable with. Thank you so much for the ponderings for the next or future one could you also discuss 'drop' (Dropped plans, dropped off the kids, dropped the ball, ect)?

  • Thank you for the ponderings, as a…. novice signer I can say that I have too, pondered the same things (made it, making money, ect.) I have asked Deaf friends in the answeres have csrried to vast, it was like English… I didn't know how to explain myself so I changed to a concept I was more comfortable with. Thank you so much for the ponderings for the next or future one could you also discuss 'drop' (Dropped plans, dropped off the kids, dropped the ball, ect)?

  • Well, I just learned something new! This make sense because languages can be so complicated, especially in relation to words and their meanings. It's kind of similar to how there's there/their/they're and they all mean different things but get mixed up a lot. It's important to learn the distinctions, so thanks for sharing this!

  • I think context is the hardest thing to acquire in a second language! When I first started signing, I signed very PSE and had no concept of ASL grammar or context. I've gotten to the point now where I often know that I'm using a sign out of context, but I will use it, fingerspell, and ask what the appropriate sign for the context is. Joseph Wheeler has done some videos about different English words and different signs for different contexts in ASL. They are super helpful! Your example with "make" was also really helpful! I was trying to sign "that makes sense" the other day, and I only knew one sign for "make"; it was the one you used to say make art, make cookies, etc. I knew it wasn't right, so I had to research a bit. I'm learning more everyday! Love your videos! They teach me a lot!

  • Thank you for this! I'm not fluent in ASL, as i'm just starting to learn. Learning a new language can be so difficult sometimes. I also noticed that when you signed "sign" you would kinda squeeze your fists, but I learned it as two pointer fingers, rotating around each other? perhaps, i've been signing that wrong, too? I'm sorry if this doesn't make any sense

  • I'm catching up on videos so I'm late to this, but are there ASL resources more focused on contextual clarity that you could recommend?

  • Soooo I'm learning ASL and like to watch these kind of videos to get informed. I'm so glad I found your channel!! I was wondering if maybe you could make a video about song translation. I've seen that a lot of ASL covers of the same song frequently don't match with each other (the choosing of signs depends of who's signing) and I wonder how does that work with rhymes, rhythm and whatnot. Thank you!

  • I'm going to have to come back when my signing is better since you didn't do the captions. Still love to watch you signing though 🙂

  • I am loving these videos! Thank you so much for making them!

    I have a quick question for you. I noticed that you use a different sign for SIGN than I learned in class. We use two index fingers rotating in circles next to each other. Yours is a much quicker motion with both hands that reminds me a little of the sign for HOW-MANY. Do you know if that's a regional difference or is there a different connotation between the two?

  • In my ASL 2 class, we discussed “have” because it can mean own, need to, have yet to/not yet, have finished, etc. lots of different meanings. I once watched an asl students “music video” and realized she was signing TAKE CARE (like BABY TAKE CARE/ babysit) for CARE (like I care about this) those are completely different meanings ugh

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