|  Volume 1, Issue 6, Jan 2004  |  William Vicars Ed.D., Editor

● Improving Expressive Skills
● Proficiency Interview
● Outside Activity Participation?
● Right or Left Handed Signing
● The sign "WELCOME"
● Brown Beer?
● Grammar: Topicalization
● Signing: Handshape for "OUR"
● Signing: MONTHS
● Deaf Community: Finding Acceptance
● Deaf Culture: Considering Greek Culture


Improving Expressive Skills

ASL Instruction Methodology

Hello again ASL heros!!!

I'm excited!  Things just get better and better.  One of the greatest aspects of being a teacher is that each semester you get a "fresh start."   You get a whole new crop of students who haven't heard your jokes before, (heh).  And you get to improve your methods.

I just recently taught a "mini-mester."  They call it "Winter Intersession" out here at Sac State.  You take 16 weeks of class and cram it into three weeks.  Monday through Thursday, three-and-a-half hours each morning.

It went fabulously. True, the students' eyes were burning at the end of each class, and their hands were tired, but the condensed schedule required less review at the start of each new class.  Often times in a "normal" twice-a-week or once-a-week class the students show up having forgotten much of what was covered in the previous class session.  But that isn't as much of an issue during a condensed schedule.

During this recent class I tried something new.  Normally at the beginning of each class I give a brief review quiz consisting of selected ASL phrases from throughout the semester.  The quizzes are cumulative and the sentences are selected to provide a random sampling of previously covered material. That way students have to keep practicing all of the concepts instead of just doing a quick memorization of "yesterday's" material.

This time around though, instead of personally signing all of the sentences, I had the students take turns coming to the front of the class and signing one sentence each.

If a student signed a phrase "less than accurately" I'd provide a second model of how it "should be" done.


Each day they went home knowing that the next day they would have to get up in-front of class and sign one of the practice sentences.  Not knowing "which" sentence they'd get, meant they would have to practice all of the day's sentences and review material from previous classes as well.


Wow! What a difference that made in the quality of signing of my students!  It was amazing.


Here are some points I'd like to point out about this technique:

1.  It doesn't take much more time than signing all of the sentences yourself.

2.  It allows you to see what concepts your students need more practice on.

3.  It is less work for you, more for the student.  (And other than the fear factor, most students welcome the opportunity to do more signing).

4.  The students get practice seeing many different styles of signing instead of just your "pretty" signing.

5.  The students get to see what types of errors to avoid while taking expressive exams.

6.  The students actually go home and practice.


Anyway...the list could go on, but you get the point.


Proficiency Interview

Another thing I did differently this semester was institute a policy of students having to pass the final interview at 75% or better to pass the class.


I did this because too often I see students "pass" ASL classes because they turned in book reports, attended community events, did projects, etc. -- but still can't sign.  So over the years I've been systematically reducing the point value of such things as:

* attendance

* participation

* book reports

* research papers

* group assignments

and so forth.

Instead, I have been increasing the point value of expressive signing exams and proficiency interviews.

Outside Activity Participation?

Here at Sac State (and it seems throughout northern California) the faculty culture places a very high emphasis on "event attendance."  That is, the other faculty. 

While I feel event attendance is "good, and helpful," I'm also very, very aware that today's students have many, many irons in the fire.  Many of them have small children, full-time jobs, aging parents, cars that barely function, and wallets that are near empty.  Having to attend functions outside of class is difficult for a considerable number of students. 

Students take a class so that the teacher can teach them a subject, not so that the teacher can tell them to go learn about the subject on their own.  I'm talking about a basic "ASL class" here. I'm not talking about a "sociolinguistics of ASL course.

If a teacher wants his students to meet Deaf people, he should invite Deaf people to class.  What? Too much trouble?  Then show a video.

Some teachers teach ASL in smaller cities and towns where there aren't ANY deaf events.  Does that make those teachers ineffective?  Is their class invalidated?

My point here isn't to try to convince anyone that "deaf event participation" is bad, (of course the opposite is true, students who attend deaf events tend to do much, much better than students who don't attend deaf events) but rather as instructors we need to remember that some students may not be in a position to attend outside events.  We should be sensitive to this and structure our syllabi accordingly by providing alternate assignments.

Those assignments, however, and event participation itself, should account for only a very small percentage of the student's grade. 

The bulk of a student's grade should rest squarely on the student's ability to express and understand ASL.

Still feel strongly that students should be required to attend outside events?  Then at least have the courtesy to include that information in the course description in the course catalog so that students will know about this requirement prior to enrolling in your course.

As always, your comments are welcome.


Bill Vicars

Right or Left Handed Signing

ASL Linguistics


In a message dated 1/7/2004 12:33:33 PM Pacific Standard Time, a student writes:
Hi Bill,

When I sign certain words (people) I use my left hand. I am right handed and all other times I use my right hand. Should I not switch hands?
Also, when someone says "Thank you" is there a sign for "Your welcome"?






Hi Amanda,

If you are right handed, then your right hand should be used as your "dominant" hand when signing.  Your left hand is your "non-dominant" hand.

You should use your dominant hand for fingerspelling and also for all "one-handed signs."

You should use your non-dominant (left) hand as "partner hand" for signs in which both hands move, and as a "base" (non-moving) hand for two-handed signs in which only the right hand moves.


If you use your left hand (your non-dominant hand) for signs that are typically signed with the right hand, deaf people will still understand you, but you will have the equivalent of a slight "accent" or a very minor "speech impediment."  :)


So, I recommend you practice signing with your dominant hand and not "switching" back and forth.


The sign "WELCOME"

Now, you asked about the sign "WELCOME."

I have an example of that sign at

This sign has many meanings and interpretations. Variations of this sign are used for such concepts as: "hire," "invite," and "introduce."

Quite a few ASL teachers will try to tell you it is NOT appropriate to use this sign to mean WELCOME.

I disagree.  I think it is the BEST way to indicate the concept of "welcome."

The text "A Basic Course in American Sign Language" by Tom Humphries, Carol Padden and Terrence J. O'Rourke lists this sign as "HIRE, INVITE and then includes the word "welcome" in lowercase.

Rod Butterworth in the Perigee Visual Dictionary of Signing: An A to Z guide to over 1,200 signs of American Sign Language, lists this sign as meaning WELCOME, "a common gesture of politeness and acceptance."

Elaine Costello in the Random House American Sign Language dictionary (1st ed.), includes this sign--and what's more SHE INITIALIZES IT!!!

Martin Sternberg includes this sign in "American Sign Language: A Comprehensive Dictionary"

I could go on, but you see my point.  The sign is prominently listed in dozens of major ASL dictionaries and texts and is used and recognized by thousands of native Deaf ASL signers.

The sign is done by holding the flat hand palm up out away from your body (off to the right a bit) and then bringing the hand in toward your torso.

An interesting note.  This sign is "directional" Which is to say it incorporates subject/verb agreement information. (It shows who did what to whom without having to explicitly show signs for the subject and object.)  If you start the sign near your body and move toward the other guy, it means he hired or invited you.  If you start it near him and move it toward your body it means that you hired or invited him. (The sign HIRE or INVITE is backwards from most signs that incorporate subject verb agreement. For example compare the sign "GIVE."  If I want to say "I GIVE (it to) YOU," I'd start the sign GIVE near me and end it near you.)

For a much more in-depth discussion of this concept, visit

Dr. Vicars


Brown Beer?


Dr. Vicars,

This is Wolfman, I would like to know if you'd help me distinguish the difference between two signs in detail please, I am having trouble with? The two signs are the sign for beer and the sign for brown, because looking at them on your site has both of them using the side of your hand go up and down your chin a few inches. I mean I enjoy a good laugh and a little confusion a much as the next guy but it would sound weird but hilarious if I asked someone " Do you like the color beer?" or " Want a cold brown?", haha ha, or better yet tell me a different sign for beer I could use to avoid the very funny but honest confusion, so please help me if you have time.

Thanks much,


Dear Wolfman,


I'll tell you how I do these two signs, but that doesn't mean you won't still see some variations out there.

I do the sign for the color brown a little higher on my cheek than the sign for beer.
I sign beer on my lower cheek, near my chin. Some people sign beer using a small circular movement, but it seems like most of my associates just use two small downward movements.  I just grabbed my friend Byron Cantrell (Deaf) who was on break while teaching a class and asked him how he signs BEER and BROWN.  He does the two signs the exact same and relies on context to make the difference clear.

In looking at a few ASL dictionaries, I notice that one says to do BROWN with a single movement, another says to do it with a double movement.

Here are some observations. 

I've never seen BEER done with a single movement.
I've seen BROWN done with either a single or double movement.

I've seen BROWN done with an emphasized single longer movement to indicate "dark or deep" brown.

I've seen BEER done to the side of the chin and on the side of the cheek.

I've only seen BROWN done on the side of the cheek and never on the side of the chin
Brown has an older version that reminds me of the sign for "water" dripping.  This sign uses a loose four hand, palm left, held out and slightly to the right, at about the level of your abdomen, shakes downward twice.)



Grammar:  Topicalization

Dear Mr. Vicars,

I am currently in Lesson 3 in your online ASL course, and I had a question regarding the syntax of ASL. You state that either "YESTERDAY ME WASH CAR" or "YESTERDAY CAR WASH ME" is correct. Obviously from the context there would be no confusion as to the meaning here. But what about a phrase such as, "JANE LOCK JOHN OUTSIDE ACCIDENTALLY" as opposed to "JOHN LOCK JANE
OUTSIDE ACCIDENTALLY"? How would you know who was locking out who?

To sum up, how do you distinguish between subject and direct object?
Thank you,

Hi Mikaela,

When you move the object of a sentence to the front of the sentence you are engaging in what is called "topicalization."

During the signing of the object that has been moved to the front of the sentence you raise your eyebrows and tilt your head a bit. You hold the last sign of your "object phrase" while keeping your eyebrows up and head tilted.  This hold is very brief--similar to a comma.  Then you state the rest of the sentence.

So, using your example, if I signed "J-O-H-N," using the facial grammar for topicalization, and then "NANCY LOCK OUTSIDE WRONG-(accident)," it would mean that Nancy locked John outside.

If I signed "NANCY LOCK JOHN OUTSIDE WRONG-(accident)" while nodding my head a bit but without using any topicalizing grammar it would again mean that Nancy locked John outside


Signing:  Handshape for "OUR"

In a message dated 1/8/2004 6:57:44 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:
Dr. Vicars,
Recently, someone showed me a sign for "ours" that uses a modified ''d" handshape. This is different than any other way I have seen it. Is it correct?

Kendra W.

There are only two versions that I've seen, and only one version that I'd teach in an ASL class.

The one I use consists of a curved hand.

The other version is initialized with an "O" handshape.

I have never seen the sign OUR done with a "D" handshape.  Nor have I seen it that way in any dictionary or text.

BUT...what you might be seeing is a "loose" index finger.  Perhaps what happened is someone was signing "WE" using the tip of their  index finger but the hand was in a "D" shape rather than a tight "index finger" handshape.  Someone else could have mistook the concept "we" for "our" and the index handshape for a "D" handshape.

Then again, you could just be getting some bad advice.

Dr. Vicars

Signing:  MONTHS

In a message dated 1/13/2004 10:26:31 AM Pacific Standard Time, Moonrise94947 writes:
Hi Bill, Hugs to Sarah, I'm trying to find(signs) for the months of the year,can you help Please, I am a special ed teacher.your site is great,looking forword to the book,Sue

Hi Sue,

In ASL the signs for months are expressed via fingerspelling.
The specific letters are:
Notice that if a month has five or fewer letters it is spelled out. Elsewise it is abbreviated. September is abbreviated to four letters. All the other abbreviated months use just three letters.

There are signs for the months that are used in signed English, (you can find these signs in "signed English" dictionaries at your library), but quite honestly, I'd just stick with the spelled versions.

Have a nice day.

Deaf Community:  Finding Acceptance

In a message dated 1/14/2004 10:23:15 AM Pacific Standard Time, writes:

Hi Bill,

My name is Julie ________ and I currently live in __________. First of all, I would like to say that this
website is wonderful and I am so glad that there's something like this available worldwide. I use your website to get some ideas for my classes and it has been helpful. I currently teach at a nearby college two nights a week. Each class consists of 20-21 hearing people. I started teaching last semester
for the very first time and I really enjoyed it. (A hearing colleague recommended that I teach and I was hired to do so and then was asked to teach two nights a week as many people have been telling them
that I am good)

Anyways...I have this concern of mine...I ran into deaf friends at a party and my husband told them that I was teaching ASL. They asked if I had certification in ASL and I said no. They were upset because I was hired without one. I told them that it was based on my university degree in English and 25 years of experience in ASL as well as teaching deaf adults reading and writing using ASL. They thought it wasn't fair. I am in the middle of getting certification in ASL Level One...The problem is that the instructor that
taught me is not doing his job...(to my surprise...with certification in ASL) Bill, what should I do?
I spoke with my boss at the college about it and she said she is not worried because I am doing a great job and have managed to get more people sign up (more than before) for the classes. She also emphasized that my university degree as well as my teaching profile is what got me into teaching ASL.

I grew up hard of hearing and became totally deaf at the age of 20. Yes, I grew up in public schools.
To be honest with you, I can speak very well. For some reason, a lot of deaf people that I have come to meet over the years do not approve of the fact that I grew up in public schools. Their lack of support and
understanding has hurt me a lot for 10 years and I had to go counseling to get my confidence back. It almost hurt my marriage as well because some of these people are my husband's childhood chums. During
therapy, I had to learn to ignore them and focus on myself. It was a painful time for me because of the hurt I had sustained for a long time. Sometime during the therapy, my counselor was very impressed
at how fast I can learn and said that I shouldn't let these people belittle me at all and that I have the skills
and the understanding of the language to get anywhere in life. Well...after years of supply teaching at a deaf school, I quit due to political reasons and lack of support. In other words, I had no one to encourage me to pursue a teaching career. I gave up that...and it hurt a lot because I loved teaching deaf children every day.
They are the ones who have taught me to understand ASL better through ASL poetry as well as other things that they do everyday. They deserve the credit and I am very grateful for that experience. It was a good thing.
Anyway...last summer...after mulling over whether I should quit or not, I was offered a job at a bank. I decided to gamble and see what happened at that time...Well...after a 2 hour interview...I was hired to work as a Customer Service Rep. (teller) I'd like to say that I am doing very well. my surprise...the support I am getting from
my hearing colleagues is great! I get more encouragement from my hearing peers than the deaf ones. I don't understand why...Anyway...that is how I ended up teaching ASL because of this hearing colleague who is an interpreter. I have told him of my concerns regarding certification...He brushed it off and said...The college
decides...not them.

So...what do you think I should do? There's this ASL workshop coming up in April and it would cost me $450 dollars for the whole course...I was mortified. You see...I have two children to worry about. What I don't
understand is that when I got the papers for this workshop...I was told...that to be MUST submit a video of yourself signing explaining why you want to become an ASL instructor...I was very upset about that.
My hearing friend wanted to go and when she saw that she has to submit the videotape...she was discouraged.
So...I did some research on this workshop and found that there are many hard core deaf people running this workshop. I was absolutely mortified. What should I do? I hope you can help me to make a decision that would be best for everyone involved as well as my future.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely yours,

Julie ______


Dear Julie,

Wow...your story makes me very grateful for my coworkers (Don Grushkin, Sandra Thrapp, Byron Cantrell, and Lyes Bousseloub). They know I'm hard-of-hearing and able to voice, but they've shown me only kindness and support--inviting me to lunch, discussing ideas, and such. I'm lucky to be working with such a great group of people. It took me a long, long time to accept that being "deaf" isn't so much about level of hearing as it is about "ASL usage" and adherence to cultural norms.
I realize I'll never be in the innermost circle of the deaf community (what you in your email referred to as "hard core" deaf). So I instead work on finding my own niche. I do my website. I set up immersion excursions. I help deaf friends with their computers.

Now, you asked me what I think you should do. I think you should choose your focus. Do you want to focus on those who criticize you--or do you want to focus on those who compliment you?

I'm not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and ignore constructive criticism. I'm simply pointing out that your boss feels you are doing a great job and her opinion counts more than the opinion of those who are critical.

Perhaps you've heard of the "crab theory?"

If you've ever been "crabbing" you know that after you have two or three crabs in the bucket, you don't even need to put a lid on it anymore because when one goes to climb up and out the others grab it and pull it down. (You still put the lid on the bucket anyway though because once in a while one does make it out.) The Deaf Community subscribes to crab-like behavior at times. If you don't want to be "jerked back down to reality" then you'd best not portray yourself as being better, smarter, or more successful than anyone else. Don't put your name in too big of a font size when advertising. Attend events and genuinely be interested in other people rather than talk about yourself. Even when people start telling you how wonderful you are--don't believe it and instead simply thank them for their compliment then change the subject to something of interest to the other person. Make small frequent contributions to the local Deaf Association. When running for office or other public position in the Deaf Community talk about how much you care about the community, how much you respect certain Deaf leaders, and how you wish to follow their example instead of talking about all your new ideas and how you will fix the problem and how good a job you will do.

It is an old saying but still applicable, "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

Regardless of how nice, helpful, and humble you become, there are people that will still criticize you simply because they are jealous over the fact that you've gotten yourself a source of income that they would like to have for themselves.

With that in mind, let me share this thought from a speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt in Paris in 1910:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and come short again and again, because there is no effort without great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Take care,


Deaf Culture: Considering Greek Culture

<<In a message dated 1/21/2004 6:35:05 AM Pacific Standard Time, a student writes:
Had a lively cultural discussion this morning about language assimilation. I brought up deaf culture (vista). In the Greek community, you are more greek if you have a Greek name (first and last), marry a greek man, go to a greek school and have greek parents. You are less greek of you have an anglo first name, marry a non greek or go to a non-greek school. It made me think of the correlation of deaf parents, deaf children, deaf school (more deaf) as opposed to hearing parents, hearing children, and deaf day program/oral school. Very cultural, no? Asinine, yes?>>

Dear Student,

Culture is environmentally based. Problems posed by the environment influence culture.
Interestingly enough...environmental influences are much less of an issue for most cultures these days due to technology and other advancements. However the condition of being Deaf is still much more influencing than the condition of being Greek.
For example, which school will a deaf Greek child end up attending? In the old days it would likely have been a Deaf School. These days it might be a Greek school with an interpreter. But still, it is the child's being deaf that defines his experience at the school: all conversations taking place via writing, an interpreter, or some direct but limited signing.

Realistically, will the deaf child be more likely to marry a hearing Greek or somebody deaf whom he can sign with? Can you blame him for valuing and wanting to marry someone with whom he can communicate?




American Sign Language University William Vicars