Sign Language

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13339

Sign language is uniquely expressive. Because it's relatively new, it is evolving even more quickly than most languages. Explore its history, the important components, and a few introductory signs!


World Languages

Life Skills
learning style
Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Check out this video about sign language interpreter Lydia Callis, who was Mike Bloomberg's interpreter while he was mayor of New York City during Superstorm Sandy.

NYC sign language star surprised by fame from CNN:

Callis quickly gained fame for her expressiveness, and people found her captivating to watch; however, she was surprised by people's reactions because everything she was doing was a regular part of sign language.

Learn how Callis' facial expressions help her communicate as you dive into the history of this engaging and inventive language!

  • While watching the above video, did you notice how Lydia Callis spoke about taking on Mike Bloomberg's tone in her facial expression?
  • Or how she talked about deafness as a spectrum, and how people have different ways of experiencing language on that spectrum?

Let's dive into those facets of sign language and deaf culture, and learn a bit more about the history and modern use of sign.

History of Sign Language

Formal sign language was first developed in Paris in 1775 when the French priest Charles Michel de l'Eppe established the first school for the deaf. Prior to this formalization of sign language, deaf people had utilized different signs with their family and friends to communicate, but none of it could be understood outside that person's inner circle.

L'Eppe looked at all the signs his students employed at home and used them to help him develop what is now known as Old French Sign Language, which he then taught to his students.

Once there was an agreed-upon sign language, everyone could use it to communicate with anyone else who knew it, not just those in their own household.

As sign language spread, different regions developed different versions that suited their needs. Each version grew and added to its vocabulary, and now there are at least 138 types of sign language, with high estimates placing the total near 300.

If you live in the United States, you're likely to see American Sign Language (ASL). If you live in England, you'll see British Sign Language (BSL). Many remote communities have developed a type of sign language that does not fall under one of the formalized languages, which is why the high estimate reaches 300.

For the rest of this lesson, we will mostly address ASL.

Elements of ASL

There are five different sign language elements of ASL that make up each sign. They are:



  • Is your hand open, flat, curved, or straight?
  • What is the position of the fingers in this sign?

Each sign is unique. With over 4,500 words in ASL, getting the handshape exactly right is important for clarity.


For some signs, your hand(s) stay in one place. For many, however, there is a motion to the sign.

  • Remember when Lydia Callis made the sign for wind and her hands made a wide sweeping motion?

Many signs are communicated with specific movements like that one.

Palm Orientation

palm orientation

Whether your palm is facing yourself or the person you're signing to is important. In many cases, changing the palm orientation makes an entirely different sign.

When you learn sign language vocabulary, make sure you're learning with correct palm orientation because this can be an easy element to ignore for non-native signers.



In the image above, it is important that the people signing have their hands placed at their chins. When the flat hand with the palm facing away is at the chin, it means "thank you."

If placed somewhere else on the body, it would not mean the same thing.

Facial Expression

Notice how expressive this woman is when she signs. This isn't just a personal choice, it's actually a part of the language!

An example is when you sign a question. You don't use a sign for a question mark, and you can't raise your voice to go up at the end. Others will know it's a question because of your furrowed brow.

The ASL Alphabet

The alphabet is the most important thing to know in sign language. If you don't know the sign for something, you can always spell the word out.

This technique is called fingerspelling. While it would take you a very long time to fingerspell everything, it's a great tool for beginners in sign language who don't have a huge vocabulary yet.

Watch this video of the ASL alphabet, paying special attention to the handshapes. There are two signs that involve movement as well, so take note of those.

The ASL Alphabet | ASL - American Sign Language - ABCs from ASL THAT:

Take a look at the signs for the alphabet below. If there is an arrow next to a sign, that indicates the movement involved.

ASL alphabet

ASL Greetings

This next ASL THAT video shows some greetings in sign language. Practice these greetings along with the video until you feel confident doing them on your own.

Greetings in ASL | ASL - American Sign Language:

When you've familiarized yourself with the alphabet and greetings, move on to the Got It? section to test your new ASL skills!

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