American Sign Language (ASL) is interesting and you might be deciding where to start your learning journey. Maybe the alphabet? Numbers? Common phrases? Regardless of what you want to learn to sign first, to sign accurately you’ll need to know and understand ASL’s parameters.
ASL has five parameters, or features. Each of the five American Sign Language parameters must be used accurately for a sign to be correct. The five parameters are handshape, palm orientation, location, movement, and non-manual signals. Knowing and accurately using the five parameters is crucial. Precision is incredibly important in ASL because it affects meaning and impacts comprehension. Check out the details explaining each feature below.
- This refers to hand configuration.
- Visit Life Print and the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults for images and a detailed list of over 40 various ASL handshapes.
- If you are learning ASL and are interested in an ASL handshape inventory and ASL handshape games, check out Dawn Sign Press’s Free ASL Handshape Booklet.
- This refers to the direction the palm faces (e.g., up, down, left, right, outward, inward).
- Example of signs with the same handshape, but different palm orientation, which changes the meaning: school, stop, and proof.
- This refers to the physical space where signs are made; all within the signer’s space.
- Common locations: chin, forehead, shoulder, and front of boy.
- Example of signs with the same handshape and movement, but different location, which changes the meaning: summer, ugly, and dry.
- This refers to changing location in the physical space during sign production.
- Example of signs with the same handshape and location, but different movement, which changes the meaning: happy and enjoy.
- Types of movement include: arc, straight line, circle, alternating in-and-out, up-and-down, back-and-forth, tapping, twist of the wrist, finger flick, single, double, multiple, wiggle, strike.
- Movement can change location (i.e., one or both hands move(s) from one location to another), direction, and handshape (i.e., one or both hands change(s) handshape in mid-sign).
Non-Manual Signals (NMS)
- Also known as non-manual markers (NMM), this refers to the expressions and signals from the face (e.g., eyebrows, nose, eyes, and lips), shoulders (e.g., raising), head (e.g., tilts, nods, and shakes), and body (e.g., tilting) that convey meaning in addition to the use of the hands.
- Facial expressions represent tone, emotion, and intent in a visual form.
- NMS conveys grammar and meaning.
These five parameters are all used within a signer’s space. Sign space refers to the area in which most signs are made. In the image, you’ll notice that most signs are made within the purple box. Signs are often formed in front of the body and don’t extend past where your elbows would be if your hands were on your hips. They are also made no lower than a few inches below the belly button and no higher than a few inches above the top of your head, and signs outside of this space will likely be uncomfortable or awkward.
In addition to using the five American Sign Language parameters correctly in the signing space, don’t forget about eye contact. Eye contact has an important role in ASL, so always look people in the eye.
To learn more about the five ASL parameters, sign space, eye contact, and other topics, check the Introduction in Master ASL! that’s available for free download or watch one of these helpful YouTube videos:
You can also schedule a group lesson or meeting with a private ASL instructor. TakeLessons’ ASL instructors, like myself, are dedicated to helping others learn this visual language. We provide a personalized approach and move at your pace.
When learning any language, there is so much important information you need to know – the alphabet, pronunciation, grammatical structure, frequently-used vocabulary, nuances, common phrases, irregularities, and other elements. It can seem overwhelming, but don’t fret; take it one step at a time and have fun.