Some curriculum developers believe in a prescriptive approach (telling you
what "should" be done), I believe in a descriptive one (telling you what
"is" being done).
American Sign Language is constantly changing, developing, and growing to
fill the needs of the Deaf Community.
The Deaf Community
as a whole decides over time whether to accept or reject any
particular sign or usage of a sign.
Language is a lot like a caterpillar. As a caterpillar moves forward
quite often it gets bunched up in the middle.
It would be silly to
say that the head or the tail isn't "part of" the caterpillar.
Obviously they are both very much indeed part of the body of the
caterpillars move like this is because they have a LOT of segments and not
all segments are ready to move forward at the same time.
This is the same as
the Deaf Community. Our community has many segments and not all
segments are ready to move forward on adopting any particular sign at the
same time. Therefore you will get some people who adopt a sign early,
a bunch in the middle, and some who are slow to catch up.
As instructors and curriculum designers our job is to keep an eye on the
caterpillar and make informed choices regarding when to decide a sign is
"popular enough" to teach to our students. For example, when I saw that the
sign for Obama ("O-flag" version) had become sufficiently widespread I went
ahead and posted that version to my website and listed it as one of several
variations of the sign.
In a recent meeting a Deaf colleague expressed that he felt the "O-flag"
sign wasn't reflective of ASL "rules" (as codified by a popular author in
a book about name signs) and that the "O-flag" sign seemed like it had been
influenced too much by English.
I replied that as a lexicographer (dictionary maker) it isn't my goal to
prescribe what signs
"should be" it is my goal to describe what signs are actually being used
in the Deaf community. He
pointed out that as a teacher my job is to make sure the students know the
"right way" to sign.
I agree totally.
Even though I strive to show numerous variations on my website I don’t teach
all of those variations in my classroom. As a teacher it is my job to be
aware of which signs are used locally. In the classroom I show students the
sign that is generally used in our region and--when appropriate--I mention
that they might see it done other ways and give examples.
[Update 5/3/2010: The predominant version of the "OBAMA" sign is
of course continuing to undergo change--becoming more "ASL-like" with only two
movements (instead of three) and using an O+B handshape transition.]
As I go about the process of deciding which signs to post to the Lifeprint
Online ASL Dictionary and the Lifeprint Lessons I have found that a
systematic multi-step approach is the best way to go:
First I think about what sign I personally use. I ask myself where I
learned it and why do I think it is valid. Next I compare numerous American Sign Language dictionaries and textbooks
to see how the sign is demonstrated in the literature by other experts. Often the
dictionaries conflict with each other but generally a dominant sign tends to
emerge. After doing a thorough review of the literature it is time to
interview a cross section of Deaf adults who have extensive experience
For example, I teach ASL at California State University, Sacramento
where (as of this writing) there are four full-time PhD-level ASL instructors and about 10
part-time instructors (most of whom are native Deaf) with decades of ASL teaching experience. In addition to my coworkers, the majority of my friends are Deaf.
My wife is Deaf (her first language was ASL / simultaneous bilingualism).
Plus I’m the leader of a of a fairly large Deaf church congregation.
[Update: In the Spring of 2011, my term of service was completed and I've
since rotated to an instructor position.] On a weekly basis I interact with
a large cross section of d/Deaf adults. (I consider myself to be immersed in the Deaf Community). I make it a goal to interview a
minimum of 10 advanced Deaf signers as to how "they" do the sign that is
being considered for posting to the Lifeprint dictionary.
The next stage of investigating a sign is to consider how the sign is done
in other locations and decide which version is more widely used. I've lived
in California, Utah, Texas, Indiana, Oregon, Maryland, and Washington D.C.
(at Gallaudet in Benson Hall). My friends and co-workers have lived all over
Next I post the sign online to my website where it is exposed to the
scrutiny of thousands of individuals--many of which email me for the express
purpose of telling me I’m “wrong” and that their version is better. :) Or
they will see me in person at a meeting and come up to me and tell me the
sign I’ve got posted is “wrong.”
Two recent examples:
The sign for “party.”
On my website I indicated that one of the variations of the sign “PARTY” was
the same as the sign for “PLAY.” A colleague emailed me to say that "PARTY"
and "PLAY" are distinguished by differences in the movement of the signs. He
indicated that the right way to sign PLAY is that the arms stay stationary
and the wrists twist. He stated that for the sign PARTY the wrists stay
straight and the arms swing back and forth.
Of course I switched into lexicographer mode and immediately started
surveying a large number of skilled local signers as to how they did
the sign PARTY.
After quite a bit of research it was clear that both the "swinging"
version and the "twisting" version are in widespread. It is
also apparent that as time goes on
the versions of "PARTY" that use a twisting movement are becoming
So which way is the “right way?” I believe it is safe to say they are both
right, but an interesting note told to me by one of my interviewees, Erika
Geiger (d/Deaf), was that while she was a student at CSD (Fresno) her class
was planning an event. During a planning meeting the students began
discussing having a party as part of the event. Erika did the sign "PARTY"
using "P" hands and a twisting movement. Her teacher replied that "ahem" it
was going to be a "party" not a "partay!" (Spelling intentional.) Erika
explained to me how the teacher deliberately inflected an "old stuffy" sign
for PARTY (a controlled, somewhat slower, larger, side to side swinging
movement using "P" hands) to emphasize that this would be a classy "party"
and not a rowdy party.
Another example: The “Hanukah” entry.
I posted a sign for Hanukah at Lifeprint and soon after I got an email from
someone who knew the “right” way to spell Hanukah in
<<I let you know your lesson is H and Hanukah is wrong spells and Its
actual is meaning: Hanukkah
To which I replied,
According to dictionary.com there are three accepted spellings:
"Hanukkah or Hanukah also Chanukah."
But now I have a vote from you for the longer spelling.
Thanks for sharing your comment.
Then in December I signed “Happy Hanukah” to a coworker who told me that my
“orientation” was “wrong.” I thanked him for the correction and went about having a merry
But of course I grabbed my lexicographer’s hat and started digging around –
uncovering the following versions of HANUKKAH (or Hanukah / Chanukah)
Palms forward version: Michigan ASL Browser, The ASL Handshape Dictionary
and "Learning ASL" (book).
Palms backward version: Lou Fant's "ASL Phrase Book", Elaine Costello's
"Religious Signing" (book), and Deafvideo.tv (http://www.deafvideo.tv/video/watch/31389/).
Unusual version: Aslpro.com - at the time of this research they were using a
very stylized movement that ended up “palms back.”
* Both palm back and palm forward versions: Random House ASL Dictionary (two
So you can see why it is important for us language “professionals” to be very
careful about claiming to be right and telling others they are “wrong.”
This near constant process of refinement via critique and research helps me
become very comfortable listing variations that I do at Lifeprint because I
can verify them from my interviewee pool, as well as in the literature and
online. The research also gives me a feeling for which signs are gaining
prominence and which ones are fading away. For another example of this
process see: MEXICO (http://lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/m/mexico.htm)
and scroll down to the discussion pages.
I’m fortunate to have a great team of curriculum developers who teach using
Lifeprint (LP) as their “text” and frequently submit ideas for improvements.
What is really neat about LP is that it is so easy to make improvements. It
is rare that a day goes by without something being added, scrapped, fixed,
or revised. The LP that exists today will not be the same that exists
I invite everyone to criticize the heck out of Lifeprint (LP) and tell me
about it so I can make it better.
Thank you for your interest.
William G. Vicars, Ed.D.