ASL University ►

American Sign Language: "Facial Expressions"

Lindsey Duncan writes:

Dear Dr. Bill,
Hi! I just started learning ASL. The vocabulary and basic components I can understand pretty easily but I'm having a hard time with the facial expressions, specifically in situations where you need multiple expressions. For example, if I were to sign "Why are you scared?" do I just have to transition quickly from the frightened expression to the wh-expression? And if you're asking a wh- question do you make the face through the entire question, or just at the end? I would be so thankful if you could answer this! It's important to me that I'm communicating correctly.
- Lindsey

Dear Lindsey,
Hello :)
It depends on how much context and how clear you need to be.
In general, yes, you should transition your facial expressions quickly.

For example, you could sign:
YOU SCARED (using a scared facial expression), WHY? (using the "wh"-type question expression).

However it is always important to consider the context of your signing.

Suppose a child comes to you and tells you that he/she is "scared." Now you have a context and thus your response of "YOU SCARED, WHY?" would not need as much facial expression on the "SCARED" concept since you both know that he "is" scared and now your emphasis is on finding out "why" he is scared.  You could actually even drop the "YOU SCARED" part and just ask "Why?" (Or "REASON?")

On the "YOU SCARED, WHY?" sentence if you use "fear" on the SCARED and then transition into the WHY? It would be the equivalent of saying in English:
"You are scared. Why?"

If you raise your eyebrows during the SCARED part of the sentence it would be the equivalent of saying:
Are you afraid? If so -- why?

Or suppose your want to sign, "I'm not scared." You would sign something to the effect of:

1. I/ME AFRAID-(negative head shake) I/ME.


Neither of those examples would use a "fearful" facial expression.
However, if you were to topicalize the sentence you would indeed use a fearful expression:

3. AFRAID? ME-(negative headshake).

4. ME AFRAID? NOT!-(scoffing facial expression, slight negative headshake)

The first part of sentences 3 and 4 still wouldn't use "much" of a fearful expression but rather a you would use a bit of fear combined with the raised eyebrows of the "yes/no"-type facial expression.
All four versions are "ASL." Just as English can say things in various ways -- ASL likewise has various grammatically accurate ways to express the same general concept depending on what you want to emphasize.
Dr. Bill



Question: A YouTube commenter asks:
"When you're signing questions, when exactly do you lower/raise your eyebrows? Only at the last word, or during the entire sentence?"

Generally you raise or lower your brows at the end -- but I encourage you to not be rigid in your thinking or approach here. You asked "when exactly..." -- to answer that fully would involve dozens and possibly hundreds of examples.

Despite what you may see in vlogs and instructional videos put out by beginning-level YouTube creators trying to be ASL experts -- it is not a brief "one rule" to "rule them all" answer.

I'll share a few quick comments on the topic and encourage you to do a massive amount of your own research and observations while watching videos of interactive / skilled signing and taking notes of what you see.

If the sentence is short - the brows may be raised or lowered the whole time. If the sentence is complex, the brows may be raised to create a topic and then lowered to ask a wh-question about that topic.

If the sentence includes a rhetorical question the sign used for the question will have raised eyebrows.

If someone is choosing to replace BECAUSE with a rhetorical WHY -- it might happen in the middle of the sentence -- thus turning a sentence such as "I'm going to the store because I need milk" into two sentences: I'm going to the store why? I need milk. -- Bah! That is really just one sentence that was needlessly broken into two due to people inaccurately pushing the idea that BECAUSE is somehow "not ASL." (LOL -- whatever).

The WH-question could be placed at the front and then repeated at the end.

The WH-question could be part of a Wh-question clause (WRISTWATCH, WHO GIVE-you versus WRISTWATCH you-GIVE WHO?)

Also see: Facial Expressions

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University
ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars

Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy DONATE (Thanks!)
(You don't need a PayPal account. Just look for the credit card logos and click continue.)

Another way to help is to buy something from the ASLU "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)   CHECK IT OUT >

Bandwidth slow?  Check out "" (a free mirror of less traffic, fast access)   VISIT >


back.gif (1674 bytes)