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
It depends on how much context and how clear you need to be.
In general, yes, you should transition your facial expressions
For example, you could sign:
YOU SCARED (using a scared facial expression), WHY? (using the "wh"-type
However it is always important to consider the context of your
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.
2. I/ME NOT AFRAID.
Neither of those examples would use a "fearful" facial
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
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
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.
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
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 WH-question could be part of a Wh-question clause (WRISTWATCH,
WHO GIVE-you versus WRISTWATCH you-GIVE WHO?)
Also see: Facial
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