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Memory Triggers for American Sign Language

Updated on August 13, 2013

Sentence Structure

In ASL, the sentence structure is much different than in English.

For example, the sentence 'We go to the park'.

In sign language:

The object is first.

The verb is second.

The noun is last.

Example: Park go we.

Your first sign would be Park, then the action or verb Go then who is going, in this case we are..

It can be confusing, and if you structure a sentence in the way you normally would it is wrong but can usually be understood.

History or Meaning Behind the Symbol

American Sign Language, or ASL, can be a challenging and fun language to learn. As with any language, there are different dialects from different areas.

This covers the dialect from my area, which is the central part of Ohio. Many words vary slightly over different areas but I believe they can still be understood in most areas.

Knowing the meaning behind the symbol is a good memory trigger for many words. Sign Language is a very visual language. Many words are defined by the history behind the words and many words are just visual descriptions of the word. Knowing the history of the word or the visual description of the word creates a memory trigger that makes it easy to remember the sign for that word.

And finally when in doubt, simply fingerspell the word.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet | Source

The History of American Sign Language

Sign language dates back to the 17th century. Sign language in America is credited to Thomas Gallaudet. Gallaudet was a minister who became interested in helping his friend's daughter, a young deaf woman named Alice. He traveled to Europe to study ways to communicate with the deaf when he met an instructor named Laurent Clerc. He talked Clerc into returning to America and opening up a school for the deaf.

In 1817, the nation's first school for the deaf was opened in Hartford, Connecticut. Several schools followed, but a milestone was the founding of Gallaudet College in Washington D.C. in 1864, which is still the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the United States and the world.

This history can be told in an amazing sign storytelling with more detail than I have given.

Sign Language Alphabet
Sign Language Alphabet | Source

Word Origins

Many of the sign words have word origins for that word and make then much easier to remember. That is what this article will show you.

The list below shows common words and the memory trigger from the origin that will help you remember how to sign the word.

Many words are very visual, which makes it easier to remember how to sign them.

For example, the word divorce: The sign is both hands making the letter D for divorce and they begin as touching and pull apart to show the separation of a couple or Divorce.

Helen Keller learned sign language by having the letters signed in her palm so she could feel them.
Helen Keller learned sign language by having the letters signed in her palm so she could feel them. | Source

Visual Information

Does having visual information about signed words help you remember?

See results

Visual meanings of how to sign popular words.

Remember to ALWAYS use your dominate hand.

Here are 50 common words and the very easy visual meaning.


  1. Addicted - the index finger hooks the side of the mouth and pulls. Addicted is another word for hooked.
  2. Afternoon - your non-dominate arm is horizontal representing the earth. Your dominate arm is laying on the horizontal arm facing forward in about a 45 degree position representing the relationship between time and the sun. Can you guess what morning would be? Night?
  3. Age - the hand outlines a beard coming from the chin down.
  4. Airplane - the hand outlines a plane and shows flying movement. The thumb, little finger and index finger are outstretched to show this.
  5. Baby - cross your arms and pretend to rock a baby.
  6. Beard - the hands outline a beard around the face.
  7. Beer - the B hand shape slides down the cheek twice.
  8. Boss or Bossy - tap your shoulder using all fingers where the epaulets on a captain's uniform would be, or also look at it as they carry the weight on their shoulders.
  9. Car - arms mimic steering a car.
  10. Cat - fingers on dominant hand indicate the whiskers of a cat above the mouth.
  11. Duty - the letter D taps the back of the hand where a watch would be to indicate it is time to do your duty.
  12. Eyeglasses - the forefinger and thumb outline glasses where they would be on your face.
  13. Family - the letter F is made with both hands, taps together and makes a circle outward to indicate all inclusive family.
  14. Gay - the letter G taps the chin.
  15. Grass - the fingers are open and upwards like tall grass and are brought to the mouth palm in, indicating an animal eating grass.
  16. Happy - the open hand up the chest twice indicates a person's spirits are up.
  17. I Love You - the letters I, L, and Y are all made together.
  18. Know - the fingers touch the forehead (or brain) to indicate knowledge.
  19. Lake - the sign for water which is a W off the chin is followed by a circle made with each hand making an L tapping in to out.
  20. Lesbian - the letter L is made and taps the chin. The location of the L on the chin can also indicate if the person is one or not.
  21. Like - the thumb and forefinger pinch together from the heart out indicating like or giving of the heart.
  22. Many - the fingers of both hands are thrown up to show many.
  23. Milk - the hand is squeezed together a few times to indicate milking a cow.
  24. My - the open hand is brought to the chest indicating ownership.
  25. Niece - the N strokes the side of the chin indicating female (for bonnet straps) and niece.
  26. No - the N letter taps the thumb which is like making an O and actually spelling it.
  27. None - the O letter is made with both hands and waved back and forth to indicate zero or none.
  28. Nurse - the N letter taps the inside of the wrist like a person who takes your pulse.
  29. Ocean -the sign for water (W at chin) is made followed by both hands making a wave motion like the ocean.
  30. Old - the same as age, one hand makes a long beard from the chin.
  31. Party - the letter Y (from the end of party) is made with both hands and swings back and forth like dancing.
  32. Past - the open hand taps back over the shoulder to indicate something is behind you.
  33. Pet - the fingers stroke the back of the hand to show petting an animal.
  34. Phone - the Y letter is brought to the ear to show the receiver being brought up to the ear to talk.
  35. Play - just like party only the Y letter is shock not swung.
  36. Please - the open hand circles and touches the chest showing pleasure.
  37. Popcorn - the forefingers alternately flick up like popcorn popping.
  38. Quick - the snap is made with both hands to indicate do it now.
  39. Rain - open fingers of both hands come down like rain would.
  40. Red - the index finger comes off the lips to indicate the redness of lips.
  41. Sad - the outstretched fingers come down off the face to show tears or dropping of the face.
  42. Shoes - both hands make the S letter and tap together to show heels clicking.
  43. Sit - the letter U is made with both hands to represent legs and one 'sits' on the other.
  44. Stupid - the letter S taps the forehead like you are trying to knock some sense into someone.
  45. Thank You - the open hand moves out from the mouth as if you are blowing a kiss in gratitude.
  46. Uncle - the letter U makes a small circle by the forehead ( the forehead indicates male or being the head of the family).
  47. Vain - the letter V is made with both hands and comes out from the eyes showing someone thinks a lot about themselves.
  48. Workout - the hands indicate the lifting of weights.
  49. Yes - the S letter nods up and down like the nodding of the head.
  50. Zero - the letter O is made to show nothing just like none.


ASL Practice Sentences

ASL Alphabet

Words that are Only Finger Spelled

Some words in sign don't have a visual sign. They are only finger spelled. Some of these words are:

ATM

Bank

Bus

Park


Practice, Practice, Practice!

Remember that sign language is a very visual language and that this visual image is usually associated in some way with the word.

There are some very good web sites that show ASL words and also to help you learn to read ASL..

ASL browser is a good one to show you the history of the visual meaning.

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