Saturday, January 2, 2016

Writing Insights from American Sign Language

For 14 years, my wife Judy worked on the staff of Silent Blessings, a Christian ministry to deaf children and their families. She introduced me to American Sign Language (ASL), which many deaf people use to communicate with one another. Only when stating the proper name of a person or place will an ASL person make a rapid spell-out of the individual letters in a word. Everything else is conveyed by gestures that demonstrate the idea or action. For example, here's the ASL sign for "anger":

Click HERE for video.
It looks like an erupting volcano--a rather accurate way to depict anger! A sign can also communicate a more ambiguous idea, such as "America." Here's the ASL sign:

Click HERE for video.

This portrays a circle of log cabins, which would have been typical of early America.

We English speakers say that a hypocrite is someone who "puts down" another person. ASL demonstrates this in its sign for "hypocrite":

 ASL - Hypocrite
Click HERE for video.

We can draw important insights for our writing from ASL. Foremost is the principle, "Show, don't tell." If deaf persons had to spell out every word, their conversations would be slow and tiresome. But signs enable the deaf to convey ideas quickly, with emotion, free from the limitations of any local vernacular. (An ASL-signing deaf person in Germany would use the same sign for "anger" as does one living in the United States.)

If your narrative seems dull, perhaps words are getting in the way! Try demonstrating those ideas with a character's body language, gestures, or actions. Give your readers a sign--in fact, a whole story of them.

Joe Allison has been a member of the Indiana Chapter of ACFW since 2010. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.


  1. Great way to show, Joe. This caught my eye because ASL has come up several times to me in the past week. I wonder if I'll have the chance to learn it this year - something I've wanted to do since I was a kid with deaf neighbors.

  2. I facilitate ASL classes at our church. We did our entire Christmas program in ASL this year! Enjoyed this post. :-)

  3. Well said, Joe. Thanks for this post.