The Importance of Facial Expressions Within American Sign Language

The Importance of Facial Expressions Within American Sign Language

For the deaf and hard of hearing, your facial expressions convey so much meaning. “Language is grammar — it’s sentence structure,” said Sharron Hill, the director of the American Sign Language Interpreting (ASLI) Program at the University of Houston, “And so, the way that individuals who communicate with a visual mode of communication convey grammar is on the face.”   

ASL uses hand movements, body language, facial expressions, and lip-reading to convey the nuances of a transmitted message. For example, it matters whether your eyebrows are up or if they’re down. This small detail decides how you answer a question. If eyebrows are up, this means a yes or no question, and if they are down, it is an open-ended question. Your mouth wide open or closed tightly conveys how large or small an object is, whether it’s thin, smooth, or thick.

The movement of the tongue can tell you how far something is. It also explains whether it’s right next to you or if it is thousands of miles away. The nod of the head determines whether you understand something or you do not. The way you turn your shoulders shows who is talking in a story or taking the lead in a race. It has been said that 50% of ASL consists of facial expressions or body movements.   

These intricacies of the language are endless. The best way to learn these is through those who are native to the language. If you’re learning ASL, find those in the deaf community, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! You will find that most community members are eager to help those who sincerely want to learn. Learning ASL has personally brought me many joys. I have developed lifelong friendships with those who first taught me the language. The language and the culture have made me more in touch with the unspoken communication we all use. They have given me many opportunities to help others. I would, without doubt, suggest it to anyone who has the time to learn.   

My suggestion to you, if you are currently learning, is to seek out native users. Spend time with them, get to know their history, the challenges they face. You will surely come out with a new perspective and increased incentive to learn their language.