ASL: Writing a Visual Language

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Sign Languages, whether American, British, Korean, etc., are full and complex languages. Here in the United States, ASL and hearing loss have been gaining media attention over the last few years, due in part to television shows, books, and celebrities with hearing loss like model Nyle DiMarco. More time in the limelight also means that more authors have to figure out how to handle expressing a visual language on paper.

I’m Hard of Hearing. ASL isn’t just something that’s fun or cool for me; it’s my second language. From the first book I wrote, I included ASL as one of the languages my characters used to communicate. And when that very first line appeared on the page, I had to make a decision: how do I properly express this as ASL?

At first, I used a different font to differentiate it from spoken English. But, as I later searched for an agent, I switched to using italics. I always used quotation marks, because quotations to me mean that a language is being expressed. This isn’t a notion universally accepted in the Deaf World, however. Some see quotations as verbal, and prefer to use just italics to express a visual language. More on that later.

The first challenge with using a sign language is simply how to express a 3D language in written words. ASL is so beautiful and rich. I can show emphasis with my hands in how a sign is formed. When I translate to the page some of that beauty and magic is lost.

In fact, in my novel Signs of Attraction, I put away quotes entirely at one point and described what was being signed. My character, Reed, was using something called classifiers, which is the manipulation of a 3D space to visually set up a scene. It’s the difference between “he ran,” and “he used his hands to mimic running with his feet, adding shoulder movements and facial expression to heighten the intensity, hands moving faster and faster, before showing the wind rushing against his face.” In the scene I had a character who didn’t have full ASL knowledge, so describing what was signed made the scene work.

Since ASL does not have a well-known written form, each author must decide how they want to express it. This is where firsthand knowledge of the signs help, but any writers worth their salt are adamant researchers.

Another issue with using a sign language is how it translates word for word. In ASL, an exact translation of “I go to the store” would be “I store go.” It’s a fully complex grammatical sentence, but when compared to an English mindset, it often appears less educated. Sometimes an exact translation confuses the non-signing reader. There is a sign, “for-for,” that I have been known to translate as “what for.” This question makes perfect sense to me and I find myself baffled trying to change the words to be clear, and even frustrated when it takes many English words to express such a simple ASL concept. There are also sounds associated with some signs. The word “finally” is often referenced as “pah.” That sound/mouth movement coordinates with the sign. To an ASL user, I can say “pah,” and be understood, but I can’t use that in a novel without an explanation first.

One thing I’ve learned as I researched for this article, is that when sign language appears on the page, I have a lot of questions as a reader. I instantly want to know who’s deaf, who signs, how well they sign, etc. There’s a whole world of history in simply referencing sign language, as a hearing character who is well versed in ASL would have had an early reason to learn, be it a parent with a hearing loss or a neighbor who was Deaf. Meanwhile, a hearing character who is just learning ASL could simply have a fascination with the language, or a crush on Nyle DiMarco, and not really know anyone with a hearing loss. And it depends on the story whether these questions stop me as a reader, or keep me going forward.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that hearing loss and sign language are oftentimes not presented as a normal variation for a character. Rather, they’re the alluring secret from the first few pages and you have to keep reading until, surprise, the character’s deaf! It’s a gimmick. I have a hearing loss. I’m not a gimmick. I’m me. My ears are part of me. They affect me every day. Yes, at times I would hide them, but why is it a dirty little secret in literary form?

And that’s the thing with sign language—it comes with a culture. Just mentioning the use of sign language alerts the reader to more than merely a language. Many people with a hearing loss are not given sign language at birth, or at onset of hearing loss. There’s a journey each of us go through to arrive at a fluent status. I’m Hard of Hearing. I didn’t need to learn ASL to communicate. I chose to do so, and the fact that I sign is why I capitalize Hard of Hearing; I’m part of the culture.

So how do we identify a visual language on the page? I’ve researched nine novels, and there seem to be various approaches to formatting signed dialogue.

  • Italics and quotes.
    1. Hi, nice to meet you,” he signed.
      1. Examples: My book, Signs of Attraction.
  • Italics, no quotes.
    1. Hi, nice to meet you, he signed.
      1. Examples: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John, Flirting with Fame by Samantha Joyce.
  • Bold, no quotes.
    1. Hi, nice to meet you, he signed.
      1. Examples: Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz.
  • Capitals, no quotes
    1. HI, NICE TO MEET YOU, he signed
      1. Examples: Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby.

Many within the Deaf Community prefer either #1, #2, or #3. Of those I spoke with, we want ASL to be shown and respected as any other language, and those options seem to treat ASL the most respectfully. If you put ASL in capitals, that means we’re yelling. And, even though some prefer italics without quotes, others feel it means the words are being thought and not outwardly expressed. Whereas if you put it in bold, it’s an emphasis.

I like quotation marks, personally, and I use italics to differentiate ASL from English. Except in my novels where the main language is ASL; then, English is given italics. Yes, there is some disagreement amongst the Deaf Community on the use of quotations, but we all want ASL to be given the same respect as spoken languages.

Of the books I checked out, very few are by authors who are part of our community. That means that most of these books are by outgroup hearing authors—of whom I could not find any indication that they knew ASL or a person with hearing loss—putting their impressions on the page. And there’s a big difference between someone who is an outsider researching us, and someone who has learned ASL, interacted with us, worked with us. Those people, even if they’re hearing, are part of our community. They understand about our culture and our day-to-day limitations. It’s not the same as someone who lives with a hearing loss, but better than someone who is merely observing.

I have no way of knowing how much, or little, research each author mentioned above did. I have no way of knowing if any publishers made the decision on how ASL would be presented. All I know is what is made readily available to me.

How much has the Deaf Community had a say in how our words are represented? How much do authors realize the impact they have on us when they depict sign language, or reference a part of our culture? How much of us is on the page? Deaf people do write. But most of our published works seem to be nonfiction, or made with the intention to be educational. I’ve searched for some recent examples of fiction by Deaf authors and they are not easy to find.

So I was thrilled to find Whitney Gardner’s upcoming You’re Welcome, Universe, which used quotes and no italics, as ASL is the main language in her book. Whitney may be hearing, but she’s a part of the Deaf Community. She’s part of us, an insider. The way she and I expressed the language and limitations in novel form were eye to eye. I’m sure another insider will do things differently, maybe even running the gamut of what I’ve charted above. But it was a breath of fresh air after seeing so many novels that didn’t seem to know what my world was really like.

And this is why I hesitate to pick up a book about hearing loss, unless I know the author is one of us. Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid I won’t like what I see. I’m afraid I won’t like what the author has done. I’m extremely passionate about hearing loss, ASL, and Deaf Culture, and it doesn’t take much at all to press my buttons.

There are many different ways an author can express a sign language on the page. But before you do, ask yourself why. Why are you writing a character who signs and/or has a hearing loss? What research have you done?

Perhaps most importantly, what will happen if a Deaf person picks up your book, excited to see a mirror, only to find that mirror is cracked?



About Author

Laura Brown

Laura Brown lives in Massachusetts with her quirky family. Her husband’s put up with her since high school, her young son keeps her on her toes, and her three cats think they deserve more scratches. Hearing loss is a big part of who she is, from her own Hard of Hearing ears, to the characters she creates.

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26 Comments

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  2. Thanks so much for this excellent article! I found myself nodding in recognition while I was reading. Here’s one example:

    “One thing I’ve learned as I researched for this article, is that when sign language appears on the page, I have a lot of questions as a reader. I instantly want to know who’s deaf, who signs, how well they sign, etc. ”

    And especially this:

    “And this is why I hesitate to pick up a book about hearing loss, unless I know the author is one of us. Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid I won’t like what I see. I’m afraid I won’t like what the author has done. I’m extremely passionate about hearing loss, ASL, and Deaf Culture, and it doesn’t take much at all to press my buttons.”

    I also prefer quotations. However, I find it awkward to write, “She signed, he signed.” In ASL, I would say, “She say, he say.” If it’s in a Deaf context, do we have to keep noting that the characters are signing? Just a thought.

    I also liked Whitney Gardner’s YOU’RE WELCOME, UNIVERSE. It’s far above average. But I have some key issues with it too. I am going to pick up a copy of SIGNS OF ATTRACTION. Thanks!

    • Thanks for this great article!
      American sign language opens a door for people who have hearing loss. It’s so far an important way for them to communicate and it also becomes a culture. So far it helps so many deaf communities but there are still some issues, like the grammar is different from English and the language pattern might also be different. There are many ways an author can express a sign language. The writer need to think about wether people with hearing loss could identify the visual language on the page.

      • Thank you for your comments, Chunhui. You make good points. I wish there were more books by Deaf writers, and I wish these books reflected the different ways that Deaf people write in English. Like you said, it is good if Deaf and HOH writers can identify the visual language on the page. I have spent many years thinking about this and trying different ways of writing. I think the main reason you don’t see many books by Deaf writers is not because they don’t write English well, but because we write differently, reflecting our two languages.

        One issue I have is that it takes me a long time to write a small amount. I don’t think in long English prose sentences, and I can’t write that way.

        I am very interested in this discussion. I hope readers will add more thoughts and experiences.

    • I was looking to write a book about a selectively mute character, but I’m quite ashamed to say that I’ve never been around a person who uses ASL. I’m researching thoroughly, and hoping to meet up with people from the community. I really want to write this character, but I want to do it correctly, as to why I stumbled upon your post.
      Thanks so much for saying this, it helped quite a lot!
      Xoxo,
      Kairi.

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  4. I have yet to read Signs of Attraction but would love to add Rose Christos first 3 books in the Gives Light Series to books involving sign. One of the protagonists is mute.

  5. I am so happy to see you shining a light and raising awareness as ASL as a second language option. I myself think that all children should learn ASL. Sign language reduces frustration, increases vocabulary, helps develop fine-motor skills, and kids learn empathy for other with disabilities. I wrote an article about it for my readers who also value multilingualism and raising empathetic readers.
    Cheers.
    https://www.biracialbookworms.com/5-reasons-children-should-learn-sign-language/

  6. Thank you so much for this article! As someone who is hearing, and knows English as a second language, I have always been intrigued by how differences in culture and thought are tied to language and ASL is no different. It is not only a form of communication, but a language of its own that bears culture just like any other language in the world. I like to write in my free time, and I have found this article to be a wonderful resource in portraying a visual language in written format.

    If it is okay, I would like to get opinions on how best to portray the language from the perspective of a hearing person who is not fluent at ASL. Currently, one of my characters picked up rudimentary sign language when they were much younger, and I would like to express this in writing as accurately and as respectfully as I can. When conversing with another character who is fluent in ASL, would it be better for the fluent character to express sentences as they would in the way English is structured (like in the example given in the article – where “I store go” is translated as “I go to the store”) or would the direct translation be okay, to show that the less-fluent character recognizes the words, but is taking time to process the meaning of the sentence? Or would simply describing the full gestures work better?

  7. Lorraine Zabat on

    Thank you for your article! As someone who is hearing, I did not even noticed between writing in ASL and spoken words. As I want to become a Special Education Teacher, I plan to learn ASL in college. ASL as always interested me as a little girl. I simply wanted to learn about Deaf Culture as well. I will be reading books with characters that use ASL. Signs of Attraction will be my first book on the list. I truly believe ASL should be taught in schools.

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  9. This article is helpful. I’m HoH, but I know little sign language and only what I can gather from online videos/workshops/etc. I want to learn it, because I’m occasionally nonverbal, and there are days when I feel like it would be helpful and easier for me/my life if I was fluent in it.

    I suppose I need to set out to read books about characters who use ASL as their primary language, by people from the same community, to assist me in writing about it. I have characters who sign and go with #3, but I struggle most with describing it beyond that sometimes, from the perspective of someone who has never seen someone sign before. (I’m told it’s daunting.)

    My question is…how should an author who has experience signing, because they’re part of the community in some way, go about making it known that, hey, they’re not just doing this for the purpose of being diverse and ticking items off a list?

  10. Satta Raizes on

    In fall of 2018, I will be taking a class called introduction to American Sign Language. What prompted me to take this class was a video I saw on Facebook. The video was funny, and a relatable representation of a college student’s life. I then decided to send it to some of my friends because I wanted them to get a good laugh. Next, I opened the comment section because I knew the responses would be witty. What I did not expect to read was, “can you please add subtitles.” Honestly, as someone who has never had hearing issues, I first thought, “Um.. just read their lips”. So I tried doing it myself because it couldn’t be that difficult. Right? For the first time in my life, I had a slight understanding of how frustrating it can be to watch any video without subtitles. Yes, in parts of it you can read their lips, but other parts have the actors talking, and the camera is nowhere near their face. When the camera is somewhat close, they are speaking faster than I can comprehend. That was 5 minutes of my life, and I was irritated. I couldn’t imagine living in a hearing world that does not even offer subtitles to a simple Facebook video. We certainly have ways to go.
    I was also shocked by another simple thing I take for granted, fonts on pages. “I’m Hard of Hearing. ASL isn’t just something that’s fun or cool for me; it’s my second language. From the first book I wrote, I included ASL as one of the languages my characters used to communicate. And when that very first line appeared on the page, I had to make a decision: how do I properly express this as ASL?” (Laura Brown). When I type up assignments, read a book, or even handwrite, I never consider fonts to be anything but “visually appealing” styles. Other time I think, “okay, they chose a standard font that looks work or school appropriate.” Now that I think about it, every font is like an expression and a voice. Something like THIS and THIS can quickly make the reading different for an individual that is hard of hearing.
    The five example you gave was terrific. As I read each model that had the same information repeated, I realized how my tone and mood fluctuated with the fonts.

    Italics and quotes.
    1 “Hi, nice to meet you,” he signed.
    Examples: My book, Signs of Attraction.

    -I read that with more of a polite and docile tone. For me, the italics told me this was soft, and the individual was genuinely pleased to meet this other person. Most likely, these two are in close physical contact (in a coffee shop or a first date).

    Bold, no quotes.
    2 Hi, nice to meet you, he signed.
    Examples: Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz.

    -This example made me hear and visualize two individuals who are also meeting for the first time. Unlike the above encounter, they have probably built up anticipation for this face-to-face, and first-time meeting. The tone gives me a sense of excitement and a sense of relief.
    It’s weird that “Hi, nice to meet you” can mean translate to a million and one emotions and tones. Little things like this are what many of us hearing individuals don’t always think about because…we don’t know.
    I believe that we, those who don’t have hearing loss, need to be more educated on everyday thing such as this. I also recently learned that individuals that identify as hard of hearing don’t want us to speak to them in slow, choppy sentences. L–i-k-e t-h–i-s. I thought your article was great, and I was able to pick up on another perspective I had no idea made a difference. I’m excited to dip my foot in and become more educated on an important topic like this.

  11. Eun Jae Park on

    Thank you for your great article. As you said, other languages such as Korean, British, or Portuguese have their own characters pertaining to the language that can be written down on paper but ASL makes it almost impossible unless the writer decides to draw the signs. You argue that there is a need to find a common ground for how writers will choose to express sign language in written work because it is quite disappointing when deaf individuals open a book to see a “mirror” of themselves but end up finding a “cracked mirror”.
    No wonder it’s difficult to find a method of writing it down because it was never meant for that. But is expressing sign language in written language truly accurate? Isn’t writing down ASL in italics or bolded words changing or taking away the beauty of sign language? Of course, it would be nice if there was a way for readers to better understand that a dialogue is being conducted in sign language when reading a dialogue in a novel. However, just because sign language cannot be written down, it should not be seen as a weakness. It is unique in its own way, so it should not be assessed the same way in its flexibility compared to other languages.

  12. Thank you, for this! I completely agree. When my middle grade novel, WALKING WITH MISS MILLIE, was in the edit rounds, this was a BIG issue for us, since I modeled my main character’s brother after my own brother who was born deaf. I really wanted my character’s signing to be more reflective of my brother’s speech, but it took some convincing (and a tad of compromise) to pull it off. Thankfully, in the end, my editor respected my own experience.
    You said so well, what I was trying to explain to so many last year. Wish I would have found this sooner. Thanks for all you do.

  13. Love love love this article! Thank you, Laura! This was most insightful! I’m Deaf and a writer as well. I have only begun writing about my experiences in fiction. I published one short story on wordgathering.com and hope to write more. Most of my stories involve a character that is Deaf and signs so your perspective on how to portray it in literary form helps me. I’m might change my approach. I personally joined the Deaf community in high school and never want to go back to my former life. My reasoning for writing with Deaf characters is so that others can see themselves. I never thought I would amount to much since people like me don’t. At least, that’s what I thought. I also want hearing people to truly understand/respect us and not assume or worse yet “learn from the media.” I hope you continue writing! I plan on picking up your book soon!!

  14. Michelle Houser on

    I was extremely interested in your article as I have learned ASL from a young age and taken many classes to further my signing abilities. Still I do not consider myself an insider as much as a person who enjoys communicating in another language. I have always seen ASL as a second language but still do not feel fluent by any stretch of the imagination. One thing I remember specifically when I was learning ASL was the difference in the grammar of English vs. ASL. My instructor was very specific that you are not signing each English sentence verbatim but painting a picture with your hands which means the vocabulary takes on a meaning all its own. Like you said, you would not understand this unless you were an insider. I was invited to an insider’s social night at one point and was not able to attend but felt extremely honored to even be included in such a situation as I have some understanding of there being an insider group. Until I read your article, I had never considered how you would communicate ASL on paper. How would a deaf story be written in a way that was welcome and respectful in the deaf community. But why would deaf children not want to read about children with the same challenges they have. I am not sure why I had not thought of it before other than my own egocentric reality. I am working to change that and reading your perspective on this subject was insightful. I very much enjoyed reading and considering what my thought process would be behind it.

  15. Hi! Thank you for open new path. I’m born deaf and hard of hearing with a hearing aids. I found myself between two worlds. I found my identity as a Deaf/HoH because I belong to the Deaf culture and community. I love to write and hope That your ASL writing inspire me to see from a deaf/hoh person a different way of styles where instead of being corrected by a “hearing english” grammars, how will they know to just respect from a “Deaf english style” in ASL.
    Hope to find these books with a new beginning to bridge the gaps.

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  17. Thanks for writing this article explaining ASL and expressing a personal experience about living with ASL. I feel like more people need to speak out about living with disabilities just to have a better understanding to others.

  18. I really enjoyed reading this article. I am a college student and in school to become a special education teacher. A year and a half ago, I took a sign language course and learned so much about the deaf community and how they communicate. It is so fascinating how they are able to understand each other, but also very sad that if people are exposed to it personally then they will not understand. I think that we need to step up our game and learn their language. — This article just really hit home and opened my eyes. I want to create more awareness.

  19. Wow! I was so happy to stubble across this article! I am a student currently pursuing a Special Education degree. Growing up my mom was a teacher in a special needs classroom, and some non-verbal students responded well to her signing to them. For some reason it has always held such a special place in my heart because I thought.. how great it was to be able to communicate this way.

    I personally do not know very much about ASL but have always been eager to learn. I’ve been looking into taking classes so that one day in my classrooms I am able to communicate with students who are Hard of Hearing, Deaf or ASL.

    I was also very happy to see that you and other authors are able to communicate your world in a book!

    Really enjoyed this reading. Thank you!

  20. Sandra Howard on

    I enjoyed this article; it was very informative for someone like who is neither hard of hearing or Deaf. It helps me understand a bit better the deaf community. In a way that my two years in American sign language class could not because although my teachers were hearing impaired all of my classmates were hearing and I had a hard time with all the aspects of deaf culture.

  21. Martha Rodriguez on

    Thank you for this article! I am so happy I got the chance to find and read this article on ASL: Writing a Visual Language. You have indeed opened my mind to the information I never knew about like books with ASL writing. My class has talked about diversity in books and how I, as a future educator, can make my classroom more diverse. We’ve talked about bringing in books with characters of all color, race, and gender, as well as books with different languages. I have seen books translated into Spanish and other languages. Never did I think of the language like Sign language, which like you said, “are full and complex languages.” I don’t personally know sign language, but I think it is essential to be able to incorporate it in Literary books. I love how you have included ASL as one of the words that your characters used to communicate in your books! I was also surprised by the many ways an author can write ASL and be able to differentiate it from spoken English like adding a different font, using quotation marks, or using italics. I feel that translating something that you can express with your hands or facial expressions is always hard to write in the paper, so describing what is being signed in the book is still another great way to show that the character is using sign language. This article was helpful and I can’t wait to find a good book that includes ASL and add it to my classroom library including your book! I believe it is very important to introduce Sign language to the students and to keep my books diverse.

  22. Steven Daniels on

    I’m working out putting to page ASL dialogue for a character who can hear but not speak. I had decided to go with “said” because from the moment the reader knows the character uses ASL anything else – signed for example- would be a distraction. I will include, occasionally, descriptions of gestures and movements to incorporate stronger emotion or commedy. I think I’ll get it right. I must get it right.

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