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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  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.

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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. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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 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!!

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