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American Sign Language:  Which hand for signing?
Also See "one-handed signing"


A discussion:

Crazy: When one hand is needed to do a sign, does it matter whether it is right or left hand?

DrVicars: Which are you right or left handed?

Crazy: I am a mixture.

DrVicars: Then I recommend you choose a dominant hand and stick with it.

Crazy: I used to be left handed, but my parents made me change to my right.

DrVicars: Which hand do you sign checks with now?

Crazy: I use both.

DrVicars: Arrrgh!

Crazy: Okay, I'll pick one and stick with it.

DrVicars: :) good.

Sharp: Should we be concerned about which hand we use right or left?

DrVicars: You should use your dominant hand for all of the one handed signs. Are you right or left handed?

Sharp: Yes.

DrVicars: LOL, Which hand you eat with?

Sharp: Sorry, I'm right handed!

DrVicars: Fine then--do your spelling and most signs right-handed. In the signs that have just one hand moving, it will almost always be the dominant hand. Also you might notice that when both hands move in a sign at the same time--the handshapes are almost always the same.

In a message dated 1/7/2004 12:33:33 PM Pacific Standard Time, a student writes:
Hi Bill,

When I sign certain words I use my left hand. I am right handed and all other times I use my right hand. Should I not switch hands?






Hi Amanda,

If you are right handed, then your right hand should be used as your "dominant" hand when signing.  Your left hand is your "non-dominant" hand.

You should use your dominant hand for fingerspelling and also for all "one-handed signs."

You should use your non-dominant (left) hand as "partner hand" for signs in which both hands move, and as a "base" (non-moving) hand for two-handed signs in which only the right hand moves.


If you use your left hand (your non-dominant hand) for signs that are typically signed with the right hand, deaf people will still understand you, but you will have the equivalent of a slight "accent" or a very minor "speech impediment."  :)


So, I recommend you practice signing with your dominant hand and not "switching" back and forth.


Regarding right or left handed signing:  I tell my students to choose a dominant hand and stick with it.

Here are some "rules" for you regarding right/left hand usage:

a.  Signs that use one hand:  For these signs you should use your dominant hand

b.  Signs that use two hands but only one hand moves: Use your dominant hand as the hand that moves.

c. Signs that use two hands and both hands move: Use both hands unless you are holding a drink in one of them.  Heh.

It is interesting to note that for almost all signs if both hands are moving and not in contact with each other then both hands use the same handshape. (Examples:  SIGN, HAPPY, WONDERFUL, FRIENDLY, SUNDAY.)

There are a few signs in which both hands move but have different handshapes.  But  you will notice that the hands tend to touch each other and stay in contact with each other throughout the whole movement:  Examples:  (SHOW, HELP, SURF)

Now, for the sake of discussion, there are times when the non-dominant hand should be used during one-handed signing. Suppose you are right handed and are signing about an event you went to last weekend and you wanted to indicate that someone came up to you on your left and tapped you on your left shoulder.  Even though you are right handed, you should use your left hand in a "classifier 1" handshape to show the approach of the person and the tapping of your shoulder.  This is basic kinesthetics. It is physically uncomfortable to reach across your body with your right hand to show the location of someone standing on your right.

But, back to the point, ambidextrous signing for no particular reason is the equivalent of having an accent. Even though most deaf people are reasonably tolerant regarding ambidextrous signing, I still expect  my students to choose a dominant hand and be consistent in their usage.

In a message dated 2/16/2013 6:18:47 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, a student named Rebecca writes:

I have always been ambidextrous, however, using ASL, I find myself using my right or left hand using one handed signs. I find myself doing it without realizing it. Does there have to be a "dominate" hand at all times?
- Rebecca

Hello :)
I strongly encourage you to pick a dominant hand and "stick with it" to the best of your ability.
-- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 2/16/2013 8:07:26 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, a student named Rebecca writes:

Regarding a dominant hand, I've been finger spelling with my right and signing (gesturing) with my left. I read your responses to your students about using a dominant hand and sticking to it. Honestly, I don't have a dominant hand. I write with both hands and eat with both hands. In a nutshell, does that mean that I cannot just fingerspell with my right and sign with my left?
- Rebecca

You could very well go through life just fine spelling with your right and signing with your left. Deaf people will understand your signing just fine. There will be a small bit of dissonance at the back of their mind regarding your variable "handedness." Sort of like a very small mental itch.
Think of it this way. If someone from another country comes to America and his/her voice alternates between speaking in higher tones and lower tones you will still be able to understand him/her. His/her words will be perfectly understandable yet in the back of your mind you will think that the foreigner's speech seems a bit odd.
It isn't that there is anything wrong with any individual word; it is just that the switching between tones in the delivery of the words seems strange.
In ASL we sometimes switch to our non-dominant hand as a way of signaling that we are comparing two items. We also sometimes alternate hands when telling complex stories involving role shifting of characters.
Thus if you spell with one hand and sign dominant with the other there will be a part of our brains that will subconsciously start expecting or looking for some sort of comparison, role shift, or other "reason" for the switch.
Another reason for sticking with a dominant hand is that as a matter of efficiency the brain and perceptual faculties of the viewer (of your signing) are used to anticipating or predicting hand placements and locations of typical signs. Disrupting those typical placements and locations requires the viewer's brain to work a tiny bit harder to process, categorize, and make sense of what you are signing.
So, I encourage you to decide on a dominant hand and use it for both the majority of your fingerspelling and your signing.
But hey, if you decide it is just too much of a challenge to stick to one dominant hand then so be it. There are lots of immigrants who come to America with an accent who live, love, and work here their whole lives quite successfully.
-- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 6/15/2005 9:35:16 PM Pacific Daylight Time, CurlyJM writes:
 Is a fingerspelled J is made so that it looks like a printed J to the viewer while the Z is made to look like a Z to the person making the sign( backwards to the viewer?
Response from Bill:  Both the J and the Z look like the printed letter to the right-handed signer.
The way you describe the J above is backwards.  The J starts up, moves down and curves left (if you are right handed).  Left handed people start the J up move down and curve to the right.

Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

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