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Left handed sign language for the deaf

We recently had a message from Scott Conlan that encouraged us to do a bit of research. Sign language is used by deaf people as a system of communication using visual gestures and signs and your handedness clearly has an impact on how it is used and understood.

Hi, All!

Has there ever been a study of the percentage of lefties, hearing impaired and/or hearing, who communicate fully or partially in ASL (American Sign Language) and the associated benefits or challenges in signing as a leftie? I am an adult leftie, minimally hearing impaired, and am trying to learn signing. Any insights?

The British Sign Language (BSL) website has a section on left-handed signing and they say:

“Left handed people who have just started to learn Sign Language often get a little bit confused about which hand they should be using as their dominant hand. The answer is that you should use which ever hand you feel most comfortable using, but you must remember to always use the same hand as your dominant hand… by swapping hands you can cause much confusion with those trying to read you.”

Their online dictionary of signs has a selection button at the top so you can choose to display any of them in left or right-handed versions and they have a left-handed finger spelling chart. Left handed sign for coffee

Finger spelling left handed

We found this site about learning American Sign Language (ASL) which breaks down the different types of sign and how the dominant hand is used:

  • One-handed signs

    Uses only your dominant hand.

  • Two-handed symmetrical signs

    Uses both your dominant and non-dominant hand where they both move the same way

  • Two-handed non-symmetrical signs

    Uses both your dominant and non-dominant hand where the dominant hand moves while the non-dominant hand remains stationary.

ASL is very different from BSL for historical reasons. There are records of a sign language for the deaf in Britain going back to 1570 and it has evolved from these origins by modification, invention and importation. ASL developed out of a system brought to the U.S. in the 19th century by a French teacher of the deaf. The signs used in the French system, mixed with signs that had been invented in America, combined to make ASL. There are some similarities (about 30% of the signs are the same), just like spoken languages have similarities, but they are not mutually intelligible.

We would be very interested in your experiences and comments regarding left-handed sign language so please add your views as comments below.

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18 comments on “Left handed sign language for the deaf
  1. Christine Smith says:

    I am left handed and I am in college studying American Sign Language as an interpreter, according to the way the brain is set the left hand which hand should I use to sign with to make me a better signer?

  2. Kenneth says:

    Many Deaf people who are left handed are easily recognized as left handers through sign language.

    I say this because I’m Deaf and this thought is easily recognized by seeing the dominant signing hand is the left one.

    In reading the previous posts on this subject, may I presume this is true for one handed sign language such as ASL (which I use). Does BSL or AUSLAN (or other two-handed sign language) have dominant hand which makes the user obvious to be a left hand or right hand signer?

    Hearing people can’t be recognized as being left handed by speaking, but Deaf people who are left handed can be easily recognized as I just explained above.

  3. Amanda says:

    Myself is profoundly deaf and use BSL Sign language I use left-handed to signer cos i have 2 only left-handed in my family me and my aunty only and all of rest are right-handed I alway talk to deaf people on my left-handed they can understand me no plms

  4. Fran says:

    As you said in the article, there isn’t a lot of overlap between BSL & ASL. To use a line I’ve heard all my life “British & Americans. Two peoples separated by a common language.”

  5. Lisa says:

    I took sign language classes. I sign left-handed. My professor for sign language 1 was right-handed and it was easier to learn – like looking in a mirror. My professor for sign language 2 was left-handed and it was very confusing to me.

  6. Claire says:

    As a deaf person since birth and left handed, I use BSL (British Sign Language) with deaf friends, I was not taught BSL formally as I learned sign language from my deaf peers since primary school, it was something that happened naturally and found myself using my left hand for spelling and use both hands for communication. None of my deaf friends have any problems understanding sign language used by a left handed or right handed. And I have discovered that I could be ambidextrous if I wanted to if my left hand was occupied with a task. I also learned ASL and International Sign Language – these two languages uses a single handed spelling alphabet and found that I could use either left or right hand to spell out something quite happily. Within the deaf community, there is no issue in understanding signs by either hand, just the clarity of the message.

  7. adrienne says:

    I am an Auslan ( australian sign language) interpreter.i am a leftie. I have had no problems being under stood or understanding others. I sign to my grandson who is 2. He automatically uses his dominant right hand to sign.

  8. David Hill says:

    First some background on me: I’m male, an American, and a “liberal” left-hander, meaning that while I’m left-handed, I do many things right-handed.

    Even though I’m hearing, I am moderately fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). I’ve never had any formal training in ASL but have picked it up from a few people in my life.

    A few years ago I met a deaf man at work and we would sometimes converse. Luckily for me, he had an interpreter who could help me out with a sign here and there, or a spoken word to fill in what I had missed. My deaf colleague once commented on the fact that I sometimes sign right-handed and sometimes left-handed. I’d never thought of it before and was just signing however felt comfortable for me. He said it could be distracting for deaf people because the right hand usually makes the main motion (if any) and the left hand acts more in a supporting role. I just shrugged and told him that I’m “ambi-confused!”

    • Lisa says:

      That information may be incorrect. I had a deaf professor (ASL I) that was right-handed. It was easier for me to learn as it made it like looking into a mirror. My ASL II professor was left-handed and signed left-handed. Of course, this made it a tad bit more difficult but I could understand his signing as easily as my right-handed professor. Incidentally, they are married to each other. Deaf people sign right- or left-handed.

      I think what was meant was that switching back and forth between dominant hands during a conversation. In that case it may make it easier to be understood but I don’t think that for deaf people it is that big of a deal.

  9. Jacqui says:

    I just wanted to comment on ASL part of the newsletter. I was a nanny for my niece from the time she was 3 months old till she turned one. During our time together I would teach her “baby sign” one word everyday. I’m a south paw (obviously), and my niece is dominate right so far (she is three now). When I was teaching her the signs for various things like: yogurt, thank you, please, etc. it was natural for her to use her right hand, though I obviously was showing her “left handed” sign. There was no confusion or complications due to our different handedness. It’s best to do whatever feels comfortable for you. I’m not sure there is any difference between a left signer and a right signer.

  10. Cathy says:

    I work in a school for the deaf in the US. When I learned sign language originally, my first teacher was left-handed. She signed leftie and told everyone that we should sign with whichever hand is most comfortable. In our class, everyone learned to read sign whichever hand the person used. Subsequent classes taught by righties seemed to have a difficult time reading my sign. I find that deaf and hard of hearing people have no difficulty reading either way. The only time I sign right handed is if I’m doing something with my left hand, in which case it’s difficult to do two things at once, anyway. I’ve never had a problem. For signs that require two hands, I use the left as dominant. I can sign the ASL alphabet or numbers with either hand (or both at the same time.)

  11. Marilyn Hunter says:

    Hello,
    I am a left handed since birth and being Deaf since birth as well. I have always used my left hand when I am signing ASL. Many people say that it am clear and easy to read. Sometimes the interpreters will stop me for a sec ansd ask me to repeat as they suddenly realized that I am left handed. Once they can follow me then they are fine! That is the only thing I find with ASL/English interpreters. It is interesting on how interpreters respond to Left Hander’s signers!

    Marilyn … Lefty Canadian

  12. Kaitlin says:

    I’m an American Sign Language Interpreting major and am also left-handed. Before I came to college, I was trying to practice some signs and was doing exactly what the textbook said (which was the right-handed way). I was really struggling remembering and was very uncomfortable. However, when I got to college, my professor told me I could use my left hand and now I’m doing much better.

    The one difficulty I have is when there are two-handed nonsymmetrical signs. Professors constantly show me the right-handed way and I have to stop and almost literally switch my brain to a right-handed mindset, then switch it back and translate it to a left-handed mind. Luckily I have had a few teacher’s aides that are either left-handed as well or are fluent using either hand as their dominant hand.

    Overall, I feel very proud to be the only left-handed signer in my class. It makes me unique 🙂 – Kaitlin, South Dakota

  13. Julie says:

    I am a lefty who took ASL (American Sign Language), and I chose to use my right hand as my dominant signing hand, particularly because I found it easier to learn since the majority of my teachers were righties. I also found it easier in class when I could write with my left hand and practice signing with my right. I did have a Deaf instructor who was also a lefty and it was difficult to translate what he was saying since I was so used to seeing righties sign. The transition to using my right hand came surprisingly natural, and now if I try to sign using my left hand, it feel awkward.

  14. Bill says:

    Well, it’s obvious that I’m a leftie. I learned ASL (American Sign Language) and I decided to learn it right handed. That was a mistake as I’m totally left handed. It was in a very short while when I found that I was continually switching back and forth from right to left. It became confusing to everyone even my instructor. I decided to sign left handed after that.

    I found that the deaf people could read my signs with no problem whatsoever. I volunteered at a training centre for deaf adults for several years. My left handed signing was easily read by all. I was never told, “Hey, your signing left handed”. I even went with them to new job sites to communicate the instructions needed to understand the requirements of the job at hand,

    How come I learned to sign? It was a free course offered to the employees of the city I worked for. I did find that I could use my signing ability with no one unless I volunteered at a Deaf Centre.

    Bill …Canada

  15. Mike says:

    I asked this very question to the artist of that deaf guy a few months ago. Here is what he said: Your dominant hand is your dominant hand wether you are left or right handed. If you are left handed then that is your dominant hand so all your signs will be led by your left hand not your right. Dont let people tell you that it will confuse the “reader”.
    I know many many many left handed signers.

  16. Joyce Carter says:

    Hi! I am left handed and have learned British Sign Language. I automatically sign as a mirror-image of a right-handed person and that is fine – my teachers had no problem with me signing that way.

    However, when I learnt to write as a child, I automatically wrote as a mirror image of a right-handed person, but was made to change so that I write from left to right rather than right to left.

  17. Jennifer says:

    While I am not deaf or hearing impaired, I have taken ASL for over 3 years. One of my teachers was even deaf. I am a lefty, and I use my left hand as my dominant hand when signing. I go to silent dinners locally and have found that it does not confuse deaf people when using the opposite hand. The hardest thing is learning, as it is always opposite of what the visual pictures show for the signs. I hope that helps!

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