Communication Access Communication Practices Hard of Hearing Lipreading

Gestures & Sign Language

Through teaching our lipreading classes, we found that gestures snap in missing words fast and sign language can cue our needs. We have one lesson in Lipreading Concepts that devotes a lot of time to gestures because not all words are visible on the lips. Some words look exactly the same on the lips like “maybe” and “baby”. Luckily gestures can be used for both. The gesture you’re most likely to pick for “baby” is the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for baby. While there are some signs that look like gestures, visual languages have their own structure and grammar. There are a few basic ASL signs anyone can learn to aid communication with each other and the Deaf community. This month, we talk about using gestures and sign language to aid communication. 

*Note: We do not teach sign language classes. We can share possible resources if you’d like to learn more about sign language.

Spoken communication is messy for someone with hearing loss, especially with a sensorineural hearing loss. Hearing aids help but they don’t fix the hearing loss depending on severity of the loss. Any sort of visual communication helps those with hearing loss. 

Using Sign Language

Julia: When someone says they are losing their hearing, a common response is “Oh just learn sign language” Why?

  • Trying to be helpful (yes)
  • They know sign language (probably not)
  • Because they think it’s learning gestures (some)

Sign language is exactly that, a language. It’s learning a foreign language. ASL is based on French sign language so the sentence structure is different from English. Learn it if you want, I encourage that. Knowledge is power. Prepare to devote a lot of time and effort to learning the language. BUT…unless your friends and family want to learn it with you, it may not be your mode of communication. 

Sign Language Can Be Handy

Chelle: While I worked at the state’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing agency, I picked up a fair amount of sign language because the majority of the staff used ASL. The Hard of Hearing program taught Pidgin Signed English (PSE) while learning ASL sign in English order. It was easier for me to wrap my brain around it all. Languages have to be used frequently to stay fluent.  I didn’t become fluent, but I could get by. The only people in my life who used sign language was at work. At home with family, it’s the hearing culture. My friends for the longest time were mostly hearing.  I do have a few Hard of Hearing (HoH) friends who use sign as we talk (called SimCom; simultaneous communication) and I find myself using it with them. At the SayWhatClub Convention in Vancouver, there were a handful of people who used sign language as they talked and I found myself falling in with them. It’s handy at times.

Most of my life is in the hearing world. While running errands, I’m in the hearing world. The majority of the HoH people I know use spoken language. I know many HoH people who have tried learning sign language. Like me, they didn’t have anyone in their personal lives who would learn it with them to use daily. The students in our classes would learn several useful signs and that’s about it. Those are the signs we’ll share at our upcoming Let’s Talk Tuesday on August 1, 2023 at 6:00 PM mountain time. (If you have registered in the past for our monthly Talk, you’ll get the link. If you haven’t registered before, go here.)


Julia: Gestures, facial expressions and body language are needed with sign language, but you don’t have to know sign language to use this visual mode of communication. Here are some signs and gestures with body language come across: 

A man with blond hair and a mustache in a red and black paneled shirt gestures with arms down, palms up and furrowed eyebrows look conveying "what".
Chelle’s husband gestures, “What?”
  • “What” usually comes across with furrowed eyebrows and a questioning look.
  • “Where” as a gesture, finger pointing and again questioning furrowed eyebrows.
  • “Food” pointing to your mouth and your facial expression can express the depth of hunger. The hangry look.  
  • “Hearing loss” can be gestured. Point to your ears and shake your head.
  • “No” is a facial expression, furrowed eyebrows again and shaking the head side to side.
  • “Yes” is another facial expression with eyebrows up and nodding the head up and down.

Chelle: My husband doesn’t want to learn sign language but he’s very good with his gestures.  Without knowing a single sign, he once told a story about capturing a swarm of bees using gestures for me and 2 friends who use SimCom to aid verbal communication. They understood the whole story and we all had a good laugh over his creative use of gestures. (We use his bee swarm story with gestures in our Lipreading Concepts class. It demonstrates how to incorporate gestures into conversation simply and effectively.)  When I’m stuck on a word, he’ll often try to find a gesture. It’s a great tool for communication. 

Blond haired man with a mustache has his arms raised above his head and fingers tips down conveying a "rain" gestures.
We just had a rain shower pass through.

Gestures are Encouraged in Toastmasters

A white haired man in a white long sleeved shirt with gray pants holding a microphone with one hand. The other hand is raised with a fist. There are several people in the audience foreground. There is also captions too that say, "That's the key to a successful club is people come because they enjoy participating in the meeting."
Harry Wolfe, founder of Audible Talkers Toastmasters, accessible to people with hearing loss with captioning.

While I was involved with the Audible Talkers Toastmasters group, gestures were encouraged. Gestures enrich the speech (storytelling) which my husband used and neither friend has forgotten that story because of it. A well-timed gesture adds depth to any speech illustrating a concept and capturing attention. It engages the audience. After being around so many HoH people for many years, this part of speaking in Toastmasters came naturally to me. 

A woman with brown hair in a long black shirt with some silver threading holds her arms stomach level like she's holding a baby.
Chelle’s speech on “Time” for Toastmasters.
A brown haired lady in glasses wearing a yellow blouse is holding a microphone in one hand and a card in another hand. Her facial expression conveys "pleading" look.
Toastmaster’s member using facial expressions for her speech.

Gestures also move across some cultures and languages. You can use a lot of the gestures Julia pointed out above along with a few others…

  • A thumb up, or thumb down
  • Smiling
  • Waving your hand
  • Pointing
  • Clapping
  • Shaking hands

*Note: Not all gestures are the same in all cultures. Do your research to make sure gestures fit where you are going. Example: Use internet search terms “gestures in India.” 

We “Hear” Better with Visual Aids

People with hearing loss use visual tools all the time. We check facial expressions to make sure we are hearing right. If the facial expression doesn’t match, it’s time to back up and ask questions. We use body language in the same way. The more gestures a person uses, the more we’ll understand their message. 

When people have flat expressions and don’t add body language or gestures of any sort, the harder it is to ‘read’ the conversation. It is the same with people who use sign language/ASL. The more expressive they are, the easier it was for me (Chelle) to understand them. The flatter their expressions, the harder it was to understand them. HoH people depend on facial expressions both ways. 

Express Yourself!

Blond hair haired man with red and black paneled shirt giving a thumbs up.
Thumbs up to using gestures!

The more expressive people are with their facial expressions, body language and gestures, the better we ‘hear’ them. Use those gestures, let us read your body language. To get started, try games like Guesstures or Charades. Search the internet using the terms “how to use gestures in communication.” There are lots of websites and videos. Encourage your family and friends to start using gestures by using them yourself as you talk.  Keep your sense of humor and you will laugh. Some people are so creative.

Learn more with Hearing Loss LIVE!

Watch the companion podcast to Gestures & Sign Language on YouTube, or find it on your favorite podcast streaming platform. Get a transcript on our BuzzSprout site.

We have a video presentation and workbook package available on Gestures and Sign Language, get it HERE.

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