Signing numbers, especially large ones, can be tough in American Sign Language. While numbers one through five are a no brainer to represent with our hand, even for hearing folks, things get a little unusual at six through ten, and then even moreso around 11 and beyond. No worries, though! This guide will teach you some basic etiquette regarding sign language numbers, how to actually sign numbers all the way up to 100, and link off to some useful charts and other resources to help you in your sign language studies.
For more, check out part 1 of this introductory American Sign Language course. This primer guide to learning sign language can also help you get started.
Sign Language Numbers: Etiquette and Tips
With every language comes a new set of etiquette, best practices, and regional tips that make communication that much smoother and more efficient. Sign language is no exception.
For numbers 1-5, it’s best practice to sign them with your palm facing you, and the back of your hand facing the people you’re signing to. It’s acceptable to sign numbers with your palm facing forward if you’re trying to emphasize the number to someone, or if you’re signing out a series of numbers.
Then there’s the case where some letters share similar or identical signs to letters. You can differentiate by mixing in some subtle motion (like tapping fingers together to indicate the number) while signing for the number, to clarify that you don’t mean the letter variant of the sign.
Another potential for confusion is how to sign numbers based on context, like dates. If you want to sign 1820, as in the year 1820, you might be tempted to sign for 1-8-2-0. Instead, you’d sign 18 and then 20 separately, since that’s how people normally read date formats. The safest bet is to sign it the way you read it.
Context is very important when it comes to communication, and can fill in a lot of blanks when you’re having trouble or have made a mistake. If you’re committed to learning sign language, it might also be helpful to pick up a course on body language training. There are tons of ways the human body – from facial expression to posture – can aid communication non-verbally, even outside of sign language.
Sign Language Numbers 1-10
The most basic foundation of learning is memorization. Of course, on top of that comes a deeper, natural understanding of the material, but if you can’t remember all the concepts and little details involved, really absorbing that knowledge becomes a much huger challenge. For help, you can check out this course on developing a magnetic memory; a valuable skill when learning a new language. If you think you’re ready for those numbers, then let’s get started!
- 1 – Index finger up.
- 2 – Index and middle up.
- 3 – Index and middle up, thumb out.
- 4 – All fingers except the thumb pointed up.
- 5 – All fingers spread out.
From here, face your palm forward, if it wasn’t already.
- 6 – Index, middle, and ring fingers up, pinky and thumb folded in and touching.
- 7 – Pinky, middle, and index finger up, with thumb and ring folded in and touching.
- 8 – Pinky, ring, and index fingers up, middle and thumb folded in and touching.
- 9 – Pinky, ring, and middle fingers up, index and thumb folded in and touching.
- 10 – All fingers folded, thumb sticking out (as in a thumb’s up sign), wag fist back and forth.
Sign Language Numbers: 11-100
Here’s where things get tricky. Remember, palm back for 11-15.
- 11 – Flick your index finger up and back in twice.
- 12 – Flick your index and middle fingers up and back in twice.
- 13 – Same as above, but with your thumb out as well.
- 14 – Thumb tucked in, four fingers out, together, and flat, fold in and out twice.
- 15 – Same as above, with the thumb pointing out.
16-19 are also palm back, but with a twisting motion.
- 16 – Sign for six, but twist your wrist side to side.
- 17 – Sign for seven, but twist your wrist side to side.
- 18 – Sign for eight, but twist your wrist side to side.
- 19 – Sign for nine, but twist your wrist side to side.
- 20 – Palm facing forward, make a fist with only your index fingers and thumb unfolded, and pointing outward, and tap then together twice.
For more numbers, you can consult LifePrint.com’s huge list of visual sign language number charts here. The specific signs and motions start to get more complex beyond 20, but 1-20 is a good place to start learning some of the signing conventions that will carry on to the larger numbers. Feel like moving on from numbers for a bit? Check out this guide for some basic sign language phrases.
You can also consult this handy language guide for tips on how to teach yourself a foreign language.