There are several ways of asking what a signed word means for beginners. The most simple and common use is the question "what is the sign for [something]".
If something is present in the immediate environment, you can point to an object and sign IX[item] SIGN WHAT?
Whenever an ASL student asks me for a sign for an English word, sometimes in an English-grammar sentence. A very common sentence is HEY, WHAT SIGN (mouthing an English word "for") (fingerspelling an English word)? This approach is usually the quickest way to ask and learn an ASL word. My response depends on the contexts and situations.
Scenario: A student raises her/his hand and asked, WHAT SIGN (mouthing "for") (fingerspelling an English word)? Typically I'd ask them to rephrase it in ASL translated as "Recently you signed a sentence which is English. Try again in ASL."
Sometimes, the student would redo WHAT SIGN (mentally 'for') [fingerspelled word]?
Again, I duplicated the student's sentence with an additional note, pointing to the mind and mouthing "for". Yeah, I can read your mind. The student giggled. Don't think "for" in that sentence. But, the word order is still English. Try OSV, I reminded.
(fingerspelling an English word) IX SIGN WHAT? Or, [fingerspelling] IX WHAT SIGN?
That's better, I encouraged. When a student doesn't get it, I'd give them a demonstration: (fingerspelling an English word) IX SIGN WHAT? And ask the student to copy or repeat it.
If it's a straightforward meaning such as "cat", "silver", etc., I'd show the signed word. But, often I'd remind them for a contextual sentence when they ask for a sign for such multiple-meaning words as, "after", "run", and "finish". I typically reply, DEPEND-ON SENTENCE WHAT to encourage the students to elaborate it or give a sentence in context. This implicitly reminds the students that a meaning of the same word may change in sentences or translation between English and ASL. I'd ask SENTENCE WHAT?
Asking what the sign is for a word repeatedly can be so dull. Be a bit more creative with the questions for beginners. ASL students are encouraged to ask what the sign for something is without resorting to fingerspelling an English word whenever possible.
One of some simple strategies is using an opposite of the word. Ask what the opposite of a sign is. Use contrastive structure in this sentence.
[SIGNED-WORD in left space] IX2 OPPOSITE IX1 (right space) SIGN WHAT?
Another strategy is using the category. Ask what the sign is for a set of the objects listed.
Watch the videos below and answer yourself. The instructor is signing "[ASL sign] OPPOSITE WHAT?"; then you answer the opposite of an ASL sign provided by the instructor.
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If you're in ASL 102/112 or beyond, are you up for a little more challenge on learning how to negotiate meanings?
New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be useful for intermediate-level learners and ASL students to review as well.
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