For many people, their first introduction to and learning about ASL is the fingerspelling alphabet.
Fingerspelling (FS) really needs to be mastered well, in both practical use and as a receptive skill. Fingerspelling is used a lot in ASL, we use it for:
- Place names
- Proper nouns
- Words we don’t know the sign for
- For emphasis
- Words that are just easy to fingerspell (Car, Kiwi, etc)
- Lexicalized Signs (Job, busy, back)
Let’s say someone is describing a trip to a city:
I GO BOSTON, B-O-S-T-O-N, ONE WEEK STAY. I VISIT H-A-R-R-Y, (shows sign name), HE WORK WHAT? B-O-T-A-N-I-S-T, PLANT STUDY. WE RIDE C-A-R SHOW-ME AROUND BOSTON.
Here’s a little fingerspelling etiquette to know:
- Stick with your dominant hand while FS, don’t switch hands in the middle of spelling something. For instance, if you’re right handed, stick with that hand for all FS.
- Unlearn the hand placement you learned off of ABC placards, books, posters and such. These pictures are taken for best viewing – many letters are shown “sideways” to see them better, but in actual signing they almost all stay palm out.
- Palm is facing outwards for all letters except for “G” & “H”.
- If it feels uncomfortable to make that letter – you’re probably doing it wrong. For example, trying to twist your wrist around to make a “G” palm outwards.
- For double letters:
- Slide – O, A, S, L, M, E, R
- Slight bounce – B, C, D, F, G, I, N, P, R, T
Fingerspelling Do’s and Don’ts:
- Don’t bounce or “punch” your letters while spelling
- Keep your hand about shoulder height, next to the face and in one spot
- If you make a mistake, just pause and start again. Don’t “erase” the air
- For more than one word you can either have a short pause between words, or a slight move to spell the next word
How to get better at FS? Here are some ways:
- Don’t worry about catching EVERY letter in a word – catch the first letter, any double letters or “special” differences in the middle, and the last letter and the context of the sentence. For example, “My friend name J-N-N-F-R” – it’s pretty safe to assume its Jennifer.
- After a while you will start recognizing shapes of words instead of the FS. This is how babies and young children understand FS without knowing their A-B-Cs. They learn that the hand movements that make N-O-S-E means nose.
- FS daily – what you’re reading, watching, doing
- Practice with a friend – take turns FS words
- Watch YouTube videos – enter “fingerspelling” in the Search box
- Download a FS App such as ASL Fingerspell – All FS, no signed words
But, overall, relax about fingerspelling, with practice and exposure it will become as natural as signing.