What is fingerspelling?

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Published On: 18 Aug 2022Categories: Articles, Deaf Awareness

Learning to fingerspell is vital for anyone starting to learn SASL. Practice in front of a mirror so you can see what it looks like; it helps when watching someone else fingerspell.

 Do you know what fingerspelling is?

By making use of your fingers, individual letters and numbers are being represented, this is called fingerspelling.

Fingerspelling has often been used in deaf education and has later become part of a number of sign languages.

There are about forty manual alphabets around the world.

Often, signers will use fingerspelling for the names of people (e.g., D-A-N-I-E-L, S-H-A-R-O-N) or places (e.g., F-R-A-N-S-C-H-O-E-K, K-L-A-P-M-U-T-S). They will fingerspell English words for meanings that do not have a SASL sign, such as medical terminology (e.g., L-I-P-O-S-U-C-T-I-O-N, A-N-T-I-B-O-D-Y). This does not mean that it is not possible to express these ideas in SASL, but simply that there is no widely accepted sign.

Fingerspelling in sign languages

The speed and clarity of fingerspelling vary among different signing communities. In Italian Sign Language, fingerspelled words are shown relatively slowly and clearly, whereas fingerspelling in standard British Sign Language (BSL) is often very fast so that the individual letters become difficult to distinguish and the word is understood from the overall hand movement. Most of the letters of the BSL alphabet are produced with two hands but when one hand is busy, the dominant hand may fingerspell and the word can be recognised by the movement.

As with written words, the first and last letters and the length of the word are the most important factors for recognition.

When people fluent in sign language, read fingerspelling, they do not usually look at the signer’s hand(s) but maintain eye contact, as is normal for sign language. People who are learning fingerspelling often find it impossible to understand it using just their peripheral vision and must look straight at the hand of someone who is fingerspelling. Often, they must also ask the signer to fingerspell slowly. It frequently takes years of expressive and receptive practice to become skilled with fingerspelling.

This is interesting! Key Findings on the Importance of Fingerspelling for Reading:

  • Deaf families fingerspell to their deaf children when they are very young.
  • Early exposure to fingerspelling helps these children become better readers.
  • Fingerspelling, reading, and writing are interrelated.
  • Fingerspelling facilitates English vocabulary growth, and larger the lexicon, the faster new vocabulary is learned.
  • Fingerspelling positively correlates with stronger reading skills. Deaf and hard of hearing children who are good fingerspellers are good readers, and vice versa.

Adapted from: https://www.vl2family.org/s/research-brief-1-the-importance-of-fingerspelling-for-reading.pdf


There are a few “rules” for fingerspelling:

When do we fingerspell?

  • People’s names
  • Names of places
  • Titles of People, Places or Things (books, movies, restaurants, stores)
  • Brands and Products)
  • When we don’t know a sign
  • For emphasis

Expressive Rules:

  • Keep your hand just below your chin and over to your shoulder
  • Keep your elbow down and close to your body, with your arm relaxed
  • Do not move your hand horizontally
  • Do not look at your hand while fingerspelling

Receptive Rules:

  • Use your DOMINANT hand while fingerspelling, if you write with both hands, pick a hand to sign with and stick to it.
  • Focus on the shape of the letters being formed and the word that it’s making. Try to not focus on the individual letters that you see.
  • Focus on the signers face while still watching the signers hand

Have a look at our A-Z Fingerspelling video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rsko-G0hvF4&t=6s