Fingerspelling: How to Use It and How It Differs From American Sign Language

What’s the Difference?

Fingerspelling is an alternative method for the deaf to communicate besides sign language. As the name suggests, it involves spelling out the letters of the alphabet. The manual alphabets are known as finger alphabets or hand alphabets. Fingerspelling is also used to indicate numbers.

Different sign languages use different manual alphabets, and their fingerspelling methods are accordingly different. So you have distinct differences in manual alphabets and hand signs for sign languages in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Devanagari and so on. As you consider fingerspelling, remember that, in general:

  • The person doing the fingerspelling holds up one hand or both hands with the palms facing the person he/she is addressing. American Manual Alphabet and the International Manual Alphabet use one-handed signals, while the manual alphabets in the Turkish Sign Language require use of both hands.
  • Using one hand or two hands, the fingerspeller may trace the alphabet letters in the air or make certain established hand signs to denote each individual letter.
  • The person signing may or may not make mouth movements, voicing the word being spelled, to accompany the hand signals.
  • In some sign languages, like in the Italian Sign language, the finger spelling is slow and precise, while in others, such as British Sign Language, it can be rather rapid fire.

Apart from its use by deaf communities, fingerspelling has also been used to create ciphers and signals.

Beginners can find fingerspelling confusing and hard to understand, especially when reading what another person is fingerspelling. Learning how to fingerspell fluently takes time and continual practice.

American Fingerspelling

The American Manual Alphabet is the manual alphabet used in American Sign Language (ASL). The ASL is dominant in the USA, Canada, Austria, Germany, Norway and Finland.

The American Manual Alphabet contains 26 alphabet letters and 26 hand positions to denote each unique letter. In order to fingerspell the alphabet, you need to become well acquainted with these different hand positions. Take a look at the American Manual Alphabet chart to get started.

Once you know all the alphabets well, you can sign any word you want and be clearly understood by other fingerspellers. With regular practice, you will also be able to understand what they are signing at you.

Common Etiquette

  • Face the person you are addressing and bring your palm up turned toward them. The exception in the facing-palm rule is with the letters G and H. These can be signed with a sideways inclined palm.
  • Hold your fingerspelling hand in a comfortable position at shoulder height.
  • Keep your hand at a level that does not cover your lip movements.
  • With your lips, silently phrase the word you are fingerspelling. Remember to mouth the word, not the individual letters.
  • Move your hand up and down only to denote repetition of the same letter; this is also shown by a sideways gesture or by opening the hand a little more.
  • Fingerspell at a clear and consistent pace. Signing fast and then slow or vice versa can confuse the reader.
  • Make noticeable pauses between individual words.
  • Denote acronyms by moving each letter in a circular way. This informs the reader that the letters are not one word.