One of the most common mistakes of new American Sign Language students is the practice of using the manual alphabet any time they do not know the sign for a word. This is not a good idea! Fingerspelling is exhausting to watch. Even more important is that it is one of the most difficult skills to learn and smooth and readable fingerspelling doesn’t usually emerge until well into the learning of the language. The key, if you do not know a specific sign, is to try to describe it, use a different word, gesture, point, mime, write…anything but fingerspell. Fingerspelling should be used as a last resort as well as for proper nouns, and concepts that do not have a particular sign. The exception to this rule is some rare places that still use the Rochester method of communication. This is the practice of fingerspelling every word (except AND). This is not a widely popular or liked way of communicating though.
RULES FOR THE ROAD
- Use the hand you write with. That is your dominant hand. The only time you would use the other hand is for emphasis when you are much more advanced. If you are ambidextrous, pick which hand you will use to fingerspell and consistently use that hand. Do not go back and forth.
- For practice, hold your right wrist with your non-dominant hand to make sure that your palm is facing out.
- Do NOT bounce your hand/arm. Holding it (#2) should help you.
- Palm should ALWAYS face out towards the receiver except for the letters “H” and “G.” With these letters, the palm faces the signer.
- Speed is not important. Do NOT make it a goal to fingerspell fast. Work on being smooth and on making the letters of the word you are spelling flow together without being choppy. Speed will just naturally develop much later.
- Do NOT say the letters you are fingerspelling as you spell – whether it is to yourself or to the receiver. This is a TERRIBLE habit that is very hard to break. When you fingerspell, especially when you’re new and not fluid, it may be necessary that the deaf person watch both your hands AND read your lips. Deaf people cannot lipread letters. Say the word as you sign it. Also, saying it to yourself creates a mind-set of each letter individually, instead a word as a whole.
- Fingerspelling is NOT a substitute for a vocabulary word you don’t know. Always use fingerspelling as a last resort. Mime, gestures, using other words, and writing are all better alternatives that fingerspelling everything you don’t know.
When reading someone’s fingerspelling, try to see the whole word instead of looking for letters. When we read print we don’t look at each letter. The same thing applies here.
Below is a chart from online to help you learn the handshapes for fingerspelling. It's not the best chart I've ever seen, that's for sure. Contrary to the picture, all letters are signed palm OUT except “G” and “H,” which are palm IN. Practice everyday and be sure to check out this site to practice your receptive skills!