Fingerspelling in American Sign Language: How and when to use it

As you are learning sign language, you need to master the skill of American Sign Language fingerspelling (spelling out words by hand one letter at a time).

In American Sign Language, fingerspelling is used to indicate places, names, or ideas for which there is no official sign. Fingerspelled words can also be used if you do not know the sign for something (however, I wouldn’t recommend this–you will learn more by asking for the sign or using the words you do know to explain it).

The manual alphabet is the foundation of spelling with your hands. Visit my ASL Alphabet page for videos of the manual alphabet, or our American Sign Language Alphabet page for images of the manual alphabet. You can also find links to practices on our ASL Courses page. Practice makes perfect!

Here are some tips to help you get started:

fingerspelling

  • Hold your dominant hand in a comfortable position upright and in front of your shoulder with your palm facing forward at a slight angle.
  • Maintain a smooth rhythm as you spell the words. Aim for articulation, not speed. Speed will come naturally. Right now, you just want to make sure you form the letters correctly so people will understand you. Try not to bounce your hand as you spell, or you will make someone very dizzy! Also allow a slight pause between words.
  • Mouth each word as you fingerspell it–not each letter.
  • For words with double letters, open your hand slightly between the letters. For open letters such as B and L, move your hand slightly to the right with a very slight bounce for the second letter.
  • To distinguish abbreviations, capitalize each letter by moving your hand in a small clockwise circle as you sign each letter.

You can practice reading fingerspelling by using Dr. Bill Vicars’ Fingerspelling Tool.

Being able to sign and understand fingerspelling is very important when you are new to sign language and haven’t learned a lot of signs. You will find that the more fluent you become in ASL, the less you will be relying on American Sign Language fingerspelling.

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