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  • Destiny Yarbro

Fingerspelling: The ASL Student's Crutch

Author with a Deaf family in Istanbul, Turkey. This chance meeting in a busy street turned into a beautiful lunch conversation.

I do not teach fingerspelling.

I do not teach fingerspelling.

I do not teach fingerspelling.

But the vast majority of ASL teachers do.


For too long we have assumed that fingerspelling is a vital part of sign language. In fact, some hearing people assume that sign language IS fingerspelling (and gestures are only used when you're not good at fingerspelling or illiterate).


Let's remember that fingerspelling is simply a manual form of English. Yes, English.

Sign language, in it's purest form, would not have fingerspelling.

Names would be sign names.

New concepts would be acted out, then given signs.

Hearing teachers created fingerspelling to teach Deaf the English language.

Again, it is simply a manual form of English.

In my travels meeting Deaf around the world, we communicate. But not once do we fingerspell. Meeting with Deaf in Brazil, I do not understand fingerspelled Portuguese and they do not understand fingerspelled English. Meeting with Deaf in Vietnam, I do not understand (at all!) fingerspelled Vietnamese and they do not understand fingerspelled English. Repeat this with Deaf I have met in Turkey, China, and India.

So, how do we communicate?

They act out a concept until I understand it, then I sign it in ASL and they sign it in their sign language. We both learn each other's signs and utilize them for the rest of the conversation. Then I act out a concept until they understand it and the process repeats itself over and over until we have built a sort of "pidgin" language, a mixed compilation of the two languages that achieve our number one goal: communication.

Too many of my sign language students are irreparably scarred by an over-reliance on fingerspelling. (I shouldn't say irreparably, perhaps, but it certainly is a habit that is incredibly difficult for them to break. Most never break this addiction to defaulting to English when they do not know a sign.)

Teachers, this is my call to action: do not teach fingerspelling!

Do not teach fingerspelling!

Do not teach fingerspelling!

At least, do not teach fingerspelling until much, MUCH later in a course.

Our first priority should be to help students gain confidence in acting out concepts that they do not yet know. This has the beautiful benefits of:

  1. Helping a student switch fully over to a visual / gestural language (rather than their brains stuck in written / spoken language).

  2. Helping a student realize they can communicate ANYTHING starting in week one as they act out concepts, even if they do not know many formal signs yet. (Anyone can do charades, any brand new ASL student can start conveying ideas immediately.)

  3. Helping a student recognize that how they act out a concept is often similar to or related to the actual sign. (At least, the actual sign makes more sense when they're already thinking visually.)

I should clarify: my argument is not that students should never learn fingerspelling - this skill, for better or for worse, is vital for communicating in today's American Sign Language - however, students should not learn fingerspelling in their first week or two of class! This norm in ASL courses is detrimental to their visual language acquisition.

Students who learn fingerspelling early on:

  1. Default to fingerspelling when they do not know a sign.

  2. Remain in "English-mode" instead of switching fully into the new language.

  3. See fluency as "knowing every word" in a language rather than being able to communicate fully with the words you do know.

ASL teachers, see my plea! Leave fingerspelling to later in your course. Encourage students to act out ideas with the goal of communication, not perfect grammar, extensive vocabulary, or English-ized signs.

Teach pure, visually-stimulating sign language and leave English out of the equation a little longer.

- Destiny


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