If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in learning sign language. Maybe you have a Deaf family member or saw a sign language interpreter at a performance; no matter the reason, you’ve come to the right place to start your journey. You might be wondering how difficult it is to learn American Sign Language and how to begin. A great place to start when learning any language is with letters and numbers, right? As a baby, you probably learned the 26 letters in the English alphabet and numbers 1-10 first, followed closely by colors and animals. With that in mind, let’s begin with the letters. The ASL alphabet, like the English alphabet, includes 26 unique, manual handshapes.
Now is as good a time as any to make a few important points. ASL is not English or a visual code for English. ASL and English have different phonology and grammar. Further, ASL is not a universal language. Each country has their own sign language, developed by indigenous Deaf people. So keep in mind, even when visiting other English-speaking countries, such as Ireland or Australia, they do not use ASL. Their manual sign language letters will be different from the ASL alphabet. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Once you become fluent in ASL and plan to travel abroad, we can talk more about what to do when you encounter Deaf locals.
Learning letters in American Sign Language is a foundational step in learning this visual language. Using the letters in the ASL alphabet is called fingerspelling. Fingerspelling is often used for proper nouns (e.g., peoples’ names, movie titles, places, book titles) and specific kinds in a group (e.g., wheat, rye, etc. – the various types of bread). Forming the letters on your hands is similar to handwriting because it is unique to you, but has standards that everyone who knows the language has agreed upon and can understand. Just as with handwriting, it is vital to be clear in your fingerspelling if you want to be understood.
Finding the American Sign Language alphabet online is simple using a quick Google search. There are some slight variations (especially with the letters f and n, so be sure to use a reputable version, if you can identify one, like the chart here by a i media:
The average person with no knowledge of ASL should start with the letters. If you’re a beginner, here are some tips to help you succeed with fingerspelling:
- All letters are produced one-handed, using your dominant hand.
- Hold your dominant hand steady at about shoulder height, in front of the chest. Relax your arm and keep your elbow down, close to your side.
- Never fingerspell in front of your face. Your listener should be able to see both your face and your hand.
- Avoid bouncing when fingerspelling. The letters should flow continuously, rather than appear letter by letter.
- When fingerspelling, your dominant hand moves away from the body.
- Use the correct handshape, not approximations or variations. For example, the letter below is i. The first illustration is the correct handshape for the letter i. Notice the second illustration is an incorrect handshape due to the slight lean in the hand and the misplaced thumb.
- In general, do not move your hand sideways like a typewriter when you form each letter of a word. There are some exceptions, such as double letters, but don’t worry about those exceptions in the beginning.
- Mistakes happen. If you make a mistake while fingerspelling, don’t wave in an attempt to bring attention to the mistake or to gesture like you’re erasing the error. Instead, shake your head and begin spelling the word again from the beginning.
- Practice to become comfortable fingerspelling quickly and clearly. If you’re wondering what type of practice you should do, start by fingerspelling the following:
- The ASL alphabet.
- Your first and last name.
- Briefly pause between your first and last name.
- Vowels: A, E, I, O, U.
- Your family and friends’ names.
- Your hometown.
- Common letter combinations (e.g., -sh, -ch, -th, -ck)
Knowing the letters of the ASL alphabet and fingerspelling accurately are important when beginning to learn to sign; especially to be able to introduce yourself to others. Once you learn to fingerspell, you’ll eventually have to read other people’s fingerspelling. Reading other people’s fingerspelling is not easy and will take practice. Don’t be apprehensive about asking a person to repeat themselves.
In conclusion, remember- ASL is not English. If it were, you’d already be good at it. So take it easy on yourself. With patience and practice, you will learn the American Sign Language letters, and be able to spell the ASL alphabet with ease.