ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Fingerspelling and numbers:  Lesson 1

Fingerspelling:  Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Lexicalized  | 11 | 


Topic:  What is the "right way" to fingerspell?

A student writes:
(In a message dated 3/31/2003 1:18:58 AM Central Standard Time)

Dear Dr. Bill,

At church the other day I met a fellow who interprets for another church nearby when he isn't attending services here. We just had a few brief minutes to converse before he had to return to ushering duties. He's the first person that can sign that I've really approached. He was very pleasant and encouraging, but he immediately corrected me on some of the letters I've been fingerspelling, and I want to share this info with you for you reaction.

For c, d and o and p, he said that I should to sign them sideways, that is pointing off to my left, rather than straight on at the viewer. Yet my Costello monster dictionary, and the ASL Browser web site, and what I've learned from your web site, show them signed pretty much straight on at the viewer.

As for the letter g, I had been signing it straight to the left, so my thumb is partially hidden from the viewer behind my index finger. He corrected me in saying that I should roll the sign back towards myself 90% so the thumb shows itself too.

Also, the letter k he demonstrated was backhanded and pointing left as opposed to the frontal view I've been learning. Are either one of these ok?

The reasons he gave for the above changes were that the letters are more easily recognized this way. Nothing wrong with that.  But I want to learn sign as it is actually used in the vernacular by the Deaf, and so am concerned lest this advice not be practical, especially when it comes to my receptive learning. I need to be able to recognized letters signed as they are actually signed* - not just picture perfect and intelligible. (*one of the many things I like about your instruction)

Thanks for any insight you can provide.

Hi Scott,

If you were to go out and ask a hundred deaf people to show you the right method to sign the fingerspelled alphabet.-- you'd end up seeing dozens of "correct" variations.

This is such a "non" issue.  There isn't "one" right way to sign a "g" or a "k."  But beginners are always being told by "experts" that one way or another is the "right" way to do it. 

Allow me to introduce Dr. Bill's first rule for receiving signing advice from others:

1.  Smile nicely and nod your head.

Bill's second rule for receiving signing advice from others:

2.  Do your own research.

Congratulations!  Looks to me like you are following both rules very well.

As far as my contribution to your research on palm orientation for fingerspelling, I will offer my first rule of fingerspelling: 

1.  If it hurts, don't do it.

Lots of interpreters give advice on clear signing.  Their job is to sign clearly.  Their advice is accurate, pointing your palm at the person you are spelling to is clear.  It is a "clear" indication that you are going to end up with carpal tunnel syndrome. [wink] 

You said you wanted to learn sign as it is actually used by the Deaf. 

Go watch some 70-year-old Deaf people fingerspell.  They are spelling to their bellybuttons! Why? Because holding their hands down low and at a comfortable angle causes them the least arthritic pain.  Make sure to walk up and tell them that they are doing it wrong because some website, book, or instructor said so.  [grin + wink]

My suggestion is to hold your hand up at a comfortable angle.  If you're using your shoulder to raise your arm--you are working too hard.  If your forearm is totally vertical, you are working too hard. If your wrist is bent, you are asking for carpal tunnel.  Just bend the arm at the elbow and point your palm at a comfortable 340 degree angle.  Here is the "angle" for a right-handed person:

I hardly bend my wrist while spelling.  Fingerspelled letters rarely occur in isolation so it is simply not an issue. I bend my wrist a small bit forward on p and q so that my palm is somewhat more parallel to the ground.  The index of my "p" hand points at 10'oclock on a sundial.  That is the same direction of ALL my fingerspelling.  It is a mix of comfort for me and clarity for my conversation partner.  On "Q" I point the index somewhat downward.  Interesting though, when I'm showing fingerspelling to a beginning level class I tend to point the "q" index finger straight down.  I realize now that is just "teacher talk." Teacher talk is similar to "motherese" --the exaggerated method of communication used by mothers when talking with their newborn children.

It took me forever in my own signing to quit doing "J" with a big twist of my wrist and instead to it without movement in my wrist and instead rotate my forearm (as if screwing in a light bulb).  I was doing it that way so my students could see the movement.

When doing "c, d, and k" my palm points at the 10 o'clock on the sundial.  (Just like all my other letters.)

Well that's about it for now.  If you have other questions let me know.
Take care,
Dr. Bill

Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy DONATE (Thanks!)
(You don't need a PayPal account. Just look for the credit card logos and click continue.)

Another way to help is to buy Dr. Bill's "Superdisk."

Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   CHECK IT OUT >

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)   CHECK IT OUT >

Bandwidth slow?  Check out "" (a free mirror of less traffic, fast access)   VISIT >