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Lexicalized Fingerspelling:
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Jana Bielfeldt
March 19, 2003

Lexicalized Fingerspelling

      In the field of Deaf Education, many deaf education teachers and  hearing parents of deaf children try to avoid "fingerspelling" and of course, deaf or hard of hearing children are having difficulty reading. Lexidactylophobia is what Donald A. Grushkin (1998) describes in the deaf education field. Phobia in psychology means irrational fear or dread of a particular phenomenon or situation. Donald explained lexi in Greek means word and dactyl means finger. Many deaf educators are lexidactylophobia in classrooms. They have a negative attitude of using fingerspelling.

     What do we know about lexicalized fingerspelling? "ASL creates new signs in a third way -- representing the symbols of written English with ASL signs." (Lucas & Valli, 2000)  We see a lot of deaf communities' fingerspell in their daily conversations. It represents words ideographically. Chinese Sign Language used written Chinese and syllabically system while Danish Sign Language used ‘mouth-hand" systems as well alphabetically are the examples of fingespelling. Robbin Battison, ASL linguist did on first research on fingerspelling in ASL. Lexicalized fingerspellings are signs and free morpheme. ASL researchers used # to mark the sign as their fingerspelling symbol for written purpose.  In fingerspelling, there are 8 of the changes that are part of process in the lexicalization process and it was described by Robbin Battison. (1978).

     Some of the signs may be deleted is one of the ‘changes' process. For example, we fingerspell #YES, we delete "E" and sign "Y" and "S" While signing #YES, there are 2 handshapes in sequence.  We can fingerspell with more than 3 or 4 handshapes in sequence, here are the examples of using more than 3 or 4 handsapes, #BACK, #RARE, #SURE, #WHAT, and #EARLY. (Lucas & Valli, 2000) The location and handshape may change. Also movement may be added and their orientation may change, too. You may see a sign that is repeatedly, #HA is an example. It's called reduplication of the movement. Using second hand may be added, too. We sign #BACK to express more emphasis. Lastly of 8 changes during fingerspelling is grammatical information may be included. Using this process, it refers us to people and places.

     As early as 6 months old, a deaf child attempts to sign such as babbling. (Bonvillian & Richards, 1993). Hearing babies babble all the time. It's the same way deaf babies or -small children who are exposed on signing babbles through moving their fingers or hands. They imitate fingerspelling through wiggles of the fingers same as hearing children will play with letters in written.

     Children fingerspell as they practice and it helps develop their everyday life with their language use and how they write on a paper. (Padden, 1990) Futher, Gates, and Chase, (1976) found that children who are deaf showed their spelling ability was greater than hearing children because of visual recognizing the word and use fingerspell. Deaf educators must realize it's important to realize they must teach deaf children to recognize the link between fingerspelling and written language. (Grushkin, 1998) By doing that, their language boosts up and they can be comfortable in reading and understanding.

     Teachers of the Deaf need to realize it's important not to avoid fingerspelling approach to support the literacy and vocabulary in deaf children's language develop. They should be able to express and receptive skills. They also should know when and how to use fingerspelling. They need to be aware of the important of using lexicaled fingerspelling approach and how this will benefit children from elementary to high school level. (Grushkin, 1998)


     Grushkin, Donald (1998). Lexidactylophobia: The (Irrational) Fear of Fingerspelling American Annals of the Deaf, 404-414

      Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (2002). Linguistics of American Sign Language: Lexicalized Fingerspelling & Loan Signs.  Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press

 Battison, R. (1978). Lexical borrowing in American Sign Language. Silver Spring, MD. Linstok Press.

 Gates, A. I. & Chase, E.H.(1976) Methods and theories of learning to spell test by studies of deaf children.. Visible Language. 339-350

 Padden, C.A. (1990) Deaf Children and Literacy: Literacy Lessons.  (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No ED 321 069)


In a message dated 8/28/2003 11:01:26 AM Pacific Daylight Time, a student writes:

Hi Bill:

What is the world's best video series for Fingerspelling receptive practice? DVD would be terrific, because I can slow that down as necessary to decipher the words.....
You name it, I'll jump on it.

Your friend,


Hello ______,

As far as videos go...I recommend "Groode, J. L., Holcomb, T., & Dawn Sign Press. (1992). Fingerspelling, expressive & receptive fluency a video guide. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press" for beginners. But since you are not a beginner I'd recommend you get a  little fingerspelling book (I think it is titled "Expressive and Receptive Fingerspelling for Hearing Adults" or something like that) and use it to make your own practice video by spelling words to a camcorder while voicing what your are spelling. Then later (a day or two) watch the video with the sound off and see how you do. You can use it as a written test if you'd like, and then play it back with the sound on to check your answers.

Or you can use the practice sheets from my fingerspelling pages to make a video.

I just looked up that book.  It is:

Guillory, LaVara M.: Expressive and receptive fingerspelling for hearing adults. Baton Rouge : Claitor´s Publ. 1988 - 42 p.: Paperback

Note, some highbrows (or monobrows) may take exception to this book.  It is not in vogue.  But I personally feel it presents a very intelligent and effective approach to fingerspelling success for adult ASL as a second language learners.

Take care,


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