Learning BSL? Our tutors outline some hints and tips for using and improving your fingerspelling.
What is fingerspelling?
Fingerspelling is a method for making letters from the alphabet on your hands to create words. Your fingers and handshapes represent different letters of the British Sign Language alphabet. BSL uses a two-handed system – it is a small but important element of Sign Language. Fingerspelling is different across the world. For example, some countries such as the U.S or Ireland use a one-handed alphabet.
What is fingerspelling used for?
When you start learning BSL, you tend to learn to fingerspell first. It is easy to learn and you can pick up the basics quickly. You can use it for spelling people’s names, street names, or when a person does not know the sign for something. An individual letter can also represent signs e.g. the letter ‘M’ tapped twice on the hand means ‘mum’ or ‘Monday’.
Fingerspelling charts usually show static images of the different letters but fingerspelling, like signs, uses moving hands. Static images cannot convey how your hands are used in the real world.
*Fun fact: over 100 years ago, deaf people used fingerspelling more than signs! There are videos from the 1920s that show deaf people fingerspelling (at speed).
The video from BSL Training below shows you how to do the BSL alphabet on the hands:
Which hand do I use?
Students often get confused about which hand to use. It doesn’t matter if you are left-handed or right-handed, your dominant hand will make the shapes.
*Hot tip* Think of your dominant hand as the pen and your non-dominant hand as the paper. Your dominant hand will move towards your non-dominant hand for each finger.
How do I position my hands?
You need to hold your hands at chest height, away from the body. Your palm needs to be towards you when you are fingerspelling words.
Any tips to improve fingerspelling?
Tutors usually focus on making sure your handshapes are correct for each letter. Reading fingerspelling is more difficult than learning the handshapes. Even trainee interpreters have difficulty with reading fingerspelled words at times.
What makes understanding fingerspelling so difficult?
There are several reasons for failing to understand what is being spelled:
- the word (silent letters, anyone?),
- hand position
- the accuracy of the spelling.
There are also letter variations that many learners are not aware of. The BSL alphabet is not actually limited to 26 letters. Some letters change depending on the context of the spelled word. Fluency and pace develop over time. To improve your confidence, you need to improve two skills:
- Develop a flow and reasonable pace when spelling words
- Understanding someone fingerspelling to you
Improving your flow:
Practice for 5 minutes every day. Improve the flow of your fingerspelling by practising spelling random words. You can practice spelling the words for objects around you. Or you could practice spelling pages in a book. You could really challenge yourself and try to do the alphabet….. backwards! Practising will help you know where the letters are on your hands. You also avoid a fingerspelling no.no….looking at your hands (see below).
*Hot tip* When fingerspelling, break down the syllables in a word. Mouth the syllables as you fingerspell.
Understand someone spelling to you
Context is everything. Information signed before and after the fingerspelling will give you clues. For example, if someone is describing a group of people, you know they might spell someone’s name. Or if someone is signing about a location, the person may refer to a specific street.
*Hot tip*: when you ‘read’ fingerspelling, read the whole word, not individual letters. Try to see the sound of the word.
I am dyslexic. Any tips?
There are many strategies you can use to help. For example, you can memorise the ‘patterns’ of fingerspelled words. Or memorise the hand shapes for each letter – the shapes are visually similar to the letters.
Test your receptive skills – fingerspelling challenge!
We recommend practising with friends, family, or any deaf friends you may have. If you attend a BSL course, your tutor will give you plenty of practice with games in class. Alternatively, you can use an online resource such as a fingerspelling generator. We recommend the BSL Signbank website for fingerspelling practice as it uses real handshapes.
Do’s and don’ts:
- Practice spelling words, not just the alphabet
- Develop your own ‘rhythm’
- Keep hands at chest level
- Don’t look at your hands when you’re spelling
- Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification!
You can always ask a signer to repeat their fingerspelling. But a better strategy is to ask questions such as: Are you talking about (person’s name)? Or, “you spelled P something R, right?”
*Hot tip* Try to catch the first, and last letter. You can narrow down your options e.g. a girl’s name starting with C ending in e could be Claire, Chloe, Charlie, Charlotte. As you progress through your BSL course, your fluency will improve so you can catch the first, middle and last letter
Other types of manual alphabet:
In the UK, we also have the deafblind manual alphabet or tactile alphabet. It is based on the BSL alphabet but uses touch to draw the shape of letters on the other person’s hand. You can find out more about this alphabet from Sense.
Learning the BSL alphabet is easy and it can be a valuable tool when you forget a sign. Just remember, that understanding what is being spelled to you is a skill that develops over time. You don’t need to get it right the first time so don’t be afraid to ask the person signing to repeat the spelling of a word. Be kind to yourself and be patient.
Need to improve other signing skills?
Why not check out our other signing skills guides. You can also download copies of the fingerspelling alphabet charts here.