How I survived Fingerspelling

Filipino Sign Language Alphabet drawn by Isabela School for the Deaf and MCCID Alumnus Aquarius Balisi
Filipino Sign Language Alphabet drawn by Isabela School for the Deaf and MCCID Alumnus Aquarius Balisi

Wikipedia defines fingerspelling as the representation of the letters of a writing system, and sometimes numeral systems, using only the hands. Through this medium, an interpreter is able to provide proper names and words for which there are no standardized or equivalent signs. Also, fingerspelling is an essential tool for presenting precise English or Tagalog words.

When I enrolled in the summer basic sign language class in 1991 at the Philippine Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (PRID), my first mentor Ma’am Sonia Lodado explained to the class that the manual alphabet is the first thing that we need to memorize before we venture into sign language. She expounded that if you know how to fingerspell, then you can easily remember other signs. This is through the method of initializing words. Take the case, of W-A-T-E-R. If you know the sign for W, use it while tapping your index finger on your mouth twice. That’s our sign for water. The same is true with W-I-S-H. It’s W slides down the chest. It’s very helpful especially if you’re having difficulty memorizing signs. It’s like creating codes or formula. Fingerspelling also increases the deaf’s vocabulary.

However, not all words start with the sign of its first letter. We always made fun of using initialized words in some common words like “walk”. Imagine using both hands signing W while moving them one after the other mimicking a walk. It’s like a chicken walking with your three fingers representing its three toes. You would certainly hear a guffaw from your deaf audience if they saw you use that sign. 🙂

Knowing how I flunk in memorization, I had to practice very often. So, after my class, I would start flickering my hands as I walk back home. Whenever I encounter a word on the street, say billboards, street signs and the like, my hands would spell it. Soon it became a habit that there are times I would speak to my friend while my hands actively spelling every word I say, behind my back.

My teacher also taught us how to fingerspell properly. She said that if we are seated, we must place our hands close to our chests just below the shoulder with the elbow positioned comfortably on our hips. That way, deaf people who rely upon lip movements would view your face clearly and unblocked. The same is true with standing but fingerspelling hand’s elbow can rest on top of the other hand. You may also do away with the armrest if you don’t often spell out words.

Here are some other useful tips when fingerspelling:

  1. Avoid unnecessary movements while spelling words. A bouncing hand would incur dizziness from the deaf reader. Maintain a level hand movement.
  2. Fingerspelling often causes hand fatigue because you only use one hand. It is advisable to use it sparingly. Interlace it with regular signs.
  3. You must not orally speak each word as you fingerspell. Instead, silently shape the words on your lips as you fingerspell. That way, you can assist the deaf person who is dependent upon speechreading or who need it for reinforcement.
  4. When spelling double letters, simply move your hand slightly to your right. This would make the word clearer. For example, when spelling B-O-O-K, separate the two O’s by moving your hand a little bit to the right to differentiate the two letters.
  5. Separate words by making short pauses. That way, the observer is reminded that you will be spelling the next word. I remember observing a hearing brother of my deaf student fingerspelling. He separates words by erasing the previous one in the air. It looks funny but quite annoying.
  6. It is not advisable to include punctuation marks when fingerspelling. However, you may employ facial expressions to convey vocal inflections. So instead of drawing an exclamation mark in the air, you might show a “surprised look”.
  7. The clarity of spelled words is more important than speed. Most often, people who spell fast confuse the letters O and S or the letter F and the number 9. Try to maintain a balanced speed.
  8. When interpreting for a dialogue, you might use both hands to indicate which character in the story is speaking. This technique enables the deaf to know who is saying what.

I personally find these tips very practical. However, some of these pointers may not apply to certain types of deaf observers. For instance, if the deaf is highly literate and demands a direct English translation of what the speaker says, then the interpreter would almost wholly upon fingerspelling.

On the other hand, if an observer is a low verbal deaf, fingerspelling should not be used. Interpreting would rely mostly on visual and gestural approach. 🙂

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