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Fingerspelling with a CAN attitude with Deaf children

A scenario in about 2000: A hearing educational assistant asked me a question about signed names for the Five Great Lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan.

My simple reply was: fingerspelling. If there is no sign for an English word, fingerspell it. But, she replied "but it would be too hard for the deaf child."

Is it too hard for a hearing child to hear these words, too? Or, is it actually too hard for that hearing assistant? Why should she treat a deaf child differently from a hearing child?

Another situation in 2013: A hearing preschool teacher told me one day that she made up a gesture for "cauliflower" in my 2.5 year old daughter's class, because she didn't know the sign. I suggested, "fingerspell it." She said, "Oh, it's a long word. Hard to fingerspell it."

Is it too hard to pronounce "cauliflower" with English-speaking children? Is it right to downplay a child and our native language? Is it fair to teach a bilingual toddler whose native language development is more advanced than the teacher's language proficiency? Why does one treat a deaf child differently from a hearing child or treat a language (ASL) differently from their native language (English)?

These scenarios are not uncommon. We've seen too much of this among hearing "professionals" who work with deaf children. The history repeats itself with paternalism and audism.

Quite contrastly, when it comes to Deaf professionals and parents, they treat deaf children with equality and respect for our language and bilingualism.

A scenario in 2011: Sitting in her highchair, my 10-month-old baby girl leaned over and pointed to her foot when I fingerspelled FOOT. Her receptive skill at 10 months old was already mature and full-fledged. Her native language is ASL from birth in an ASL-speaking environment, 24/7.

At 10 months old, Juli babbled #ART. At 10-12 months, Juli pointed to her foot after I fingerspelled #FOOT. Also at one point, Juli babbled #FOOT and pointed to the picture of a foot. On her 2nd birthday, she was fingerspelling fs-DORA, #TV, and #ZOO on her own. This parallels to her phonological development -- the ability to form some handshapes.

Shortly after her 3rd birthday, she began to roughly fingerspell a bit more complex words such as #PIZZA, fs-PEPPA, and such, as her handshapes develop more. At age 3, she entered "P-E-P-P-A" in the YouTube search field by herself. (all available videos on this website)

Bilingual deaf children and CODAs (children of Deaf parents) can acquire both ASL signs and fingerspelled words borrowed from English from birth. Fingerspell English words with ASL-speaking children. Their receptive skills and comprehension in sign language with normal language acquisition from birth are no less than their spoken peers.

Video above (courtesy of Jennifer Morales, October 2017): The mother asked her 18 months old girl Amelia "Where is the bellybutton?" in ASL and the toddler replied by pointing to her belly.

Unlike adults who see a fingerspelled word as a set of individual alphabetical letters, children from babies to preschoolers see a fingerspelled word as a whole configuration. Exposed to ASL or another signed language from birth, they have excellent receptive skills.

Like speech phonology in which a child acquires all 40 phonemes or sound units of an English language in about 7 years, it takes many years to completely acquired all handshapes, movements and locations of a signing production.

Like spoken language, signing children can comprehend so much ahead than they can express or articulate in signed language. Don't judge a deaf child's receptive skill based on her/his expressive skills.

Don't downplay a child whether she/he is a deaf child or a coda (children of deaf parents or any child with normal language acquisition, provided that every child, especially a deaf child, must have the right to language acquisition from birth with maximum input.

Treat a signed language like any spoken language with equal respect. Expose signed language to children, especially deaf children, at birth or at the earliest possible. Deaf children deserve to have native signers around for optimal language development as hearing children have native speakers around on a daily basis.

Fingerspell with no underestimated attitude, no "cannot" attitude, and no downplay.

Related posts

Also see Fingerspelling and fingerspelled loan (age 2).

This documentation project follows a baby's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, week by week from gazing at birth to manual babbling, to first words just before the first birthday in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.

The second-year and third-year documentation continues to follow the same child's language and phonological acquisition and literacy development in ASL on a weekly basis from the one-word stage to two-word and multiple utterances.

The documentary continues to follow the same child's ASL language and literacy development on a regular basis from age three to four. It surveys ASL phonological acquisition and more complex utterances.

These posts on ASL-English bilingualism, language acquisition, and bilingual education may be of an interest for parents who raise a bilingual-bimodal child in ASL (or another signed language) and English (or another written and/or spoken language of its respective) as well as informative and educational for ASL specialists, educators, and professionals.