Sign language alphabets

Sign language alphabet also known as manual alphabet is used to fingerspell a series of the alphabetical letters to form a spoken/written word of a foreign language.

Fingerspelling is used when an Deaf/ASL-speaker (Ameslan) refers to a foreign spoken or written word. For example, a people's names, brand names, cities, and other words of spoken/written language, etc.

Sign language alphabets around the world

There are different sign language alphabets in different countries around the world. Even with different sign languages, some countries use similar manual alphabets with a few modifications, borrowing the alphabet from one another. Some are entirely different manual alphabets.

Some manual alphabet systems are one-handed. Some others are two-handed. One-handed sign language alphabets are used by deaf people in the U.S., Canada, and many other European countries.

American manual alphabet

The one-handed ASL alphabet is used Deaf community in Canada and the U.S. It's part of American Sign Language that Deaf people naturally developed over the last hundreds of years.

As ASL has its language root from Old French Sign Language (Old LSF), modern ASL and modern LSF are different, they share the similar manual alphabet.

British manual alphabet

The two-handed British alphabet is used in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and some other countries. The British manual alphabet and British sign language (BSL) are entirely distinct from the American manual alphabet and American Sign Language (ASL) which are used by Deaf people in North America (Canada and the U.S.).

British Sign Language (BSL) is the language of Deaf people in the U.K., Australian Sign Language (Auslan) is the language of Deaf people in Australia, and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) in New Zealand. These are distinct languages yet they share the same British manual alphabet.

Other manual alphabets

To learn other manual alphabets, naturally one needs to know their spoken or written languages that the manual alphabets represent. If one learns the Japanese manual alphabet used in Japanese Sign Language, they need to know the spoken/written Japanese language. Deaf people typically acquire other signed languages, not using manual alphabets, unless they learn the other spoken/written languages as well.

Uses by hearing and Deaf

It doesn't take long for a beginner to learn the manual alphabet, usually within tens of minutes, especially if they know its corresponding spoken language. But, it takes a very long time, days and days or months and months, for a non-native signer or learner to read the fingerspelled words at a normal speed.

Hearing and Deaf people uses manual alphabets for some different reasons. For a hearing person, learning the manual alphabet is usually one of the very first things to learn the signed language in order to talk with a Deaf person quicker.

The advantage is that when a hearing person while learning the signed language doesn't know a sign, they can resort to fingerspelling the spoken/written word. Likewise, Deaf also uses fingerspelling with a hearing beginner who doesn't know the sign.

On the other hand, Deaf people acquire the signed languages naturally from birth or early childhood (or much later for some). With other Deaf fellows, they use fingerspelling only when referring to foreign words of spoken/written languages if there are no signs for them or no word-for-word translations.

Just as you speak English, you'd occasionally come to a lack of English word for a foreign city, country, or place, a person's foreign name, or a concept that doesn't exist in English but exists in another language, you'd insert the foreign word into your English utterance. That goes the same for ASL that uses fingerspelling for a foreign written/spoken word.

"Which right or left hand should left-handed people use?"

Left-handed individuals usually remain being left-handed in fingerspelling and sign language, while few other left-handed people may be right-handed signers. If you are a left-handed, your left hand would likely be dominant in fingerspelling and sign language. Likewise, if you are a right-handed, use your right hand as the dominant one.

Cross-cultural fingerspelling and finger-reading

Culturally Deaf people, travelers, and/or globe-trotters, can be quite creative and ingenious with communication with foreigners and travelers as well as hearing people.

Some deaf people, especially travelers, can take just a few moments to learn a manual alphabet, but it may take them a bit longer to learn to "read" the fingerspelled word of another system.

For example, at the World Games for the Deaf in Christchurch, New Zealand in January 1989, some Australians and New Zealanders had learned the American manual alphabet beforehand while some Americans and Canadians learned the British fingerspelling. Why?

At a social gathering, I chatted with an Australian in mixed gestures, onomatopoeic signs and others in combination, because neither of us know each other's languages (Ameslan/ASL and Auslan). Whenever he could not understand what I said, I fingerspelled an English word in British alphabet. He read and understood it naturally. Likewise, when I could not understand him, he fingerspelled in American alphabet that I could understand easily. After all, we read and write the same language, which is English.

But, you might scratch head, wondering that since we know the same language English, why do we use each other's manual alphabets? Unlike the whole words (signs), the fingerspelled words are letter-by-letter based. Like hearing learners, we are not accustomed to read fingerspelled words that fast from another manual alphabet. We need to practice reading letter by letter and develop the receptive skill in another manual alphabet. Unlike fingerspelling, fluent signers could understood each other in signs/words at a regular pace.

Children fingerspelling ABCs

Regardless of deaf or hearing children, preschoolers usually are able to spell the ABCs by age 3.5 or 4 or so. For ASL-speaking children, they may able not only fingerspell the ABCs, but also be able to form the manual letters correctly.

In the video, this bilingual ASL-speaking kid fingerspells the ABCs from A to Z during her natural language development.

Tips for hearing learners, don't sign "and" between Y and Z -- one of some examples of "hearing culture".

Also, don't sign (pronounce) Z the opposite way. Move it in the same way you write Z, from the left to the right side from a signer's perspective.

And, a big emphasis here. Don't bounce your hand when fingerspelling letter by letter.

Related posts

Learn the American manual alphabet or British manual alphabet.

Techniques and tips on how to improve your with fingerspelling skills.

Try an interactive fingerspelling exercises to improve your receptive skill in fingerspelling.

What is the difference between fingerspelling and fingerspelled loan?

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.