First language acquisition

Fingerspelling with children

Subheadings in this post:

Bilingual deaf children and CODAs (children of Deaf parents) can acquire both ASL signs and fingerspelled words borrowed from English from birth. Exposed to ASL or another signed language from birth, they have excellent receptive skills. 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.

Like speech phonology in which a child acquires all 40 phonemes or sound units of an English language in about 7-8 years, it takes up to 8 years to completely acquired all (over 40+) handshapes, a number of movements, and locations of a signing production.

Language development milestones are on the same in both sign language and speech language, not one faster or easier than the other. Plenty of evidence based on neuroscience and linguistics studies.

Fingerspelling with a CAN attitud with Deaf and coda 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 preschool children? Is it right to downplay ASL-speaking children 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.

Fingerspelling for spelling lessons

A few hearing teachers have told me that they use fingerspelling in their spelling lessons at public schools. Unfortunately, not in my preschooler's elementary school.

From kindergarten to grade two, my kid Juli had a weekly list of words in her agenda book or on handouts. In the weekly handout, the paragraph suggested ideas for spelling practice with kids: anything from magnet letters to writing letters in the snow. Disappointedly, none of it mentioned fingerspelling.

Ironically, being a busy mother, I never used any of these time-consuming methods listed in the handout, because fingerspelling was simply the most efficient and the easiest to our advantage in fluency. Based on the list of words, I signed a word and Juli fingerspelled.

Understandably, fingerspelling can be time-consuming and difficult for most hearing adult learners in the beginning level. With practice with young learners, fingerspelling can be beneficial for spelling classes.

Language development in fingerspelling

This video below shows a time-lapse of the child's phonological acquisition, receptive skill development and comprehension in fingerspelling from birth to age three.

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.

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.

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.

How one sees a word

Unlike hearing 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 the same way you hear a word as a whole, not a set of individual phonemes.


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.

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