Baby talk, first language acquisition

Fingerspelling and fingerspelled loans from baby to kinder

This documentation highlights a natural process of fingerspelling from baby to kinder in a case study of the ASL-speaking bilingual child "Juli" in the ASL-speaking family.

Again, every child has their own pace and process. This documentation only shows what it's like in a natural, real-world experience.

Fingerspelling and Fingerspelled loans

The difference between fingerspelled loanwords and fingerspelling is that fingerspelling is spelling out a series of the alphabetical letters (e.g. letter by letter) to form a foreign word of a spoken language (e.g. English). On the other hand, fingerspelled loans are the ASL signs (e.g. #OK, #STYLE, etc.).

A fingerspelled loan is the whole ASL sign/word, not a set of individual fingerspelled letters. It's similar to any spoken languages which loan foreign words from other languages to incorporate into their own languages. That is, ASL loans some words from English. The gloss using the hash (#) represents a fingerspelled loan, whereas the gloss symbol for a fingerspelled word uses "fs-". E.g. fs-POPPY.

Fingerspelled loans: a case study

Juli (age 2;5,2) produced the fingerspelled loans as if they were the ASL signs rather than letter by letter.

For example, at the 50th year celebration event hosted by a "bilingual" preschool, I reminded Juli to take her shoes off before playing in the inflated playhouse. After a while, she went back to that site alone and uttered to herself shoes #off. I caught her signing a fingerspelled loan for the first time.

Few days later, Juli again uttered #off when making a request for me to turn off the screen.

Another fingerspelled loan emerged to my surprise. Juli informed me by pointing at her bottom and then uttered #pee. Her configuration was very similar to #bee but I understood her in this clear context.

I knew that producing #pee is a very long process compared to signing the ASL word PEE (as in pointing to nose that some people use for "pee"). I sometimes used this but most of the times I naturally signed #PEE rather than adapting it.

Juli also produced #TV with the "A" handshape for T and partial "V" with spread fingers. The handshapes T and V are two difficult phonological units to produce at this stage.

In the following week, Juli fingerspelled #zoo somehow completely. The alphanetical letter "z" was one of the earliest and easiest manual letters to produce during her early toddlerhood.

In addition to fingerspelled loans (at age 2;5,4), Juli began to practice fingerspelling a word or a name. In no time, she began to fingerspell a few words, officially a milestone of fingerspelling.

Her first partial fingerspelled word traced back to age 2;0,1 which was "Baraka", the title of a documentary movie, when she just turned two. She could only spell "Bara", since the manual letter "K" was one of the most difficult handshapes to form.

But, the letter D, O, R, and A were readily fingerspell-able that Juli was able to spell the word "Dora" perfectly by herself. She did fingerspell it completely by herself when talking about Dora more several times this week.

Juli also still fingerspelled z-o-o, but it functions as a fingerspelled loan.

Next another day, the old incompletely fingerspelled "Baraka" returned. Juli picked up a "Samsara" DVD disc and fingerspelled b-a-r-a. She wanted to watch it.

At times, Juli also fingerspelled some that I couldn't recognize, except for one that I caught in the context: "raisin" which she formed the first alphabetical letter R which helped.

Fingerspelling her own name

Juli (age 2;10,1) was able to roughly form the manual letters J (the same handshape as I), L and I, I thought it was time to teach her how to spell her name.

I asked her in ASL what her name was. She signed her name. I asked her to fingerspell her name and guided her through. She labored forming the difficult letters J, L and I. For her, the manual letter L was the most difficult, which was harder to control the thumb and the index finger together than manipulating the pinkie.

Fingerspelling acquisition

Pingu out. Baraka in. Whenever Juli (age 2;0,1) wished to watch the movie "Baraka", she fingerspelled the title "Baraka" of the movie by producing the similar pattern of movement. Encouraging her to fingerspell it, she copied my fingerspelling as far as the first four letters #BARA.

In no time, Juli eventualy began to fingerspell #BAR by herself when she asked for the movie to watch. It was her first fingerspelled word though partially.

But, it wasn't new. Juli began finger-babbling as far as the recorded video of around 10 months old. On the receptive skill, when I fingerspelled the word #foot (fingerspelled loan), she pointed to her foot at age one (just after her first birthday).

Unlike receptive skill and comprehension, the ability to physically form the smallest units of language takes a long time to develop. It is no difference in sign language from speech language.

Fingerspelling two words

A surprising and exciting moment was that Juli (age 2;7,3) fingerspelled two words by herself for the first time, which was: fs-dora #TV (video). She wanted to watch the "Dora" program on Netflix.

For the past few weeks, Juli had two choices of toothpastes, one called "Dora" (because of its picture on the toothpaste) and the other one plainly called "Colgate" (no brand preference) which I shared mine with her.

Nightly, I would ask her which one of these toothpastes she wanted. I fingerspelled both of them, which ix fs-dora #or ix fs-colgate you want?. Most of the time, Juli would fingerspell "Dora".

Whenever Juli chose Colgate, I helped her fingerspell letter by letter. She formed all the alphabetical letters of the word perfectly including the handshape T, except for the letters L and E.

One day that month, without me asking nor uttering anything, Juli herself fingerspelled fs-corate--gate (video). I believe she spelled "e" at the end but it was sloppy and quick. She probably spelled the first part and then corrected herself by spelling the second part again, realizing that she forgot the "g" part.

Fingerspelling, reading, and literacy

From there, it was the time to expand. I began to fingerspell gradually more when introducing her to some selected English words.

First, I signed an ASL word and then fingerspelled an English word. E.g. "ball", etc. I consciously selected words that began with common patterns and short words as well phonologically capable for Juli to spell eventually. Then, build towards more complex forms once Juli developed phonologically more.

Spelling and fingerspelling in grade school

Beginning in September, the grade-one teacher gave each child a weekly lesson in spelling. A weekly lesson consisted of five words and three challenge words. Then the children were given a spelling test on Fridays.

The bilingual child Juli (age 4;8) was nervous about her first spelling test. What if she forgot? She asked. I assured her that she would be fine. Prior to her first test, we practiced together on her first lesson, using a set of magnetic alphabetical letters, a paper and pen, and, of course, fingerspelling. After the first week, we simply resorted to fingerspelling, almost solely.

The weekly sheet suggested ways to practice at home: making a word using plastic letters, tracing each word in the air or on the table with her/his finger, writing in wax crayon or with paint, writing in the snow with a stick or finger in winter, or writing in sand in summer. No 'fingerspelling' is mentioned.

Ironically, I found all these suggestions or ideas a bit time-consuming. You know how busy parenting is. Fingerspelling was simply the most time-efficient for us. For many codas (children of Deaf parents) and dodas (Deaf children of Deaf parents), fingerspelling is our big advantage.

On Mondays, Juli brought a new set of words to practice spelling. Pointing to each word on the paper, I asked what they meant. She replied in ASL. She knew all of them (as of this writing). I signed an ASL word and she fingerspelled letter by letter of an English word. From time to time at dinner time, bed time or any times, I'd pop up a random word, usually a challenge word, or a few. It's a relaxing form of homework.

In the Friday mornings before her spelling tests, I'd casually pop up with a few challenge words as soon as she woke up or during the drive. Or, I'd ask her a few words while dropping her off at school. We had fun rather than sitting in one long session.

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.