Finger spelling is a method of communicating with the hands which is closely linked to sign language. However unlike sign language, it is not a language in its own right and does not have grammatical structures and syntaxes. Rather, it is a way of spelling out words instead of interpreting them as a gesture. This means that anyone who knows the finger spelling alphabet can communicate – however, it can be a lengthy process as every letter has to be spelt and is therefore not widely used for general conversations.
In Sign LanguageFinger spelling is often used alongside sign language for one of two reasons. It may be that a name or other such word needs spelling out, and therefore finger spelling is the only way to do this. Place names and people’s names do not generally have a sign of their own and thus they need to be finger spelt. But finger spelling is also a way of giving greater clarity or emphasis to something. Sing language can be very expressive and using finger spelling is one way which ‘speakers’ of sign language can be more emotional.
How Finger Spelling WorksFinger spelling can be used in two main ways. The first is the simple act of tracing the shape of the letter in the air. This is very basic and takes more time and concentration than the other way. It is not usually used by people who are fluent in sign language. The second, more usual, way of finger spelling is to use symbols on the hand for each letter. But, as with the sign languages throughout the world, the same symbols are not used in different languages and thus different language’s 'Sign Languages' could have different finger spelling symbols. The symbols are essentially, stylised examples of the letter’s shape, but cut down for simplicity’s sake.
Speed and ClarityThe way which finger spelling is used in a sign language system can vary massively between countries and language systems. In British Sign Language, finger spelling is used with deliberate movements and slowly and clearly. But in other languages, for example, Italian Sign Language, finger spelling is used at high speeds. The differences between countries can be very wide, such as this, and also, closer to others – much like accents in spoken languages.
Finger spelling is a very useful tool and a great way to start learning sign language. It is relatively easy to pick up because there are just 26 signs to learn, plus another ten for figures. But it means that although you will not be able to understand sign language users, they can understand you. And if there is something they need to tell you, they can at least spell it out.
The more practice you do, the quicker you will become. And finger spelling is a great introduction to signing and will help you in the future should you wish to learn the full sign language system. It is a great way of getting by in sign language, and will give a good foundation for a wider knowledge and level of fluency of the full language system.