Learning to Fingerspell Twice:
Young Signing Children's
Acquisition of Fingerspelling
Carol A. Padden
We tend to think of fingerspelling as a simple manual system for representing the alphabet. When adult second-language learners of American Sign Language (ASL) are first taught the system, they are often told that a fingerspelled word is made up of a sequence of hand shapes and that fingerspelling involves transitioning each hand shape into the next in an efficient way. Though some hand shapes are similar and are easily confused, adults can learn the system in a few lessons. For the young sign language learner, however, learning to fingerspell is a different task altogether.
This chapter reviews recent studies of fingerspelling in ASL, including those that discuss how young signers begin to construct fingerspelled words. As I will explain, these descriptions of early fingerspelling show that acquiring fingerspelling in ASL involves two sets of skills: first, the child learns to recognize fingerspelled words as whole units, and then, when reading and writing English become more prominent in the child's life, the child begins to understand fingerspelled words as made up of hand shapes that correspond to the letters of the alphabet. In the latter sense, the child learns fingerspelling a second time—this time in terms of its internal composition and its link to English words in their written form. I conclude by addressing implications of this pattern of acquisition of fingerspelling for early education of young deaf children.