Lexidactylophobia: The (Irrational) Fear of Fingerspelling

By Grushkin, Donald A. | American Annals of the Deaf, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Lexidactylophobia: The (Irrational) Fear of Fingerspelling


Grushkin, Donald A., American Annals of the Deaf


Fingerspelling is a system of manually representing the graphemes of a spoken language used by members of Deaf communities worldwide. Yet, at least within the North American educational system, fingerspelling appears to be largely discounted in favor of sign usage, despite its high potential for linkage to the orthographical system of English and literacy development. The author describes fingerspelling in connection with how it is used within the American Deaf community, and also describes the development of fingerspelling skills in deaf (and hearing) children. He also describes how deaf adults use fingerspelling to promote literacy development in young deaf children. Strategies for increasing the use of fingerspelling by teachers and parents of the Deaf are outlined.

A phobia is defined in the field of psychology as an irrational fear or dread of a particular phenomenon or situation. For the purposes of the present article, I have coined the term lexidactylophobia from the Greek root words lexi- (word), dactyl(finger), and phobia (an irrational fear of a particular phenomenon). My interest is not so much in promoting application of this term to members of the general population as it is in highlighting a phenomenon relevant to the education of the Deaf: avoidance of the use of fingerspelling by many teachers (as well as parents) of the Deaf in the context of various educational settings and communication philosophies, among them total communication, signed English, mainstreaming, and American Sign Language (ASL)/ English bilingual/bicultural programming. Although the reasons for this avoidance are many and long standing, it occurs at the expense of a widely used resource for ASL/English bilingualism within the American Deaf community that serves as an excellent bridge between manual signs and written language. More important, this avoidance could have negative repercussions for the development of literacy in young deaf (and hard of hearing) children.

The issue of whether fingerspelling is used insufficiently is not new: As early as 1871, Edward Miner Gallaudet (1871/1997) himself (perhaps in response to growing criticism of the manual method by proponents of oral instruction) lamented that "the abuse [italics in original] of signs, and by this [is] meant their excessive use, may be...one of the gravest defects under which our national system of teaching the deaf is laboring" (p. 22). He argued that fingerspelling (which he termed dactylology) would provide deaf students with a broader range of communicative options and knowledge, enabling them to function on a more equal level with hearing persons with whom they might come into contact. Gallaudet advocated that from the moment when the pupil gains command of a few simple expressions, should he be required to use [italics in original] them. The teacher should also use them through the medium of dactylology or writing, and, as a general rule, never employ signs in the classroom, when spelling on the fingers, or written language, will convey with clearness to the mind of the pupils the ideas desired to be communicated. (p. 23)

Although I certainly do not advocate the virtual elimination of signs in the classroom, I advocate throughout the present article that fingerspelling should play an increased role in the instruction of deaf and hard of hearing students, as it provides a highly visual and linguistic link to the acquisition of English vocabulary and syntax, which is, after all, one of the goals of the educational system. What Is Fingerspelling? Fingerspelling is a system of manually representing the graphemes of the written language of a particular society, or in the case under discussion, the letters of the alphabet used in written English. It is important to note that languages based on Roman alphabets are not the only ones to support a system of manually representing the orthography of the written form of the spoken majority language. They can also represent words ideographically (e. …

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