American Sign Language Alphabet

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  • 0:05 The ASL Manual Alphabet
  • 2:09 Using the Manual Alphabet
  • 2:54 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Are you interested in learning American Sign Language? One of the first steps is learning the American Sign Language alphabet. This lesson discusses the ASL manual alphabet, provides tips to help you sign, and describes the situations in which the alphabet should be used.

The ASL Manual Alphabet

We've all seen people communicating via sign language out in public or in the movies. The 1996 film Jerry Maguire is famous for its line, 'You complete me,' signed by a couple in an elevator. (Although a more accurate translation of that scene would be, 'You make me complete.') Are you interested in what these people are signing? Maybe you would like to know how accurate that scene in Jerry Maguire really is. Well, one of the first steps in learning American Sign Language is learning the manual alphabet.

American Sign Language (ASL) uses hand signals, facial expressions and body language to convey meaning. ASL, the primary sign language used in North America, is a complete language with a defined syntax and grammar. The ASL manual alphabet, one part of this language system, utilizes the signer's dominant hand to represent all of the letters of the English language alphabet.

The ASL alphabet, unlike the British manual alphabet, for example, only uses one hand. While some letters, such as the signs for O or Z, directly mimic the written version, most signs do not mimic the written version.

Fingerspelling is the act of using the manual alphabet to sign out the individual letters in a word. When doing so, your palm is facing the listener for the majority of the letters. (Some exceptions are the letters G and H, where your palm faces you, and the letters P and Q, where your palm faces down.) The letters J and Z are traced in the air as you would read them, not your listener.

Here are some tips to help you with fingerspelling:

  • Hold your dominant hand in front of your shoulder at a comfortable angle. Face your palm towards your listener.
  • Maintain a steady pace when forming your letters. Focus on accuracy rather than speed. Your speed will naturally increase as you become more comfortable with the language. Provide a brief pause between each word.
  • Mouth the word, not the individual letters, as you sign.
  • Keep your hand position steady; do not bounce with each letter.

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