Fingerspelling as Children Learn New Languages They Peer Reviewed Journal

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As children learn new languages they are taught how to sound out words in order to be able to write it correctly when the need comes. Language development in children takes on the traditional form of first experiencing the language, listening to the language, and then viewing the language in written form in order to fully understand what specific words stand for. This is however not possible for all children. Some children that are afflicted by deafness do not learn language in the traditional schooling method that many other children do. This is where the difficulty lies. Traditionally, children are taught to associate the words that they are taught to sound out with written words or language. It establishes a pattern of recognition that eventually translates into memory (Chamberlain, Morford, & Mayberry, 2000). This cannot occur with deaf children. It becomes difficult to teach children who are deaf to read because of this inability to create this sound-vision perception on which language is based on. The study conducted by Tamara S. Haptonstall-Nykaza and Brenda Schick (2007) tackled these very tough issues. The researchers wanted to create a bridge between these two concepts and therefore expanded on the idea of fingerspelling as a way to further allow deaf children an easier way for learning how to recognize and write the English language.

Fingerspelling is a widely accepted form of learning language for deaf individuals. It consists of making certain hand or manual gestures to represent letters and sounds of the alphabet (Haptonstall-Nykaza & Schick, 2007). Instead of using the standard American Sign Language, fingerspelling is a representation of every individual letter in an alphabet. It is the ideal way for deaf children to first learn how to read and make a connection between the visual and audio. The researchers in this particular experiment thought that in order for children to be able to successfully understand written language and eventually write it themselves, they first need to be able to master fingerspelling and this can actually be used as a tool from which to build upon. The problem lies in the inability of the English language to correlate phonologically with American Sign Language. Establishing a connection between the two has been a difficult and daunting task (Valli, Lucas, Mulrooney, & Villanueva, 2011). Both sets of languages have their own established rules that each have to follow and both entail a significant amount of understanding in order to be completely fluent in both languages.

As aforementioned, lexical language entails a complete understanding of the underlying principles of particular languages. Lexicon is the internalized comprehension of a particular language (Valli, Lucas, Mulrooney, & Villanueva, 2011). That is, when individuals speak to other individuals, they both have a basic understanding of the language that is being spoken. The underlying rules are already there, and there is a mutual agreement that the parties involved in a conversation are able to speak to each other because of this. Just as medical professionals are able to speak to each other without confusion in their medical terminology, everyone is able to speak to each other and read the language because of these pre-established rules. The connection between English and American Sign Language is not completely clear, making it more difficult for deaf children to be able to understand and express themselves. The researchers theorized that this is due to the inability of deaf children to maintain a "sound-to-print" connection (Haptonstall-Nykaza, 2007). They are unable to decipher themselves what the connections between the two languages are.

Research on this topic has previously yielded a mixture of results. Some researchers have theorized that understanding language comes down to two main components: linguistic comprehension and decoding (Erting, Thumann-Prezioso, & Sonnenstrahl-Benedict, 2000). If one is to understand what the written word means by comparing it to a picture or visual representation of the word, then deaf children learning language for the first time will be able to successfully make this connection and form their own understanding of both the English language and the American Sign Language. Any phonological knowledge of words will indeed assist deaf children become more proficient in the languages, but just being able to use some sort of association will indeed help the process. Fingerspelling has been suggested as being that gap closer. If deaf children find a way to connect written English into an understandable form of American Sign Language, then they will more easily be able to come up with a better understanding of both languages.

Fingerspelling is the key to linking English to American Sign Language. Just as many children use phonemes as a way of sounding out words that will later be read with ease, deaf individuals do the same with fingerspelling. Allowing individuals to spell out their words, letter by letter, through the designated hand gestures that fingerspelling brings, they will be able to form that association between the two (Chamberlain, Morford, & Mayberry, 2000). Although it is much easier for children to learn these concepts and to form the connections, it is not entirely impossible for adults to do the same. The article by Haptonstall-Nykaza and Schick (2007) make the readers aware of this distinguishing factor. Fingerspelling in adults largely resembles the already established American Sign Language system, so even though fingerspelling is not American Sign Language, adults use it in a way that end up representing entire words to understand other words instead of the individual letter hand gestures that fingerspelling entails.

The understanding of the link between English and American Sign Language is subconsciously established in deaf children. When adults that are not fluent in American Sign Language attempt to talk to children whom are deaf, they use fingerspelling as a means of communicating. Since fingerspelling is the most basic way of communicating with deaf individuals, without meaning to, fingerspelling becomes that connection between English and American Sign Language (Haptonstall-Nykaza & Schick, 2007). It attempts to close the gap and create a link. According to the researchers however, participants were measured on their ability to understand the fingerspelling and to connect it to the English language. They also wanted to understand whether accurate fingerspelling would mean that they were able to accurately express themselves. They thought that if they focused on using fingerspelling as a way of establishing a link between the two languages, much like phonemes assist children in establishing a connection between seeing a language written and in reading it.

The participants in the study conducted by Haptonstall-Nykaza and Schick (2007) ranged from 4 to 14 years old. These participants were determined to be profoundly deaf and were all deaf before they were able to pick up any language. Twenty-one children were grouped into categories. The children were either from families who had other family members that were also deaf and families who had no deaf individuals in it. However, they were all completely fluent in American Sign Language. Despite what their family structure was, they were still able to grasp onto the signing of American Sign Language. Once their fluency in American Sign Language was established, two lists of words were used in the experiment. They were set up in order to separate the words that the children already knew or recognized by seeing them from the words that were either novel to them or that they still had not grasped a complete understanding of. The point of this study and this method was to be able to more easily establish how to best link English and American Sign Language. The children were then taught how to spell the words by fingerspelling. If children were able to fully fingerspell a word correctly once they saw it, then points were given to signify their mastery over the particular word. If extra fingerspelling letters were added or omitted, then points would be taken off. This would then allow the researchers an easy and simple ground by which to equally measure the progress of all of the children. As a control, a method that has already been established as being semi-successful in establishing the link between the two languages, which is by associating words to actual entire hand signs or gestures. Any difference in the results could be associated back to this.

After the experiment was conducted, interesting results were yielded that provided insight into the world of American Sign Language and its ability to be linked and translated successfully into the English language. Despite the researchers attempt at proving the superiority of fingerspelling in linking American Sign Language with English, the correlation with the fingerspelling method and the method of using gestures to represent entire words was very high, meaning that the underlying principle of both concepts are practically the same (Haptonstall-Nykaza & Schick, 2007). Children who are able to learn how to read with one method are just as easily able to learn how to read English and establish a connection with American Sign Language with the other method. It comes down to individual learning styles. There were significant…

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