Hands in Motion

Learning to Fingerspell in Irish Sign Language (ISL)


  • Lorraine Leeson
  • Sarah Sheridan Trinity College Dublin https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2949-7415
  • Katie Cannon Trinity College Dublin
  • Tina Murphy Trinity College Dublin
  • Helen Newman Trinity College Dublin
  • Heidi Veldheer Trinity College Dublin




Corpus, Language Learning, Irish Sign Language, Learner Errors, Phonology, Annotation


Irish Sign Language uses a one-handed alphabet in which each fingerspelled letter has a unique combination of handshape, orientation, and, in a few cases, path movement. Each letter is used to represent a letter from the Latin alphabet (Battison, 1978; Wilcox, 1992). For ISL learners, fingerspelling is a strategy that is used to bridge lexical gaps, and so functions as an interlanguage mechanism, which we hypothesise is more prevalent for new learners (A-level learners in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) (Council of Europe, 2001). Across 2018–19 we marked up a subset of data from the Second Language Acquisition Corpus (ISL-SLAC) for use of fingerspelling. Here, we document how these learners use fingerspelling, and explore the phonology of the fingerspelled items presented by M2L2 learners (handshape, location, movement and orientation), comparing to the production ofnative signers’, drawn from the Signs of Ireland corpus. Results indicate that ISL learners make greater use of fingerspelling in the initial phases of acquiring the language, and that, over time, as they develop a robust lexical repertoire, they reduce the frequency of fingerspelling. Fingerspelling also provides a strategic interlanguage that can be reverted to when vocabulary is unknown.




How to Cite

Leeson, L., Sheridan, S., Cannon, K., Murphy, T., Newman, H., & Veldheer, H. (2020). Hands in Motion : Learning to Fingerspell in Irish Sign Language (ISL). TEANGA, the Journal of the Irish Association for Applied Linguistics, 11, 120–141. https://doi.org/10.35903/teanga.v11i1.199