I am presently sitting in my Tahoe Spring garden, looking around at all the emerging and new life popping up from the thawing ground. Anyone who has lived in Tahoe knows that our Spring is often intermixed with snow, sleet, freezing rain, and any mix of weather in between. When the Alpine sunshine finally shines strong, tiny emerging Snow Plants with their bright red asparagus like blossoms and green meadow seedlings push up and out. If you don’t have the eye of awareness, it’s often easy to miss our brief season before the explosion of summer heat. It’s the same with the birds. I’m told by a bird-watching friend that Tahoe is one of the premier touch down places for all kinds of migrating birds, they stay briefly and find respite for their long journey ahead. Hummingbirds typically arrive in May along with the sweet cooing of the Mourning Doves and the bright orange of the Robins. If one’s attention is not sharp, many of the seasonal and migrating feathered friends that grace our shores are entirely missed. All this talk of emergers, shapes and forms, colors and textures, bird song and the visitation of species are a metaphor for configuration in Fingerspelling.
Simply put, configuration is the shape of a fingerspelled word. Some words, by nature of the letters, will have obvious shape, for example, the loan sign, “cozy.” Then there are other words, like the name “Sam,” that have almost zero shape and are very difficult for the eye to catch. It’s the difference between a tiny Spring seedling and a blooming, in-your-face sunflower. Or, the sharp pip of the Olive Flycatcher as it’s passing through amidst the squawk of the everyday Jay. configuration is the word’s character, shape, and form. If we aren’t careful, we can beat ourselves up with self-criticism, berating ourselves—why am I not catching fingerspelling today? What’s wrong with me? When really, it could be that the word fingerspelled has very little configuration.
The more we can become familiar and comfortable with the letters of the ASL fingerspelled alphabet, the more successful we will become at identifying them, very similar to spotting the sprouting, growing life and the new winged arrivals. Again, we come back to mindfulness— being aware of what is going on inside and around us in the present moment.
Train your brain to identify shape (configuration) with a particular letter as you would identifying a leaf, cluster of pine needles, the call of a bird or flash of color and shape of a wing pattern in the sky. It takes time, it takes patience and it takes awareness.
So, let’s dive in and consider a few mindful tips and then begin practicing with configuration.
Mindful Tip 7: Be attentive to letters that have a great deal of shape change and ones that have very little shape change.
Configuration varies if the word is being signed for speed, but as a general rule the following holds true:
- B, C, D, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, O, P, Q, R, U, V, W, Y and Z have strong configuration. Almost 75% of the manual alphabet has shape change. Doesn’t it make sense? More configuration means more ease in communicating your ideas. ASL is a visual, gestural language, so of course, handshapes were developed to reflect this innate desire to communicate quickly and efficiently.
- A, E, M, N, S, T, X have very little configuration, or shape. A bit over 25% of the manual alphabet has no shape. An approach may be, to practice and study these very diligently, it’s only 7 letters.
Mindful Tip 8: Memorize shortcuts and assimilations.
In Lesson 4 we learned that letters are often dropped or blended when fingerspelling loan signs. The letters that dropped or blended are of course, the ones with no shape! Why have them there if they don’t add anything to the visual picture? Here are a few shortcut letters, which change when the specific letter is influenced by the letters around it.
• Shortcut E – When the letter before E uses two fingers (index and middle), the E is often in a short-cut position. For example, with the following loan signs, a short-cut E is implemented:
o Stove, oven (notice how the hand can more easily slide from V, to shortcut E, to N, which also requires the movement of the same two fingers)
*It’s best to allow the shortcut E to develop naturally along with your speed and efficiency. Don’t try too hard to perfect this, just be mindful that when you’re practicing receptive skills, you may see the shortcut E coming off your partner’s hand—don’t let it throw you!
• Hand J vs Wrist J – A shortcut J, using only your hand, very small and controlled, will be much more efficient. Remember, it won’t have as much configuration as a loopy, wristy J, but it will allow you to save energy, move into the surrounding letters easier and be speedier, if this is your goal.
Mindful Tip 9: Anatomy is everything!
Analyze the nature of your hand and your partner’s hand. Long, slender fingers generally form tighter letters, well, because they can reach the positions with ease, vs short, beefier fingers which tend to be more open and relaxed. Long fingers = tight letters and short fingers = open letters are a generality, of course, but when we’re mindful, then we can identify patterns and with awareness, have greater receptive success.