Storytelling and Sign Language

Christina's Capstone Project

Tag: Communication

Research Journal: Signing Isn’t Just About the Sign

Sign language is often spoken of as a “manual” language, meaning that the signers’ hands produce the language. But in fact there is a much more to the language then simply hand motion. Facial expressions, head and body movements, and posture all factor into the meaning of the signs. One study suggests that ASL should more appropriately be described as a “visual-gestural language—where gesture is a generic term referring to body movement.”

Facial expression and body movement help form the sign. They add intensity. They provide grammatical and prosodic information. They also act as adverbs or adjectives. A particular combination of movements determine whether a sentence is a question, an assertion, or a command. It can also indicate negation or structural information about the sentence.

The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) has been used to identify the universal movements of when people experience one of the six basic emotions (happiness, fear, sadness, disgust, anger, surprise). But now it’s been used to code expressions in ASL. The results below show what behaviors occur with various types of questions when signed in ASL. These behaviors indicate eyebrow raise, eyelid movements, and altered eyebrow shape. Slight changes in facial position determine what type of question is being posed.
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Baker-Shenk, Charlotte. “The Facial Behavior of Deaf Signers: Evidence of a Complex Language.” American Annals of the Deaf 130.4 (1985): 297-304. Project MUSE. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Research Journal: Sign Language and Communication

When most people think of communication, they immediately recall words, speech, phrases, phone calls. But sign language is entirely visual; there is no spoken element of it. Pamela Weisman makes a really interesting point in her TEDtalk by saying “If you aren’t looking at the person you’re signing with, there’s no communication. Every second you look away you’re missing important aspects of your conversation, this makes communication more intimate and deeper connections are made. To the hearing, communication has become this thing we hardly even think about anymore.”

One of the first things that drew me to sign language was the visual component of it. In our modern world where many conversations happen with the barrier of a screen, I wanted to understand ASL in terms of total communication. If we all had to communicate using sign language, every hearing person would have to put down his or her iPhones and laptops while having a conversation. And while this would be a challenge for many people in today’s society, I would love to see communication like that.

As Weisman said, sign language allows for deeper more meaningful connections because it demands more attention and thought. Recognizing this aspect of sign language, can be helpful in improving all modes of communication. If we all realized the attentiveness and care that goes into sign language, we could apply that to spoken conversations and develop even better communication skills, even in a hearing community.