Monday, November 12, 2007

Linguistics: American Sign Language

My early experiences in learning my second language, American Sign Language (ASL), came with the acquisition dilemmas of vocabulary and structure. It is one thing to scribble down hand movements in a notebook during class to try to decipher later thinking "how did that sign go again?" and it is another to tap into the grammatical structure of ASL. I think many eager young students want to amass a copious store of signs without delving into the linguistics of ASL. I was fortunate to do an in depth study of this as part of my course work at Columbia University when I was working on my Master's Degree.

ASL is a true, living language with its own phonology, morphology and syntax. Phonology in spoken languages is concerned with speech sounds which then branches off into smaller, more specific realms. In ASL phonology consists of aspects of a sign; namely location, handshape, movement, orientation and nonmanual signals (facial expression). But phonology only looks at these contrastive parts of language devoid of meaning. Meaning is studied by linguists of all languages under morphology.

One of my favorite oft repeated phrases in linguistics is that languages have a finite set of rules that allows us to create an infinite number of sentences. We can mix up the words in our language any way we want, to say anything we want, but we gotta play by the rules. The rules are called syntax. We may not know the rules explicitly but they are implicit to us. How many times have you said "that doesn't sound right but I don't know why?"

When all of these elements are orchestrated to create language in use we do not necessarily separate out each of these essentials. One way these play out in ASL can be seen with the five basic sentence types; questions, negations, commands, topicalizations and conditionals. The focus of this post rests with questions.

The types of questions most asked are either Wh-questions or Yes-No questions. The former engages the use of words like who, what, when, why and where. In spoken English we indicate a question by using a falling inflection at the end of our sentences. Give it a try by saying out loud now "what time is it?". It would feel strange to us if our voice were to rise at the end of that question. So too in ASL when asking Wh-questions there is a correct grammar and 'feel'. The nonmanual features of phonology along with syntax and meaning necessitate the employment of the eyebrows. For Wh-questions the eyebrows lower much like the voice would. When I was first learning this it was like patting my head and rubbing my belly but it does become ingrained eventually, better to learn this early on in your studies.

Yes-No questions in American Sign Language also carry nonmanual features that are evident on the face of the signer. In spoken English when asking a yes-no question such as "Did you like that book?" our ending inflection goes up. In ASL this translates to raised eyebrows (and other nonmaual features like leaning forward and widening the eyes).

Lauren and I have put together another short video explaining all of this again but this time watch Lauren as she signs the 'wh' words. This is followed by a series of questions that are either wh-questions or yes-no questions. Can you notice the differences?After the video I wrote out the questions and answers so you can check out how you did.

If you had a keen eye you would have noticed that I asked all of the Yes-No questions and Lauren asked the Wh-questions.

Gary: Are we friends?

Lauren: Yes. What is your name?

Gary: Gary. Do you like that book?

Lauren: Yes. Where are you from?

Gary: Long Island. Do you like ice cream?

Lauren: No. When is your birthday.

Gary: It just passed, November 4th.

Lauren: Happy Birthday

So there you have a mix of vocabulary and structure. For more on the linguistics of American Sign Language check out Linguistics: A Resource Text for ASL Users of American Sign Language by Valli and Lucas now in its 4th Edition. It contains detailed information on basic ASL concepts, phonology, morphology, syntax and language in use. It's everything you always wanted to know about ASL but were afraid to ask.


d. chedwick bryant said...

I really enjoyed watching your eyebrows! that was interesting.

What is the history of sign language? Who "invented" it?

d. chedwick bryant said...

If you had a good teacher, (say for example 3 classes per week) and practiced an hour daily, how long would it take the average person to learn this language? (rough estimate)

I am just curious. (also I wonder how long it takes to learn to read Braille, and how it would feel for a sighted person to sit and read a novel in Braille.)

WAT said...

Once again, I love watching her sweet demeanor come right through in these vids!

Who's the hot dude to her left?! OH MAMA MIA! He's sooooooo sexy. What is his name? Where does he live? How can I get a hold of him? Does he like ice cream?


Pod said...

i seem to have a rather filthy mind today and so shall refrain from making any comments....

Gary said...

Ched - You raise some good questions. There is a wonderful book detailing the history of the Deaf by Harlan Lane entitled When The Mind Hears. This is a heavy book that probably contains more information than you want but it is really excellent.

To answer your questions - Nobody really 'invented' sign language. It naturally developed over time as a way for the Deaf to communicate. However American Sign Language was brought to America from France by Laurent Clerc who himself came here at the bidding of Thomas Gallaudet to teach at his new school. This is why ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (FSL).

I have found that the best way to learn ASL conversation is to use it in real interactions with native users. That together with classes to learn the linguistic side will propel you forward. For some people this can take years and for others it goes faster. I cannot really give a time frame. I think it would be great for you to give it a go. Good luck!

Braille is another issue altogether. I learned a bit of this a few summers back and only got through the alphabet.

Wat - Good use of those Wh-questions. I like the tone and timbre of your sentences. Next I'll have to check out your eyebrows to see if you got the swing of it.

Poddy - You're terrible Muriel!

Ladron de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I don't know ASL but use my eyebrows and other facial features in communication, especially when attempting Bambara, Catalan or Euskera. It distracts people from hearing me bungle the language. I agree with WAT and unlike him I can promise you two scoops.

Reya Mellicker said...

Love the video! You know your co-teacher is completely gorgeous. I know you've written about this before, but this is the first time I've ever spent a moment looking at her. I always want to take in your gorgeousness, don't you know?

I think facial expressions are important in every language, don't you?

What I want to know about ASL is ... what is its mood or flavour or colour? Do you know what I'm asking? I'm not multilingual but I got good enough with French to understand its flamboyance compared with American English, and enough German to get that it's a language of precision.

What about ASL?

Arielle said...

Gary, your blog is so great! It's fun watching the videos and very informative. Keep up your great work!


Gary said...

Gregg - You make a good point about not being afraid to be expressive and using your body in any language, it all helps. It seems you are quite the bilingual yourself.

Two scoops - now you got me thinking like Pod.

Reya Dahlink - She is a feast for the eyes to be sure and sweet as pie. I think all of that comes across as you point out.
I was thinking about the color of ASL and I do know what you are getting at here. For me it is a wonderfully fluid language that invites you in and comforts you. Lauren read your question and her thought is that ASL is a great language for expressing stories as it incoporates these elements naturally. Others usually comment on the beauty and flow when they watch someone sign. So, overall perhaps 'welcoming' is a good term. I love these questions they really get me thinking.

Arielle - Thank you. I love that I am able to document my teaching life with this blog and share a bit of the process involved in what I do. The feedback is wonderful too. Now, let me pass it back to you - I love your blog, it's great. Life in every stage is so interesting, isn't it.

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Language rules!

P.S. - YOU LOOK so cute IN THAT VIDEO! ;-) Am I allowed to say that?

lettuce said...

I'm not sure i can quite get my thoughts on this into order. Maybe you can do that for me? you're the expert.

But i find the way bodies are part of commmunication fascinating.
Its clearly integral and vital to ASL - but also, seems to be a very "natural" part of some spoken languages - eg. for Latin languages & cultures. Whereas I don't think of English - and maybe some other European (maybe esp. northern European?) languages as equally physically expressive. But we all communicate so much non-verbally - so I guess those languages ARE also "body-languages"? but the body seems to somehow have a different sort of role for them. Sometimes in this country people who use their hands a lot while talking might be laughed at a bit - while i can't imagine that ever happening in Italy, or maybe France.

does this make any sense? do you have any thoughts about this?

thanks for asking about my dad. Actually i was wondering if I could email you about April? in which case, i could also answer you about that more fully. My email is

MONA said...

That is a very interesting article about Linguistics of ASL. We really get something new to learn on your blog!

The video is interesting to watch!

Bev said...

Sign language seems to be catching on. My daughter (aged 9) in Hull, England has just come back from school knowing about the sign language alphabet.

Gary said...

J. DZ-S - It is interesting - at least to me. And yes, are you kidding me? Who does not enjoy it when people say nice things? I guess the vaseline I put on the lens did the trick.

Lettuce - We can have a nice long discussion about this, religion and politics over a few Manhattans or Martinis on your visit. If we can get Reya to join us I think we'll need to plan an all-nighter. You in Reya?

Mona - I know I'll rate when you write a 55 about ASL. But, I have no idea what the clever little twist would be.

Bev - First of all I am loving you simply based on your name. It is the name of my dear mum. Anyway, the sign language alphabet in England is different than the one in America. You have a two handed alphabet and we use one hand. I was taught the two handed version a while ago but can't remember even one letter now. Thanks for dropping in dear.

Ched - Another thought...I was told when I was learning ASL that when I had a dream in ASL I was well on my way. I always took this a a benchmark and when it happened I was so thrilled. The thought of dreaming in a language was and is fascinating to me.

Steve said...

Hey Gary - happy belated! My bday was on the 2nd!

Anyway, I'm about to watch your video, but I just have to say I'm glad you're here. I found a curious piece of street art in Italy that involves sign language. When I get a photo posted online, I'm going to send it to you for translation. (Of course, it maybe Italian...or it may be obscene. I'll risk it!)

Steve said...

JDZS, Reya and the others are right -- you two are adorable. You should totally have a TV show!

Mikey T said...

Gary, my mom would so love to see these videos. I'd send her the link myself, but she'd SO love to hear from you if you still have her email address. She's going through a tough time, so a little love from the east coast would mean a lot

Pod said...

did i miss your birthday?
how neglectful
i get so easily distartcted by eyebrows and talk of vaseline...

Mona said...

Happy Thanksgiving Gary, To you & your family & also to Lauren and all the children out there!

Gary said...

Steve - Happy belated to you too little scorpian! Looking forward to seeing that Italian ASL picture.

Hi Mikey - Done.

Poddy - No worries, I enjoy spreading it out as long as possible. My birthday that is...

Mona - Happy Thanksgiving to you. I will pass along your message. :)


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