Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2003 23:53:55 +0100 From: Nicla Rossini Subject: Mesch (2002) Tactile Sign Language
Mesch, Johanna (2002) Tactile Sign Language: Turn Taking and Questions in Signed Conversations of Deaf-Blind People. Signum, paperback ISBN 3-927731-80-3, EUR 23, International Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf, Volume 38.
Nicla Rossini, Department of Linguistics, University of Pavia (Italy)
This monograph provides an interesting highlight on communication among deaf-blind subjects. Deaf-blindness may be caused by several factors: the most common one deals with age-related changes in vision and hearing. Another common cause is Usher Syndrome, which is hereditary, and has at least eight different variants. Due to this syndrome, some persons may be born deaf with visual impairment. The symptoms aggravate over the years. Although sign language is not used by all deaf-blind people (some of them may use a home-made communication code), it is usually used by those subjects who are born deaf. When the visual impairment of these subjects does not allow the use of classical sign language, then subjects adopt a special kind of sign language, which is called tactile sign language. This particular version of sign language is based on tactile reading of the speaker's signs. The reading can be one-handed (in dialogs between a sighted deaf subject and a deaf-blind subject) or two- handed (in dialogs between deaf-blind subjects). In two handed reading, monologue position as well as dialog position is possible. In monologue position, the speaker has both hands under the hands of the listener; in dialogue position, the speaker holds his right hand under the listener's left hand and his left hand over the listener's right hand. Of course, this mechanism implies new rules for conversation regulation: this problem is worked out extensively in the book. In particular, the author addresses the questions concerning turn change, feedback, and questions (yes/no questions, alternative questions, wh- questions). Nine deaf-blind subjects were video-recorded while having spontaneous conversations. None of the subjects taken into exam was born deaf-blind.
Apart from some limits in the theoretic background - nodding is not a facial expression (p. 32), but rather a gesture. See for this Morris, 1977; Davis & Vaks, 2001 - or in the structure of the book (the description of monologue and dialog positions is certainly important, although the description of the perspective of the speaker and that of the listener in both monologue and dialogue is, in fact, a repetition), Mensch's work provides a captivating insight into the rules used tactile sign language to regulate dialogs and, in fact, the chapters focusing on dialogue are to be considered the most interesting of the book. Conversational tuns are well addressed and explained: the conversation begins with both speakers holding each other's hands in rest position (which is located in the lower bust area). When turn level begins, the hand are raised up to the upper bust level. In case of hesitation, the speaker holds the listener's hands in the upper bust level and closer to him, in a "half- complete" sign; when the speaker intends to give the turn to the listener, he lowers his hands and the hands of the listener to the rest position. Feedback may be provided by the listener to the speaker in various ways: for example, the listener may use linguistic and non linguistic feedback. As to linguistic feedback, the receiver may spell a YES sign on the speaker's palm; as for non linguistic feedback, the listener may use a simple YES-TAP with all fingers or only the thumb on the speaker's hand. In case of monologue, the YES-TAP is made with both hands.
This way to provide feedback to the speaker is defined as non- linguistic (pg. 105) by the author (I would rather define it "gestural"). Anyhow, this analysis provides important pieces of information about gestures in sign language, and a more detailed study about this issue would be needed. I also find interesting the note that "as for non-manual feedback, deaf-blind people nod sometimes even though they are aware that the other deaf-blind receiver can not read this." This observation concerns the discussion on the communicative function of gesture: since nodding is considered a gesture (see above), its performance when the receiver is not able to read it may be taken as a further piece of evidence that gestures are not communicative (see Rime, 1982). Further research on this particular problem would also be needed. The chapters concerning question-making in tactile sign language begin with a brief survey of functions and forms of questions. The author proceeds then by analyzing the different forms of question.
The problem with tactile sign language is that the use of non manual facial signals to differentiate questions form declarative clauses is not possible. Nonetheless, tactile sign language avoid fuzziness by means of manual signals, which can be listed as follows: -- the WHAT gesture (in utterances like " do you want to follow along, or what?", pg. 131); -- the extended duration of the last sign; -- pointing to the addressee (in final position);
Note that the WHAT gesture is lexicalized and functions as a question marker even in alternative questions, such as "which hand do you use, the left or the right?".
In addiction to these manual signals for questions, question words (such as the signs for "which", "how", "what") are used. The question words usually appear in initial position, but may repeated several times in an utterance. Support questions (which are meant to support turns by requesting feedback in the case of the speaker asking these questions, or to request clarification in the case of the listener asking these questions) are also analyzed. Usually, the signer's support questions occur at the end of a long utterance, while the receiver's support questions occur during or after the signer's turn. These questions are characterized by an extended duration of the beginning sign of the utterance. The receiver can ask clarification by using non- linguistic signals (which I would better define gestures) like waving and thumb pressure.
In general, the book is well structured and easy to read. The information provided on deaf-blind communication are to be considered valuable, although, as above stated, this research was made on subjects who were not born deaf-blind: a similar study on inborn deaf-blind subjects would also be interesting.
REFERENCES Davis, J. W. & Vaks, S. 2001. A Perceptual User Interface for Recognizing Head Gesture Acknowledgements. ACM Workshop on Perceptual User Interfaces, Orlando, Florida. Morris, D. 1977. Manwatching. A Field Guide to Human Behavior. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York. Rime, B. 1982. The Elimination of Visible Behavior from Social Interactions: Effects of Verbal, Nonverbal and Interpersonal Variables. European Journal of Social Psychology, 73: 113-129.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Nicla Rossini is currently a Ph.D. student in Linguistics. She is also Professor of Nonverbal Communication at the S.I.L.S.I.S., University of Pavia. Her research is related to different fields such as Gesture and its Cognitive Origin, Gesture and Handicap, Gesture and Second Language Acquisition, Gesture and Sociolinguistics. Her new interpretation of the Gesture Category by means of Prototype Theory has recently been published.