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Review of  Tactile Sign Language

Reviewer: Nicla Rossini
Book Title: Tactile Sign Language
Book Author: Johanna Mesch
Publisher: Signum Verlag
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 14.202

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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

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
-- 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.

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 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.