Gestures And Sign Languages

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Although both Sign and gestures involve the use of the hands (with other parts of the body), they are rather different. Sign is like speech and is used instead of speaking, whereas gestures are mostly used while speaking. Examples of gestures are making a downward movement with one hand while talking about not doing very well in a class or making a twisting motion with one hand as you describe trying to open a bottle or jar. The gestures are just part of the communicative act being performed.
In the study of non-verbal behavior, a distinction can be drawn between gestures and emblems. Emblems are signals such as “thumbs up” (= things are good) or “shush” (= keep quiet) that function like fixed phrases and do not depend on speech. Emblems are conventional and depend on social knowledge (e.g. what is and isn’t considered offensive in a particular social world).

Types of gestures

Iconics are gestures that seem to be a reflection of the meaning of what is said, as when we trace a square in the air with a finger while saying I’m looking for a small box. By itself, an iconic gesture doesn’t ‘mean’ the same as what is said, but it may add ‘meaning’.
Another common group of gestures can be described as deictics. The term‘deictic’ means ‘pointing’ and we often use gestures to point to things or people while talking. We can use deictics in the current context, as when we use a hand to indicate a table (with a cake on it) and ask someone Would you like some cake? We can also use the same gesture and the same table (with cake no longer on it) when we later say That cake was delicious.
There are other gestures, such as those described as beats, which are short quick movements of the hand or fingers. These gestures accompany the rhythm of talk and are often used to emphasize parts of what is being said or to mark a change from describing events in a story to commenting on those events.

Types of sign languages

There are two general categories of language involving the use of signs: alternate sign languages and primary sign languages. By definition, an alternate sign language is a system of hand signals developed by speakers for limited communication in a specific context where speech cannot be used.
In contrast, a primary sign language is the first language of a group of people who do not use a spoken language with each other. British Sign Language (BSL) and French Sign Language (SLF), as used for everyday communication among members of the deaf communities of Britain and France, are primary sign languages.


Since speech was what those teachers believed the children really needed, a teaching method generally known as oralism dominated deaf education for a hundred years. This method required that the students practice English speech sounds and develop
lip-reading skills. Despite its resounding lack of success, the method was never seriously challenged, perhaps because of an insidious belief among many during this period that, in educational terms, most deaf children could not achieve very much anyway.

Signed English

As a result, many institutions promote the learning of what is known as Signed English (also called Manually Coded English or MCE). This is essentially a means of producing signs that correspond to the words in an English sentence, in English word order. In many ways, Signed English is designed to facilitate interaction between the deaf and the hearing community. Its greatest advantage is that it seems to present a much less formidable learning task for the hearing parent of a deaf child and provides the parent with a communication system to use with the child.
For similar reasons, hearing teachers in deaf education can make use of Signed English when they sign at the same time as they speak. It is also easier for those hearing interpreters who produce a simultaneous translation of public speeches or lectures for deaf audiences.
However, Signed English is neither English nor ASL. When used to produce an exact version of a spoken English sentence, Signed English takes twice as long as the production of that same sentence in either English or ASL. Consequently, in practice, exact versions are rarely produced and a hybrid format emerges, using some word-signs and incomplete English word order.
The type of argument just presented is what has been used in support of teaching Signed English in deaf schools because one of the major aims is to prepare students to be able to read and write English. Underlying that aim is the principle that deaf education should be geared towards enabling the deaf, for obvious economic reasons, to take part in the hearing world.

The structure of signs

As a natural language functioning in the visual mode, ASL is designed for the eyes, not the ears. In producing linguistic forms in ASL, signers use four key aspects of visual information. These are described as the articulatory parameters of ASL in terms of shape, orientation, location and movement.We can describe these parameters in the use of the common sign for THANK YOU.

 Shape and orientation

The shape may differ in terms of which fingers are used, whether the fingers are extended or bent, and the general configurations of the hand(s). The configuration shown in the illustration is a “flat hand” (not a “fist hand” or a “cupped hand”).
The orientation of the hand is “palm up” rather than “palm down” when signing THANK YOU. In other signs, the hand may be oriented in a number of other ways such as the “flat hand, palm towards signer” form used to indicate MINE.

Location and movement

Whatever the shape and orientation of the hand(s), there will also be a location (or place of articulation) in relation to the head and upper body of the signer. In THANK -YOU, the sign begins near the mouth and is completed at chest level. Some signs can only be distinguished on the basis of location, as in the difference between signing SUMMER (above the eyes) and UGLY (below the eyes) because hand shape, palm orientation and movement are the same in both of these signs.
The movement element in THANK-YOU is “out and downward” toward the receiver. The difference between faster and slower movement in signing also has an effect on meaning.

Primes, faces and finger-spelling

The contrasting elements within these four general parameters can be analyzed into sets of features or primes. We say that “flat hand” is a prime in terms of shape and “palm up” is a prime in terms of orientation. Identifying each of these primes allows us to create a complete feature analysis of every sign in much the same way as we can analyze the phonological features of spoken language.
In addition to these parameters and primes, there are important functions served by non-manual components such as head-movement, eye-movement and several specific types of facial expressions. Under normal circumstances, THANK YOU is articulated with a head nod and a smiling face.
Also, if a new term or name is encountered, signers can use finger-spelling, which is a system of hand configurations conventionally used to represent the letters of the alphabet.
From these brief descriptions, it is clear that ASL is a linguistic system designed for the visual medium, in face-to-face interaction. The majority of signs are located around the neck and head. If a sign is made near the chest or waist, it tends to be a two-handed sign. One of the key differences between a        system using the visual medium and one using the vocal-auditory channel is that visual messages can incorporate a number of distinct elements simultaneously.

The meaning of signs

In use, this sign consists of rotating both hands together with the fingers interlocked in front of the chest. Several different interpretations have been suggested for the source image of this sign. In one, it represents the stripes on a flag, inanother, it’s a  mixing pot, and in yet another it’s a coming together. To suggest that any of these images comes into the mind of a signer who uses the sign in conversation to refer to AMERICA is as absurd as proposing that in hearing the word America, an English speaker must be thinking about Amerigo Vespucci, the sixteenth-century Italian whose name is reputed to be the source of the modern word. The signs in ASL have their meanings within the system of signs, not through reference to some pictorial image each time they are used.

Representing signs

The fact that a sign language exploits the visual medium in quite subtle ways makes it difficult to represent accurately on the page. As Lou Fant (1977) has observed, “strictly speaking, the only way to write Ameslan is to use motion pictures”. One of the major problems is finding a way to incorporate those aspects of facial expression that contribute to the message. A partial solution is to write one line of manually signed words (in capital letters) and then, above this line, to indicate the nature and extent of the facial expression (in some conventional way) that contributes to the message.

ASL as a natural language

Children acquiring ASL as their first language go through developmental stages similar to children learning spoken language, though the production of signs seems to begin earlier than the production of spoken words. In the hands of witty individuals, ASL is used for a wide range of jokes and ‘sign play’. There are different ASL dialects in different regions and historical changes in the form of signs can be traced over the past hundred years (older versions are preserved on old films).
Yule, George. (2005). The Study of Language. United States of America: Cambridge University Press.

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