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Attention to gesture a sign of the times

Shape, Summer School

Date: 31 January 2020

A course presented at the Centre’ Summer School in December not only delivered a sweeping tour de force of research on sign languages, but highlighted a continuing debate in contemporary scholarship about them.

Its instructor, Dr Trevor Johnston, an Adjunct Professor at Macquarie and Sydney universities, has played a significant role in the evolution of sign language linguistics, most of which has occurred in the past half century.

“Before about 1960, linguists didn’t recognise sign language as language and didn’t realise that sign language is acquired as a first language by some of its users,” says Trevor. “When they did ‘discover’ that native languages exist in the signed mode, they started asking, what are they like? Are they like spoken languages?”

This led to a big focus on native signers, who learned their sign language naturally, as a first language, so they could be compared to hearing users of spoken languages who did the same. A big driver behind that was the formal generativist approach, where the idealised native speaker is the informant.

“So deaf people who were native signers fitted that [Chomsky-an] paradigm,” Trevor explains. “You just sit them down and ask them how things work in their language. But this skewed the kind of questions being asked by trying to make sign languages fit a mould.”

According to Trevor and like-minded colleagues, a major flaw in this approach is that it discounts gesture completely, assuming the signs people are making were all just like words: “They were afraid that if you recognised gestures, they’d have to admit they’re not really like spoken languages.”

Since the turn of the century, empirical interest on actual spoken language and multi-modality has shown that when people talk they do more than just use their mouth. The early sign language researchers claimed that what signers do with facial expressions (non-manuals) is equivalent to tones in spoken tonal languages, i.e., they are discrete, conventional and even language-specific, and make distinct lexical or grammatical meaning changes to co-occurring sign(s).

But Trevor contends that calling non-manuals morphemic in one language (sign) and just a co-speech gesture in another (spoken) is problematic.

“Once sign languages were linguistically described, we could allow ourselves the luxury of paying attention to the gestural side of it to see how that contributes to the meaning,” he says. “People are having a second look at sign language and thinking maybe we were a bit over enthusiastic when we described ‘this’ type of facial expression as being mandatory to conveying ‘this’ type of meaning with ‘this’ sign. Rather, it is a type of gesture that hearing people also use, and it just modifies the sign – it shows how you’re feeling about what you’re saying.”

“And the problem is that by calling it gestural, some people believe you’ve undermined the linguistic status of sign language. But I say that’s nonsense.”

Himself a native signer who learned from his deaf parents, Trevor obtained his doctorate with a description of Australian Sing Language (Auslan) from The University of Sydney in 1989. Since then, he has built the first corpus of the language and pioneered the development of sign language corpora around the world.

“I kept reading reports about sign languages I’d encountered that did not seem believable to me,” says Trevor. “I was aghast that the empirical basis for the claims was so weak. When claims are made about the grammar of these languages not based on empirical data, how does one contest it? So debates continue while we collect more information.”

Another factor is rapid evolution and the “question mark” that hangs over the future of sign language in Australia. “I thought that the type of sign language I grew up with looks like it might disappear because everything is changing so rapidly. We thought we’d document it, so when somebody does that again in five years, we can compare the two datasets twenty years apart.”

Trevor estimates that there are about 6500 core (native) users of Auslan, and you could double the number of truly fluent signers if you include their immediate families. But there are a number of forces at play that may see Auslan disappear by the end of the century – including, critically, the declining incidence of deafness in our society.

“This is controversial and I could be completely wrong about that. “The pace of technological change — instant, easy, borderless communication between deaf people world-wide on Facebook, YouTube, etc. — means it could also be replaced by American Sign Language or a new ‘international’ type of sign language that’s emerging on social media.”

Sign language communities are socio-linguistically unique, signing is in a state of flux, and its future is unpredictable.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University