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Teaching ASL:  How accurate should signs be?
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In a message dated 11/15/2002 10:56:11 PM Central Standard Time, Diane S. writes:

I just had to thank you for having a great website. My 21 month old daughter was just diagnosed with Verbal Apraxia, and we are having a lot of success signing. Your site is so easy to use, and I especially like the detailed description of hand positions that accompany the illustrations. 

I was always under the impression that it is critical to have finger placement "just so," or the meaning of the sign can't be misinterpreted. Looking at what you say about the variety of signing styles, I am wondering if that is an accurate assumption?
For example: Shouldn't thumbs be tucked down when signing "more?" Would it make no difference if they pointed up or out?

Thanks again,
Diane S____
The Woodlands, TX


Two issues here.
One is communication.
The other is linguistic accuracy.

Starting with linguistics. In spoken English if I want to indicate a "cat" I'd say "cat." What if I said "caF" using an "F" instead of the "T?" Well, then it would be wrong. The reason it would be wrong is that one of the phonemes is different that what is commonly accepted by users of the language.

But now, suppose we discuss such things as regional variance? Southerners pronounce things differently than Northerners. Are either "wrong?" Of course not. But if you ask a Northerner he might very well tell you the Southerner is wrong or vice versa.

What about historical variance? Young people often develop new ways of saying things. The old people think they are wrong. Later all the old folks die off and the young ones grow old and think that their grandkids are speaking incorrectly. 

There will always be ways of using language that haven't made it into the mainstream. Such ways are considered wrong by language purists and "cool" by certain subgroups in a society.

Then there are words that have been literally mispronounced and eventually have gained acceptance by the greater language community. The word "Cajun" is a good example. It is my understanding that came from the word Acadian as in "French Acadian" people. But others mispronounced it and called them Cajun and eventually it stuck.

To sign "more" with the thumbs up, in my opinion, would constitute a nonstandard variation of the sign. If one of my students did it to me I would suggest they do it like I do the sign. That is my job. If one of my friends signed "more" with the thumbs up, I'd ignore it and focus on his or her message. It is important to know your place in society. Someone who goes around correcting other people's signs is a poopoohead.  (As an ASL instructor I really have to slap my own hands around "non-students" because correcting the signs of others is literally a habit for which I'm paid.)

Now, the other issue:  Communication.

My younger daughter, Sarah, has Aperts syndrome.  As such, she has no joints in her fingers.  Many of her signs are really quite "inaccurate" from a linguistic point of view.  But I'm just thrilled that she is able to produce "inaccurate" signing. It helps make communication much smoother around the Vicars household.

You suggested that one of the reasons for accuracy in signs would be so that they won't be misinterpreted.  Understanding a signed message is only minimally dependent on any one particular sign and is to a much higher degree dependent on the message as a whole and the context in which the message takes place.  Instructors who spend a great deal of time correcting their students signs end up depressing their students to the extent that many of them give up. Instead, instructors should focus on providing meaningful opportunities for students to use and interact in the language.  The kinks will eventually be worked out after a student has fallen in love with the language and gets involved with the community.  Sure there is a need for correction of inaccurate signs, but the correction can occur naturally as part of the discourse process.  I'm using "discourse" here to mean the back and forth exchange of messages between two or more people who are having a conversation.  If my signs are "wrong," my partner will likely say, "huh?"  Getting a "huh?" instead some other answer will then cause me to engage in a corrective process whereby I either educate my partner, he or she educates me, or I blather on in my clueless state.

The longer I remain in the target language community the more corrective opportunities I will have and I will tend to get a clue.  Those who don't get a clue (adjust  their signing to reflect that which is commonly understood by others) after a while tend to leave the community out of frustration.  It is a self-regulating process.  Of course, some people are slower than others.  And some have more of a desire to progress and put in more effort.  Those that work hard and stick with it generally become skilled communicators within a couple of years.

Take care.



Lifeprint Institute