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"If You Are Not Using Facial Expressions You Are Not Using ASL"
By: Lyn J. Wiley,
ASL Instructor / Researcher / Deaf Person
If You Are Not Using Facial Expressions You Are Not Using ASL
Some sign language students resist the idea of using facial expressions when signing. The reasons for their resistance are personal and varied.
Regardless the reasons, the following holds true: If we cannot accept and use facial expressions as they are used in ASL, we cannot master the language. One of my students objected to that comment, saying, 'No! You don't understand! I really do want to master ASL. I just don't want to make faces when I sign because I'm uncomfortable with that.'
I understand and respect the right to such reluctance and discomfort. Because while some facial expressions are universal, used by all of humankind, the unique manner in which facial expressions are used and the frequency with which they are used in ASL is foreign to most hearing people. And, stepping into unfamiliar territory can cause us reluctance, resistance and/or discomfort.
It helps to realize that with spoken languages, volume, intonation, stress, pitch and 'tone of voice' serve to alter or affect the meaning of spoken words. Since Deaf people cannot hear those things, we rely on 'tone of face' and other factors to alter and understand the meaning of signs.
For an ASL instructor, the issue of whether or not students should accept and use ASL facial expressions is non-negotiable. If we want to use ASL, we must use them. And, if we don't use them we cannot claim to be using ASL. It's that simple.
Analogous to this would be someone who wanted to master a spoken language (French, Vietnamese, English or some other language) but wanted to speak it without using intonation, stress, pitch, 'tone of voice' and never with a change in volume. The result would be a strange, distorted way of speaking - understood only by the person who chose to speak that in that manner. Why understood only by that person? Because requisite linguistic features that give words meaning and allow others to understand those meanings had been stripped from the language. Since others would not understand the strange way of speaking, it would be far-far-distant from something that would qualify as a 'language.'
The rest of this article explains why the use of ASL facial expressions is mandatory. It also discusses other factors that affect and alter the meaning of signs.
Why must a myriad of countless facial expressions accompany the delivery of many signs? Because each facial expression serves a vital and specific linguistic purpose. Facial expressions, often done in conjunction with other factors, are used as follows:
a) to indicate which of two meanings a sign conveys (i.e. the sign for 'rolling on the floor laughing' and 'seizure' are similar; they are distinguished, one from the other, primarily by facial expression. The signs for 'evil' and 'mischievous' are similar, facial expression distinguishes one from the other. The signs for 'regurgitate' and 'that's disgusting!' are similar, facial expression and other factors distinguish one from the other.
b) to soften or intensify the meaning of a given sign (i.e. to change the meaning of a sign from 'a little angry' to 'really angry' to 'furious,' 'livid' or 'in a rage.' Or, to change the meaning of the sign for 'stop' to mean 'pause' (by signing a much smaller, less forceful, softer version of the sign for 'stop')
c) to change the meaning of a sign to a totally different meaning (i.e. to change the meaning of the sign for 'Whoa!' as in: 'Whoa! Your brand-new BMW is beautiful!' to 'Whoa! There's a rattlesnake by your foot!')
d) to change the meaning of a sign to an opposite meaning by accompanying the sign with a 'no' head-shake (i.e. to change the meaning from 'I'm hungry' to 'I'm not hungry.' Or, from 'I'm happy' to 'I'm not happy.' Or, from 'employed,' to 'unemployed.'
e) to indicate which of several meanings is intended by a sign that can convey multiple meanings (i.e. the sign for 'odor' can also mean 'fragrance,' 'aroma,' 'fumes,' 'scent' and 'smell.' And, depending on facial expression, it can mean, 'I smell something,' 'Something smells good!' 'Nice fragrance!' 'Something smells bad.' Or, Eww! 'Something smells terrible!' And, if we sign 'smell' and shake our head 'no' it can mean, 'I don't smell anything.' Or, 'I don't detect any fumes.' If we furrow our brow and sign 'smell' it can mean 'What's that smell?'
f) to alter the meaning of a sign in terms of emotional tone (i.e. to change the meaning of a sign from, 'Please stop that,' said in a calm, pleasant tone to 'Stop that right now!' or 'Cut that out!' said in an exasperated or angry tone. Or, to change the meaning of a sign from "I don't mind' (said in a calm, pleasant tone) to 'I don't care!' (said in an angry or defiant tone); the signs for those two concepts are similar, facial expression and other factors distinguish one from the other.
The manner in which we make and deliver a sign can also alter the meaning of the sign. The meaning can be altered by:
a) how small or large we make a sign (i.e. a very small version of the sign for 'mistake' accompanied by an "uh-oh!' look on the face can mean 'Oops!' or 'a blooper.' If we exaggerate the sign for 'mistake; and alter our facial expression to include a 'Cha' mouth morpheme, it can mean 'BIG mistake!' Exaggerate the sign and facial expression even more and it can mean, 'BIG, SERIOUS mistake!' If we make an exaggerated version of the sign for 'big' it means 'huge.' Make it even larger and it can mean 'humongous,' 'enormous,' or 'gargantuan.' If we make a small, quick version of the sign for 'pain' it means 'Ouch!' or 'That hurt! If we make a very-small, softer version of the sign for 'depressed' it can mean: disillusioned; dispirited; down in the dumps, feeling blue, it was a let-down, etc. If we make a very small and softer, slower version of the sign for 'thrilled' it can mean 'a pick-me-up,' 'a boost to one's ego or self-esteem,' 'a little wind beneath one's wings,' or it can mean 'uplifting' or 'lifted one's spirits' or 'made me feel better.'
b) the speed with which we deliver a sign (i.e. we can adjust the speed, rhythm and style of the sign for 'walk' to mean any of the following: a typical speed and way of walking, a sluggish walk, a brisk walk, a walk that approaches a run, a labored walk, to walk with a bounce in one's steps, a stealthy walk, to walk with a limp, to walk with a swagger, to be very attentive and vigilant about one's surroundings while walking, to stomp around, a drunken walk, to walk in a 'marching' manner, to tiptoe, to take a few steps back, etc.
c) whether we make a sign one time or two times; with noun-verb pairs, verbs are often made with one motion and nouns are made with two, relatively small motions. For example, the verb, 'to fly' (in an airplane) is done with one motion; that same sign, done with two small motions, means 'airplane' (noun). The verb 'grow' is done with one motion; that same sign done with two small motions means 'plant,' 'garden,' or 'spring' (the season). The verb 'to sit' is done with one motion and the noun 'chair' is done with two small motions. Not all nouns and verbs have pairs, so there are many exceptions to this one-motion, two-motion guideline.
d) whether we make a sign just one time or repeat it several times (i.e. the sign for 'again,' when repeated several times, can mean often, frequent, frequently, recurs, recurring, repetitive or repetitious. The sign for 'drive to,' repeated several times can mean 'drove and drove and drove! ' The sign for 'forget,' when repeated several times can mean 'forgetful,' or 'I keep forgetting.' The sign for 'go-to,' when repeated several times can mean 'to frequent a place,' or 'go/goes there often,' or 'attend or attends,' as in: He attends the Episcopalian Church. If we repeat the sign for 'talk' several times it means, 'talkative,' or 'talked, and talked and talked.'
e) whether or not we 'tighten' our fingers/hands when we deliver a sign (i.e. if we 'tighten' our fingers when we sign 'connection' it can mean 'a tight connection.' If we tighten our fingers when we sign 'friend' it can mean 'a best friend' or 'a very close friend.' If we tighten our fists and exaggerate the sign for 'Grrr...I was so annoyed!' and show an angry facial expression it means 'Grrr . . . it made me so angry!' If we tighten our fists and sign 'strong' in an exaggerated manner it means 'super-strong,' or 'great strength!'
f) the direction in which we move a sign (i.e. the sign for 'to put one's foot in one's mouth,' when moved toward our own mouth means 'I put my foot in my mouth.' If moved toward another person it means 'that person put his or her foot in their mouth.' If the sign for 'help' moves toward another person it can mean 'I can help you' or 'I will help you.' If it moves toward another person and is accompanied by raised eyebrows it means, 'Do you want my help?' or 'Do you want some help?' or 'Can I help you?' If it moves toward yourself while making eye contact with someone and is accompanied by raised eyebrows it means, 'Can you help me?' or 'Would you help me?' If we make that same sign ('Can you help me?') with harsh, glaring eye contact and with an angry facial tone it could mean, 'Can't you see I need help! Or an exasperated, 'Geez! The least you could do is get up and help me!' Or, 'How about some help over here!?' There are countless examples of how movement changes or determines the meaning of a sign.
g) the distance to which we move a sign - a short distance or an extended distance (i.e. we can sign 'future' to convey a general meaning of future, or we can move our hand out farther in front of us, to mean 'in the far-distant future.' If we make the sign for 'close by,' 'nearby,' 'in close proximity,' and move it in one, very quick and very-short distance from the tip of our nose, it means 'in extremely close proximity,' or 'extremely close.'
h) whether or not we raise our eyebrows when we make certain signs; raised eyebrows indicate that we are asking a yes-no question and are hoping for or expecting a yes or no answer (i.e. if we raise the eyebrows and sign 'Drink?' it means 'Do you want something to drink?' If we raise our eyebrows and sign 'Finished?' it means, Are you finished? If we raise our eyebrows and sign 'Ready?' it means 'Are you ready?') If we raise our eyebrows and sign 'like-it?' it means, 'Do you like it?' If we raise our eyebrows and sign 'enjoy?' it means 'Are you having a good time?' or 'Are you enjoying yourself?'
i) whether or not we furrow our brow when we make certain signs; a furrowed brow can indicate, among other things, that we are asking a who, what, when, where, why or how type of question and that we hope for, or expect, that type of information in a response to our question (i.e. if we furrow our brow and sign 'live' and then sign 'you,' and then sign 'where?' it means, 'Where do you live?' If we make eye contact, furrow our brow and sign, 'Your, brother, where?' it would mean, 'Where is your brother?'
j) delivering what is usually done as a one-handed sign, with both hands, simultaneously and emphatically (i.e. if we sign 'don't know' emphatically with both hands it can mean 'How would I know!?' or "I don't know!' or 'I don't have a clue!' If we sign 'not' emphatically with both hands it can mean 'Absolutely not!' If we sign 'away' emphatically with both hands and show a look of annoyance or disgust on our face it means, 'Be gone!' or 'Get out of here!' or 'Go away!')
In addition to the above, we can change the meaning of a sign by changing where the sign is made, meaning we change the location of the sign.
WEAK: The sign for 'weak' is typically done on the palm of a non-dominant, stationary, flat hand, which is positioned with the palm facing up. If done on the forehead, using only the dominant hand, it means feeble- or weak-minded. Made on the heart using only the dominant hand, it means a weak or weakened heart. Made on our knee or knees using one or two hands, it means a weak knee or weak knees.
JOT NOTES: 'Jot notes' is signed on a non-dominant, stationary flat hand, positioned with the palm facing up. Done on the forehead, with the dominant hand only, it means, 'I'll make a mental note of it.' Done at the back of the head, using only the dominant hand, it means, 'I'll keep that in the back of my mind.'
PAIN: The general sign for 'pain' is typically done out in front of the chest. Made in front of the forehead it means headache. Made in front of the ear it means earache. Made in front of a tooth it means toothache. Made in front of the stomach it means stomach ache. Made in front of the heart, accompanied by a sad facial expression, it can mean hurt feelings or, that hurt my feelings. Made in front of the heart, accompanied by a pained facial expression, it can mean heart pains and made in front of the chest it can mean chest pains.
To sign 'a fierce headache' we can make an exaggerated version of the sign for pain at our forehead and simultaneously grimace with an especially-pained facial expression.
To sign, 'I don't have a headache' we can sign 'me,' and then sign a smaller, more relaxed version of 'pain' at our forehead while shaking our head 'no' and while showing an 'I'm fine - no headache' look our face.
FIRE/FLAMES: Typically, the sign for 'fire/flames' is done out in front of the chest. The sign can also mean burn, burns, burning, burned, flame, flaming and on fire. When done close to the body, with both hands starting at about waist level and moving up the chest it means 'inspire,' 'inspiration' or 'inspirational.' Or, we can sign, 'burst into flames' up the front of the chest to mean 'inspire,' 'inspiration,' etc. If we sign 'fire/flames' with just the dominant hand held in front of our mouth, with the palm facing down and fingers pointing straight out it means 'dragon.' If we sign 'heart' and then sign 'flames/burn' in front of the heart it means 'heartburn.'
BOILING: The sign for 'boiling' is typically done out in front of the chest. Done close to the chest and with an angry facial expression, it can mean 'fuming,' 'seething,' 'boiling mad' or 'burned up' (angry) or 'burned me up!'
CUBE: The sign for 'cube' is generally done out in front of the chest. Done at the forehead it can mean 'blockhead,' 'dope,' or 'nitwit.' If we sign 'bread' and then sign 'cubes' near the knuckle-side of our non-dominant hand (which represents a loaf of bread) it means 'croutons.'
LARGE: The sign for 'large' is generally done out in front of the chest. Done with the hands on either side of the head, at forehead level, it means 'egotistical,' 'self-fixated,' 'self-centered,' 'an inflated opinion of oneself,' or 'big-headed.'
To summarize: Many requisite factors, including some not mentioned in this article, affect or change the meaning of our signs and allow other users of ASL to understand our signs - and this includes facial expressions (which fall into the broad category of 'non-manual markers').
Additional notes from Lyn J. Wiley:
I sometimes teach the sign for 'stern/strict' to underscore the idea that in ASL, facial expressions are not optional - that they are vital, requisite, linguistic features of ASL.
I start by teaching the sign for 'stern/strict; as used in a general sense, I teach the student to use a fairly neutral facial or just-barely-stern facial expression. For example: The mayor issued a stern warning for people to stay away from the intersection of Main and Market streets or they would be arrested.
And, I tell them to use a more stern facial expression in the context of something like: I met my physics professor today - he seems to be an unfunny, serious, stern kind of guy. And then I tell the students that approximately 'one half' of that sign is delivered by the hand at the nose and 'the other half' is delivered, simultaneously, by the face.
And then I tell them to use a 'very stern' facial expression in the context of something like: I'd never disobey my Dad, he's a stern no-nonsense disciplinarian! And again, I remind them that 'one half' OF THE SIGN is delivered by the hand and 'the other one half' OR MORE is delivered, simultaneously, by the face.
Finally, I teach the sign for: "I'm dead serious! "I mean business!" "You best take me seriously because I'm not joking around!" said in the most authoritarian, stern way possible. Sort of like saying, all in one sign, "I've had it! I'm out of patience so don't mess with me and I mean business!" Or, "I'm not in the mood for any nonsense or defiance and if there is any you better hope you aren't the one responsible!" And again, I remind them that their facial expression represents a large portion, of that sign.
Then, I tell them that in many cases, facial expression can express a smaller or much larger portion of a sign. And, that sometimes facial expression and other non-manual markers take the place of a sign. For example: a 'no' head shake (rather than signing 'no'). Or 'rolling the eyes' to show that you are peeved, rather than signing the concept.
And to end this bit of instruction I say, "I repeat. If you are not using facial expressions you are not using ASL."
- Lyn J. Wiley
See: Non-manual Signals
See: Mouth Morphemes
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