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Accents in Sign Language:

An ASL Hero writes:

Hello. My name is ______.
I have been learning ASL from the lessons provided on Lifeprint. I have a question though, as I'm sure you've figured out.

I watched a show recently where the person said how someone signs can indicate where they're from in the US. More specifically, this person indicated that the way the girl was signing showed she was from a rural area. She said, in reference to the girl signing "Don't know": "Forehead level citation form indicates someone from a rural area." The person also explained that, similar to how hearing people have accents, ASL has dialects. Is this true? If so, how is it possible to determine, by someone's signing that they are from a rural environment? Is it even possible to determine that?

Thank you for your time. I wanted to quickly mention that the show I was watching was a cop show, so what the woman said may not be accurate anyways. I look forward to hearing from you :)

~ [name on file]

Response from Dr. Bill:

Hello _____!
It is certainly true that ASL has dialects and that a person's sign choices often reflect where that person is from. The "citation version" (the full, standard version) of the sign "DON'T-KNOW" is done at the forehead level.

The everyday, casual version of the sign "DON'T-KNOW" is commonly done at the cheek (or even lower) level.

"DON'T-KNOW" will typically be signed at the forehead level in the following situations:
1. A beginning level signer who is learning ASL as a second language.
2. An ASL teacher who is demonstrating the sign "DON'T-KNOW" in a very clear and precise manner.
3. A Deaf person who has limited interaction with skilled ASL signers and learned to sign from a hearing person who learned to sign from a book (or from an ASL teacher who demonstrated the sign "DON'T-KNOW" in a very clear and precise manner).

The statement on the cop show that "forehead-level citation form indicates someone from a rural area" is likely referring to the concept that "rural areas" generally do not have large concentrations of Deaf people. Rural areas tend to only have "isolated" Deaf people. Such individuals would not regularly be exposed to fast, native-level signing. Rather most of the rural Deaf person's friends would likely be "Hearing" people for whom the rural Deaf person would need to sign very clearly and precisely in order to be understood.

Take care,
- Dr. Bill

Topic: Accents
Context: An ASL learner was told try to use the accent of the group he has lunch with.

Discussion: When and how to match your signing accent to that of the native Deaf signers in your area.

Question: What is an accent?

Answer: "A distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class." (Oxford dictionary)

The word "distinct" means to be recognizably different from something else.

Everybody signs differently. Everybody. It is when our signing becomes recognizably or noticeably different from the signing of others that we are considered to have an "accent." If we want to "not" have an accent we need to reduce the differences between our signing and that of the people with whom we associate.

Here are some tips:

1. Pay attention and take note: As you watch other signers in your area -- actively look for, notice, and take note of when someone is signing something differently than you. When I say "take note" I mean that literally. Whip out your phone or a notepad and make a note of the sign. Soon you will have a list of signs that you have noticed that at least one person has signed differently than you.

2. Figure out if it is you or if it is the other person: Just because you see "one" person doing a particular sign differently than you doesn't mean you are producing that sign with an accent. It might just mean the other person is producing it with an accent. Now it becomes a numbers game. If you notice eight people doing it the way you do it and two people doing it the way the other person does it -- it would seem the other person has the accent (for that particular sign) and not you.

3. Consider the source: Consider things such as: Does this person voice while signing? Is this person socially active and primarily hang out with adult native Deaf people? Is this person living in a world "sheltered" from the larger Deaf Community? (Gets up, goes to work, chats with co-workers, goes home, only chats with same three Deaf friends on weekend -- repeats week after week (while the signing world around them changes they remain in their oasis). If the person with whom you are conversing attended a school that used "Signed English" or "Total Communication" or some other non-ASL signing system their adult "out world" (to be out in the world after having graduated from school" signing will likely be a mixture of Signed English and ASL.

4. Consider the sample size or the size of the pool of participants: By this I mean -- if "two" coworkers tell you that you have an accent that is different from "ten" coworkers telling you that you have an accent.

5. Seek clarification: When someone throws an ambiguous criticism your way such as: "you sign with a southern California accent" -- try asking them to give you five examples of the differences between "Southern California" signing and "local signing." If they can't "on the spot" list off a bunch of differences then perhaps their criticism (that you have a Southern California accent) isn't on target and instead it is simply their way of letting you know that there is "something" different about your signing that creates an itch at the back of their brain. Their criticism is likely still be valid -- you just need to figure out what the "real" problem is. Maybe it is simply you use too many or too few initialized signs. Maybe you are signing FREE with "S" hands (like the "cool" kids) instead of with an "F" hand -- (like the kids who don't watch videos of the cool kids).

A side note here is that sometimes people assume that because I live in California that I have a "Southern California" accent. The funny thing about that is my signing style isn't "Southern California." I only lived in So-Cal for six months. I've lived in quite a few places including Indiana (a year), Washington D.C. (Gallaudet for a summer), Texas (three years), Oregon (six months), Utah (19 years), and northern (or perhaps just "mid") California (15 years), plus I've had extended stays in gobs of places from Guyana (two weeks) to Singapore (two weeks a couple of times). My point is that my signing is a blend of signing from a fairly diverse number of regions filtered by many decades of actively analyzing dozens (over 40) ASL textbooks and hundreds (more likely thousands) of videos, then choosing and teaching (to the best of my ability) the signs that are used "most" nationwide.

I recall upon first moving to Sacramento how a couple of Deaf folks let me know that the sign for "computer" was done "on the forehead." A few years later, after video-relay-interpreting became commonplace -- Sacramento Deaf started changing over to the wrist version (and/or other non-forehead-based versions). Perhaps they got tired of the video relay interpreter (often based in a different region or state) misinterpreting their "computer" sign as "Columbus" and/or having to ask for clarification. (Two points here: 1. Language changes, 2. Online video is allowing / causing ASL to become more standardized in the same way that "radio broadcast" (and later TV newscasts) influenced spoken English to become more standardized).

6. Investigate actual region-wide signing using a large sample of signers: If a few people at work or at the local bowling alley tell you that you have an accent, try going to a region-wide event with hundreds of local Deaf and observe the signing of the leaders of the event. Is the signing of the leaders of the event more like your bowling alley buddies or is it more like yours. If it is more like "yours" -- then your bowling alley buddies need to stop playing with their balls and go socialize with a more diverse set of people from time to time. [Joel, I temporarily phrased it that way for you but later today I'll be editing out the "balls" phraseology. Gotta keep this a family friendly site.] If your signing is "distinct from" the general signing being done by the general population of people at the region-wide meeting or event -- then yah -- it's you. Time to get busy actively following the maxim, "When in Rome sign as the Romans do."

7. Recruit help: Ask your Deaf friends to actively help you develop your list of signs that you do differently from the locals. Give them specific permission to interrupt you and correct you. Assure them that you will be grateful for their advice. Consider going so far as to reward them from time to time for their assistance, (dark chocolate, etc.).

8. Develop a second list: Sometimes the critic is guilty of the criticism. It is common for people to want to pull the speck out of your eye but fail to notice the plank sticking out of their own eye. As you develop your list of "signs that you do differently" than others -- you will start to notice that "Gee, my coworkers don't sign everything the same either." Thus you may wish to develop a mischievous little second list of signs THEY do differently from each other. This list can get you into trouble though if you in any way attempt to use it to justify your own signing choices. Your job is to learn ASL (and not be defensive in any way). However they might be bothered less by your "accent" if on occasion you were to mention, "I've noticed you two sign [insert sign from your list here] differently. Is there a difference in the meaning?" (Heh. Fun, yes -- but if you try this and lose friends -- don't blame me.)

9. Realize that there is a social / cultural dynamic involved here. If a skilled Deaf signer with an accent shows up and starts chatting with a group of Deaf -- chances are no one will mention (or even care about) the accent. If an unskilled Hearing signer hangs out with a group of Deaf -- there is a much stronger chance that someone will "inform" the Hearing signer of the accent. The fact is that skill (speed and clarity) combined with cultural insight (sign choices based on cultural information) tend to make an accent irrelevant. Accents are not the problem. The problem is slow, unskilled signing combined with an "accent" (using signs that are not common in the region). If you keep improving your signing skill for many years and your signing reaches "Deaf speed" -- it won't matter much whether your sign for "birthday" is the same as your hosts sign for birthday. (It will only matter if the slice of cake provided you is sufficiently large and has a side of ice cream).

- Dr. Bill





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