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American Sign Language: "Facial Expressions"

Lindsey Duncan writes:

Dear Dr. Bill,
Hi! I just started learning ASL. The vocabulary and basic components I can understand pretty easily but I'm having a hard time with the facial expressions, specifically in situations where you need multiple expressions. For example, if I were to sign "Why are you scared?" do I just have to transition quickly from the frightened expression to the wh-expression? And if you're asking a wh- question do you make the face through the entire question, or just at the end? I would be so thankful if you could answer this! It's important to me that I'm communicating correctly.
- Lindsey

Dear Lindsey,
Hello :)
It depends on how much context and how clear you need to be.
In general, yes, you should transition your facial expressions quickly.

For example, you could sign:
YOU SCARED (using a scared facial expression), WHY? (using the "wh"-type question expression).

However it is always important to consider the context of your signing.

Suppose a child comes to you and tells you that he/she is "scared." Now you have a context and thus your response of "YOU SCARED, WHY?" would not need as much facial expression on the "SCARED" concept since you both know that he "is" scared and now your emphasis is on finding out "why" he is scared.  You could actually even drop the "YOU SCARED" part and just ask "Why?" (Or "REASON?")

On the "YOU SCARED, WHY?" sentence if you use "fear" on the SCARED and then transition into the WHY? It would be the equivalent of saying in English:
"You are scared. Why?"

If you raise your eyebrows during the SCARED part of the sentence it would be the equivalent of saying:
Are you afraid? If so -- why?

Or suppose your want to sign, "I'm not scared." You would sign something to the effect of:

1. I/ME AFRAID-(negative head shake) I/ME.


Neither of those examples would use a "fearful" facial expression.
However, if you were to topicalize the sentence you would indeed use a fearful expression:

3. AFRAID? ME-(negative headshake).

4. ME AFRAID? NOT!-(scoffing facial expression, slight negative headshake)

The first part of sentences 3 and 4 still wouldn't use "much" of a fearful expression but rather a you would use a bit of fear combined with the raised eyebrows of the "yes/no"-type facial expression.
All four versions are "ASL." Just as English can say things in various ways -- ASL likewise has various grammatically accurate ways to express the same general concept depending on what you want to emphasize.
Dr. Bill

Also see: Facial Expressions

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