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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Extraordinary from the Ordinary: Personal Experience Narratives in American Sign Language
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The literature on spoken-language narratives described above involves unrehearsed narratives produced in conversations or sociolinguistic interviews, in which the narrator tells a story from his or her personal experience. The literature on narratives in ASL, however, does not cover the same type of ďsource material.Ē Three types of ASL narratives have been analyzed: commercially produced literary narratives, elicited narratives, and personal-experience narratives. Commercially produced literary narratives are folktales that have been recorded and are commercially available, for example, Bird of a Different Feather (Bahan and Suppalla, 1994). Elicited narratives are those produced when a person is asked to read a story and retell it in ASL, or when a person is shown a cartoon and asked to describe what the events the cartoon depict. These narrators are animating a story created by someone else. Personal-experience narratives, however, are stories told about the personís own experience. The narrator is both author and animator of the tale. Despite these differences, each narrative type can offer insight into the structure of ASL narratives.

Identifying a Line

The challenges to identifying a line in a narrative have been discussed in the literature on spoken narrative (Hymes 1981, Chafe 1980). The same challenges exist when analyzing ASL narratives. When a narrative is being signed, is it possible to identify smaller parts from the stream of signs that are produced? The underlying assumption of a narrative analysis is that the narrative is not an indivisible sequence of signs, so the early work on ASL narratives focused on finding a means of identifying the beginning and end of a line.

Researchers were interested in describing how users of a gestural language structure narratives. Gee and Kegl (1983) applied a system for identifying the smallest units comprising the narrative, the line. The narrative was produced by a deaf native signer of ASL to a fluent deaf user of ASL and was one of several spontaneous narratives collected. Gee and Kegl made a transcript using English glosses, which included the duration of pauses between signs measured by the number of video fields that elapsed from the end of one sign to the beginning of the next. They then identified the longest pause, at which point they bisected the text. The same process was then applied to each unit yielded by the previous bisection. They continued this process until there were no more large pauses (defined as greater than 51 video fields or .94 seconds).

Gee and Kegl derived a hierarchical tree structure from the bisected texts (figure 1.4). Each terminal node in this tree represents a sentence. Each higher node corresponds to the narrative function of the lower-level sentences. The highest node represents the full text. The first division under this parent node identifies the introduction and main story. This continues down to the individual sentences. The meaning of each line is represented in English at the terminal node. Gee and Kegl conclude is that the pause structure in ASL narratives corresponds to the narrative structure such that longer pauses occur between the largest units of the narrative and pauses become progressively smaller as the discourse units they occur between become smaller.

Bahan and Supalla (1995) analyzed the narrative Bird of a Different Feather with the goal of determining if there was any pattern in the distribution and regularity of eye-gaze behavior related to line segmentation. They also addressed the issue of whether or not other behaviors, such as pausing, also could be used to identify the end of a line. Finally, they examined the interaction between eye-gaze behaviors and other nonmanual aspects of signing. For instance, did a pause always accompany a change in eye gaze at the end of a line? The 30-minute video of the narrative was divided into smaller narrative units following a system developed by Gee (1986, 1991) for spoken-language oral narratives. In this system narratives are broken down into hierarchical units in ascending order: lines, stanzas, strophes, and sections. Bahan and Supalla added two additional units to their analysis, chapters and parts, because the narrative they analyzed was longer than the spoken narratives used to develop the system.

The transcript Bahan and Supalla produced included eye gaze and other nonmanual behaviors. Three types of eye-gaze behavior were recorded: gaze to the audience, gaze in the role of a character, and gaze at hands. They recorded nonmanual behaviors such as head nods and eye blinks. They also documented the lengths of pauses. They selected fifty-seven lines from the full transcript for analysis (strophes 83Ė90) and described patterns found for eye-gaze behavior. First, they found that if a line ends with a gaze to the audience, then the next line will begin with eye gaze at the hands or eye gaze in the role of a character. Second, if a line ends with the eye gaze at the hands or in the role of a character, then the next line begins with the eye gaze to the audience. They note that while this pattern occurred frequently in their data, line breaks were not always marked with an eye-gaze change. If eye-gaze change did not occur then other nonmanual behaviors such as pauses, head nods, and eye blinks marked line breaks.

The work of Gee and Kegl and Bahan and Supalla demonstrates that it is possible to identify lines within an ASL narrative. ASL narratives are not continuous streams of signs, but are composed of smaller units that are identifiable as lines.

Dividing a Narrative into Sections

In order to develop a preliminary description of the structure of an ASL narrative and to identify characteristics of different elements of the narrative, Wilson (1996) examined a single personal-experience narrative. The narrative is about a student who ignores school rules and chews tobacco during class. Wilson applied two approaches used in the analysis of spoken language narratives to her ASL data. She used Labovís system to divide the narrative into its component parts based on function, and she used Gee and Keglís pause-duration technique to divide the narrative into hierarchical units.

Wilson created a glossed transcription of the story that also included non manual features such as facial expressions and length of pauses. A pause was considered to be an interval of time in which the handshape of the previous sign is no longer held, but the handshape of the next sign has not begun to form, or an interval during which a facial expression is held without a subsequent sign being articulated.

Using Labovís approach she divided the narrative into orientation, complicating action, and evaluation sections. She then reexamined the narrative applying Gee and Keglís system of dividing the story based on pause length. This allowed her to divide the narrative into two halves. The first half was the description of the studentís misbehavior and the second half conveyed how the student was caught. She turned to other means to divide the narrative into strophes and stanzas. These included identifying constructed dialogue, discourse markers, and referent and theme changes as boundary markers. Wilson concludes that this work demonstrates that the ASL narrative is not a unitary whole, but rather has an internal structure that includes subsections of certain lengths. She notes that the narrator in this case used constructed dialogue frequently, and points to constructed dialogue as an essential means of identifying the structure of ASL narratives.

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