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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language and the Law in Deaf Communities

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The Crucial Role of Nonmanual Signals in Accurate Interpreting

In this study, the signed interpretations of the subject interpreters were analyzed for their use of the syntactic nonmanual signals described above. ASL utilizes many more nonmanual signals—lexical and syntactic—than those described. Bridges and Metzger (1996), for example, describe and illustrate several other nonmanual signals. But the description above of the limited set of nonmanual signals relevant to this study provides insight into the pivotal role they play in the grammatical mechanics of ASL. As mentioned, these signals tell the listener how a grouping of signs should be taken—as a question, a negated statement, a conditional, and so forth. Moreover, because nonmanual signals can cluster together and co-occur with manual signs, they provide an economy, which results in the production of propositions in ASL at more or less the same speed as spoken languages.

Unfortunately, nonmanual signals are lacking to varying degrees in the signed output of second-language learners of ASL. A lack of this syntactic information can be catastrophic to the Deaf individual’s attempt to discern meaning from an interpreter’s signed output, which is somewhat akin to a hearing person trying to make sense of the indecipherable word salads of schizophrenics. In addition, an interpreter who lacks the time efficiency of combining nonmanual signals with manual signs will fall behind the English speaker who is turning out propositions at a faster rate. The interpreter who falls behind must catch up, either by deleting information (to the detriment of the Deaf individual’s understanding) or by interrupting the speaker to gain more time. In legal settings, interpreters rarely feel they have the standing to repeatedly interrupt police, judges, or lawyers in order to complete their interpretations. Consequently, information deletion is the unfortunate norm.


This study explores the relationship of interpreting skill to the comprehensibility of signed interpretations of the Miranda rights and interrogation. Three approaches were used to explore this issue. First, signed interpretations of the Miranda warning and an interrogation were analyzed to determine the frequency of certain syntactic nonmanual signals and the number of lexical items that were signed. Second, the signed interpretations were viewed by ten native Deaf signers. Each Deaf individual was asked to give his or her judgment as to comprehensibility. Third, ethnographic means were used to investigate a case where a Deaf man was charged with rape to determine how the interpreter’s skill level affected his understanding of the Miranda warning and the subsequent interrogation. In addition, ethnographic interviews of interpreters and lawyers representing Deaf clients in the Cincinnati area explored common police practices for “processing” Deaf suspects who have been arrested.



The Miranda warning and an interrogation were interpreted by interpreters at varying levels of skill. Their signed output was then analyzed to determine the frequency of certain syntactic nonmanual signals and the number of lexical items (i.e., words) produced. Below, I describe the methods of choosing subjects, data collection, and data analysis.

s u b j e c t s

Participating in this study were nine interpreters at various interpreting skill levels: beginning, intermediate and advanced. Each skill level group was composed of three interpreters.

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