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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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It’s Not What You Sign, It’s How You Sign It: Politeness in American Sign Language

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The findings reported here have implications for interactional sociolinguistics and cross-cultural studies, as well for ASL instruction and ASL/English interpretation. First, regarding sociolinguistic and cross-cultural studies, it is important when developing a DCT for a comparative language study to verify similar expectations for the contexts by the two language groups, as was done in this study. In addition, when administering a DCT, the ranking of the discourse contexts by the participants before the elicitation of linguistic data is important for accurate analysis and interpretation of the data.

Second, the findings of the DCT in this study show that these language users employ many well-documented politeness strategies (e.g., politeness strategies proposed by Brown & Levinson, 1987) to mitigate requests and rejections, and, in addition, use some distinct language forms (e.g., NMMs, “handwave” naming, and surprise expressions). This study provides new findings that can contribute to the understanding of cross-linguistical politeness strategies. In particular, the recognition of NMMs (Roush, 1999) reveals the unique nature of ASL in using nonmanual features to mitigate speech acts, which may be unique to signed languages. It is important for studies that involve a signed language to attend to such nonmanual features.

The implications for ASL instruction and ASL/English interpretation are threefold. First, the area of politeness is not generally taught in ASL or interpreter education programs. If such differences are currently addressed in the curriculum, they are usually attributed to cross-cultural differences in general. The findings of the current study, the face-saving view of politeness, and the approach used in the cross-linguistic study presented here (especially determining the weight of the imposition by considering power, social distance, and ranking of imposition) can provide educators with an approach to educate students and interpreters about this specific area of language usage.

Second, ASL instructors should be concerned about the competence of their students in terms of expressing social meaning as well as content, function, and textual meaning. The findings presented here show that there are certain aspects of social meaning that are integral to ASL instruction and to the goal of fostering pragmatic competence in second language users of ASL. For interpreters, an awareness of these four levels of meaning is also key to effective interpretation, as all four levels of meaning are conveyed in every interpreted interaction.

Third, ASL/English interpreters may focus on interpreting a speaker’s meaning as text (as though it were a monologue) and may, therefore, overlook important features of face-to-face interaction in their interpretations (see Hoza, 1999; Metzger, 1999; Roy, 2000a, 2000b; Wadensjö, 1998). ASL/English interpreters need to understand the politeness strategies used by ASL signers and English speakers because they make decisions regarding how to convey a speaker’s politeness strategies (their social meaning) in interpreted interaction. How these strategies are rendered by the interpreter could have a profound effect on the interaction and how the primary speakers perceive each other as participants.

Having proficiency in a language, whether the language is a first or second language, involves competence in one’s ability to alter language usage to accommodate different social contexts. People convey their intent, their social images, and their view of the relationship by the language choices they make. These levels of language usage guide how an addressee construes a speaker’s social meaning, and yet language users usually interpret these powerful messages unconsciously. Given that these linguistic decisions are based on social factors that lie beneath the surface of every interaction, every face-to-face encounter involves some consideration of politeness concerns.

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