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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation

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Signed Language Prosody and Boundaries

Since phrasing is found so widely in spoken languages, the use of phrasing in signed languages comes as no surprise (Bahan & Supalla, 1995; Mather & Winston, 1995; Sandler, 1999; Wilbur, 1999). It has been suggested that, in the absence of pitch as a possible cue for phrasal boundaries, ASL uses eyeblinks and phrase final lengthening to mark the ends of phrases (Wilbur, 1999). To date, however, the use of prosodic markers to indicate boundaries in signed languages has not been widely studied. One study by Hansen and Hessman (2006) concluded that markers such as blinks, changes in eye gaze, duration of signs or transitions are “useful but not conclusive” for determining sentence boundaries in German Sign Language.

An intriguing study done in Britain examined the perception of sentence boundaries in signed languages unknown to the participants (Fenlon, Denmark, Campbell, & Woll, 2006). Six Deaf native signers and six hearing nonsigners were instructed to “mark the boundaries in the story” across three conditions:[3] when a fable was told in British Sign Language (BSL), Swedish Sign Language (SSL), and in silent English via a videotape of a person reading English aloud with no visual language input. The results indicated a consistency in people’s responses, both Deaf and hearing, in the identification of boundaries, suggesting that both groups perceived similar movement cues of the individuals who told the fable. This finding supports the role of non-lexically-based prosody in boundary marking since the participants were not users of two of the languages for which they were marking boundaries, and yet they still had a high degree of agreement. The most frequent markers that occurred at the agreed-upon “boundary” points included sign lengthening in the signed language versions, head movement, head nodding, and shifts in eye gaze.

Prosody in Interpreting

Over the past 40 years, signed language interpreting in the United States has shifted from a part-time, volunteer activity into a rapidly growing professional pursuit. The national organization of signed language interpreters, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), has attempted to keep pace with the increasing demand for credentialed interpreters by upgrading their assessment process.

Presently, the RID recognizes two assessment measures for signed language interpreters, the National Interpreting Certification (NIC) and the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA). Both evaluations include knowledge and skills of ASL prosody as part of their criteria for certification. For example, the description of competencies needed for the NIC examination includes “knowledge of ASL sentence boundaries” and “comprehension of ASL discourse boundaries” (RID Website, 2007). The EIPA is an evaluation tool designed specifically for educational interpreters. One of the skills being evaluated in the EIPA is “prosodic information” with a specific focus on how the interpreter “marks sentence boundaries” (Schick & Williams, 2004, p. 191). Although the assessments state that prosody is a necessary skill, interpreters are left to master a skill with little available information on the topic.

One of the few studies that examined the use of prosody by signed language interpreters focused on the incidence of pausing in transliterated texts (Siple, 1993). The results suggested a correlation between the location of pauses in the English source language discourse and the pauses created in the transliterated text. Other studies have included prosody as one component in an examination of interpreters’ work (Sofinski, Yesbeck, Gerhold, & Bach-Hansen, 2001; Siple, 1995); however, after Siple’s (1993) investigation, there were no studies done specifically on prosody in interpretation for 10 years.

In 2003, a groundbreaking study by Winston and Monikowski addressed the use of prosody by interpreters, specifically how prosody marked topic boundaries in both interpretation and transliteration. The findings demonstrated that, although there were differences between the production of prosody used in interpretation and transliteration, similar cues occurred in both. The study concluded that “ASL pausing and phrasing features such as using space for sentence boundaries, lengthening final holds for signs, and shifting of the head and torso are essential to clear segmenting of ideas and topics within a text” (p. 189). Bringing together the most current research on signed language prosody and discourse analysis, the study provided preliminary findings on how prosody and discourse interface in interpreted texts.


3. The participants were not given specific instructions on the type of boundaries (syntactic, semantic, or prosodic) to be marked.
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