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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Turn-Taking, Fingerspelling, and Contact in Signed Languages

Ceil Lucas, Editor

Part Three: Discourse Analysis

Turn-Taking Mechanisms and Active Participation in Meetings with Deaf and Hearing Participants in Flanders

Mieke Van Herreweghe

If Deaf signers and hearing nonsigners want to attend a joint meeting, communication among them is usually accomplished by means of at least one sign language interpreter.[1] In these “mixed” meetings (with Deaf signers and hearing nonsigners), we generally assume that the presence of a sign language interpreter creates equality of both parties (Deaf and hearing), in other words, that, by means of the sign language interpreter, equal participation of both parties becomes possible. Moreover, as Roy (1993) states,

To assist outsiders in understanding the practice of the interpreting profession, professional interpreters often describe their role by using metaphors such as “bridge” and “channel” which suggest the link or connection that they make between people who do not speak a common language. Interpreters themselves find it difficult to explain their role without resorting to these conduit metaphors, which then leads to a general perception of interpreters as passive, neutral participants whose job it is to mechanically transmit the content of the source message in the form of the target language. (342)

This concept of the interpreter as the neutral creator of equality leads to what Metzger (1999) calls “The Interpreter’s Paradox” (21), or the fact that “[i]nterpreters have expressed the goal of not influencing the form, content, structure, and outcomes of interactive discourse, but the reality is that interpreters, by their very presence, influence the interaction” (23).

The study described in this chapter looked at equal participation of Deaf and hearing participants in a mixed meeting, on the one hand, and the influence of the sign language interpreter on this participation, on the other hand, by observing turn-taking mechanisms used by meeting participants in Flanders. Mixed meetings with one or two sign language interpreters were videotaped, and the turn-taking mechanisms in these mixed meetings were compared to those in all-sign meetings to establish whether participation of Deaf participants in an all-sign meeting is comparable to participation of Deaf participants in a mixed meeting. However, before elaborating on the main issues of this study, some background information on Flanders and signed language in Flanders follows.

1. It is customary to write Deaf with a capital letter D for deaf people who regarding themselves as members of a linguistic and cultural minority group of sign language users regardless of their degree of hearing loss and to write deaf with a small letter d when not referring to this linguistic and cultural minority group.