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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Turn-Taking, Fingerspelling, and Contact in Signed Languages

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The data from this study show that two major differences occur between turn-taking mechanisms in all-sign meetings and turn-taking mechanisms in spoken language, multiparty conversations. One difference is that, in spoken language conversations, one of the most important means of allocating the next turn to someone was by affiliating a name or other identifying term to a sequence-initiating action whereas this method was never used in the all-sign meetings. Second, embedded addressing without eye gaze, another means of allocating the next turn in spoken language conversations, was never done in the all-sign meeting. On the contrary, in the all-sign meeting, eye gaze proved to be an extremely important and powerful regulator by which the current speaker selected the next speaker. A person could self-select in all-sign meetings by waving a hand, indexing, lightly touching the current speaker on the arm, tapping the table, stretching out a 5 classifier handshape (with the palm away from the speaker and the fingers up, just above the table), or asking another participant to warn the current speaker that the person wants the next turn. However, whoever self-selected as next speaker got the floor only when the current speaker (and not the chairperson) looked at him or her rather than at any of the other participants. So self-selection in all-sign meetings was never pure self-selection because the current speaker still had the power to allocate the next turn by means of eye gaze.

The system of turn allocation in all-sign meetings is completely different from the system that was used in mixed meetings with one or two sign language interpreters. One major difference was caused by a far more restricted use of gaze direction in mixed meetings. Deaf participants in mixed meetings had no control over the organization of turn-taking and the allocation of the next turn because their gaze direction necessarily was restricted to the interpreter. For the hearing participants, however, the situation was not all that different from chaired spoken language meetings because the chairperson was in charge and organized the allocations of the next turn.

Another difference was that the participants in mixed meetings had to signal to the chairperson that they wanted the floor. Consequently, Deaf participants had to break eye contact with the sign language interpreter and seek eye contact with the chairperson to signal for a next turn. This signaling to the chairperson was sometimes quite difficult, especially when the chairperson did not notice it. When something similar happened with the hearing participants (i.e., that the chairperson had not seen their signaling to ask for the floor), they simply supported their signaling by using their voices, and the chairperson immediately reacted to the sound. The Deaf participants, thus, depended on the interpreters when the chairperson had missed their signaling.

This whole process of signaling was even more difficult when only one interpreter was present. Often, one of the Deaf participants wanted to say something, but the chairperson hadnít seen his or her signal, and the interpreter couldnít warn the chairperson because she was still interpreting (either from sign to voice or from voice to sign). When the chairperson forgot about his or her role as coordinator of the meeting and forgot to allocate the next turn, the flow of participation was disrupted. Either people started talking at the same time and the interpreter was at a loss or (and this situation occurred especially when only one interpreter was present) people were speaking and signing at the same time, and the signing was not interpreted.

In the mixed meetings, self-selection of the next speaker happened infrequently and, then, only when the previous speaker was using the same language. So at those times, the turn nearly always went from Deaf person to Deaf person or from hearing person to hearing person, but never from hearing person to Deaf person or vice versa. Self-selection by a signer occurred only when the eye gaze of the previous signer was directed at him or her and not at the interpreter.

These instances were very similar to the ones found in the all-sign meeting. In all these cases, the gazes of the signers were directed at each other and not at the chairperson or at the interpreters. When a hearing participant self-selected, the interpreter had to indicate the transition. In the meeting with two interpreters, the voice-to-sign interpreter usually indicated this transition, but she sometimes forgot to do it, so in those cases, the Deaf participants were not aware of a change of turn.

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