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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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decrease in signing speed near the termination of the turn, by an optional call for addressee response (e.g., indexing the addressee at the end of the turn), or both. The signer then moves his or her hands to rest position. The addressee can signal turn claiming during the speaker’s turn by using the following strategies:
a. Optional increase in size and quantity of head-nodding, often accompanied by a concurrent increase in size and quantity of indexing the speaker

b. Optional switch to palma (i.e., palm up with heel raised higher than fingertips)

c. Movement out of rest position to get speaker’s attention—may include indexing, touching, or waving hand in front of speaker

d. Switching to -GAZE when speaker is +GAZE—may include postural shift, looking up (as if thinking while preparing to sign), facial signaling of forthcoming question, disagreement, etc.

e. Initiating turn (interrupting) and repeating first few signs until speaker is +GAZE and has yielded the floor or until speaker suppresses addressee’s turn-claim (Baker 1977, 219)

Because Baker (1977) looked at dyadic conversations, focusing on the selection of the next speaker or on the allocation of the next turn was not necessary. However, her analysis of speaker-initiated turns is to some extent comparable to what happens when a speaker self-selects in a multiparty conversation or in a meeting, as will become clear in the following section.

Turn-Taking Mechanisms in a Mixed Conversation with a Sign Language Interpreter

Turn-taking mechanisms in a mixed conversation with a sign language interpreter also follow a different pattern. Roy (1989, 1993) analyzed a videotaped meeting that occurred involving a professor, a doctoral student, and an interpreter and focused on, among other things, the interpreter’s role in simultaneous talk or overlap. She claims that interpreters have four options in the case of overlap:

1) The interpreter can stop one or both speakers and, in that way, halt the turn of one speaker, allowing the other speaker to continue. If the interpreter stops both speakers, it is possible that one of the primary speakers will decide who talks next, or the interpreter may make that decision. (2) The interpreter can momentarily ignore one speaker’s overlapping talk, hold (in memory) the segment of talk from that speaker, continue interpreting the other speaker, and then produce the “held” talk immediately following the end of the other speaker’s turn. . . . (3) The interpreter can ignore the overlapping talk completely. (4) The interpreter can momentarily ignore the overlapping talk, and upon finishing the interpretation of one speaker, offer a turn to the other primary speaker, or indicate in some way that a turn was attempted. (Roy 1993, 350)

In Roy’s study, whatever the interpreter chose to do, ultimately, it was the interpreter who resolved turn-taking problems created by overlap, and thus, it was the interpreter who made a decision: “In particular, the interpreter recognized overlap quickly, and made sociolinguistic choices to resolve overlap by deciding and allocating who would get the next turn” (Roy 1993, 360). Thus, the interpreter is not a neutral conduit but has an active role “in managing the intercultural event of interpreting” (Roy 1993, 341).


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