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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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Results and Discussion

Turn-Taking Mechanisms in All-Sign Meetings

Because I found no literature on turn-taking mechanisms in all-sign chaired meetings, I decided to videotape that kind of a meeting and analyze it. The following section describes some specific mechanisms that were found in a two-hour meeting of the board of Fevlado, with seven Deaf participants, all using Flemish Sign Language. This meeting was a regular board meeting that is held about every month, and no special issues were addressed that could have made this board meeting different from others.

In looking at how the next turn can be allocated in this type of meeting, two major and striking differences appeared that contrasted with usual descriptions of spoken language multiparty conversations. First, in spoken language conversations, one of the most important means of allocating the next turn to someone is by affiliating a name or other identifying term to a sequence-initiating action—which was not done at all in the two-hour all-sign meeting. Participants in the all-sign meeting never used names or other identifying terms when they were addressing someone to allocate the next turn to that person. Names or other identifying terms were used when talking about someone but never as an addressing device. 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, eye gaze proved to be an extremely important and powerful regulator that a current speaker used to select the next speaker.

The ways in which a speaker could self-select in the all-sign meeting were very similar to some of the signals described by Baker (1977) as addressees’ turn-claiming regulators. In particular, actions such as waving a hand, indexing, lightly touching the current speaker on the arm, and tapping the table were frequently used by participants who wanted to self-select as next speaker.[7] A variant of this behavior, which did not occur all that often and which was not described by Baker (1977), was stretching out a 5 classifier handshape with the palm away from the speaker and the fingers up, just above the table. This action was used in only one particular context: A speaker gave the floor to another speaker but, at the same time, indicated that he wanted the floor back by stretching out this 5 classifier handshape all through the next speaker’s turn. Another variant, again not used very often, ran as follows: A signaled to B (the person sitting next to the current speaker) that B was to warn the current speaker that A wants the next turn. This action was not used very often, probably because it is a fairly cumbersome method involving a third party. It was used only when the self-selecting speaker thought the current speaker had not noticed that he or she wanted the next turn, and even then, it was used only after waving a hand, tapping the table, or so forth was not successful.

One important difference between self-selection in a dyadic conversation and self-selection in a multiparty conversation, however, is that whoever self-selects as next speaker in a multiparty conversation will get the floor only when the current speaker looks at him or her rather than at any of the other participants. So self-selection in a multiparty conversation is never pure self-selection because the current speaker still has the power to allocate the next turn by means of eye gaze. Frequently during the two-hour meeting, more than one person wanted to claim a turn (i.e., self-select) at the same time, and each of them signaled this intention by means of waving a hand (the most frequently used signal by far). Thus, while the current speaker was still holding the floor, two or three participants were each waving a hand, each signaling that he or she was self-selecting, but the current speaker, using gaze direction, allocated the next turn to only one of these participants. So the current speaker—and not the chairperson—had the power to select the next speaker even when more than one participant were self-selecting. This situation is obviously different from a multiparty spoken language conversation where the power of the current speaker is not that strong.

7. Interestingly, the way in which men and women waved in this all-sign meeting indicated an apparent gender difference. The men each raised one hand high up in the air, well above their heads. The women each raised a hand until it was almost next to their heads (unless they really wanted the floor in which case they raised the hand higher). Further research will have to establish whether this variation is a genuine gender difference or whether it was typical only of the people attending this meeting. Tapping the table was not mentioned by Baker (1977).