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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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Turn-Taking Mechanisms in Mixed Meetings with One or Two Sign Language Interpreters

Turn Allocation and Overlap

The system of turn allocation in all-sign meetings, as described above, is completely different from the system that is used in a mixed meeting with one or two sign language interpreters. One major difference is caused by a far more restricted use of gaze direction in mixed meetings. A striking observation was that all the hearing participants (except for the interpreters) looked at who was talking, whether Deaf or hearing, whereas the Deaf participants looked at the interpreter. Consequently, the Deaf participants 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, which was a completely different pattern from what occurred during all-sign meetings.

For the hearing participants, however, the situation was not all that different from chaired spoken language meetings because, in those meetings, the chairperson is in charge and organizes the allocations of the next turn. In chaired meetings with a sign language interpreter, this control necessarily is quite tight because the interpreter can interpret for only one person at a time; thus, only one person at a time can talk. One can imagine that, in mixed meetings led by a chairperson who knows nothing about the dynamics of interpretation, turn allocation can go completely wrong. However, both of the mixed meetings that were analyzed for this article were chaired by people who were well acquainted with this these dynamics. In these chaired mixed meetings, the participants had to signal the chairperson when they wanted the floor. Consequently, the Deaf participants had to break eye contact with the sign language interpreter and seek eye contact with the chairperson, as in example 2 (from the meeting with two interpreters).[12]

Example 2.[13]

R. (Deaf parent) asks for the floor by looking away from the voice-to-sign interpreter—who stands next to and slightly in front of the chairperson—and by looking at the chairperson while slightly raising a hand. The chairperson has seen this signal and acknowledges it to R. by means of a short nod and the OK sign, so R. looks back at the voice-to-sign interpreter. The current speaker (hearing) continues for a while, then stops, and immediately, the chairperson nods at R. to give him the floor. R. sees this signal in his peripheral vision field while he is still looking at the voice-to-sign interpreter. However, at this point, the voice-to-sign interpreter is still interpreting (her last sign is produced just after the chairperson nods at R.). R. sees the voice-to-sign interpreter stop, checks whether the current (hearing) speaker has also stopped, then looks again at the chairperson and at the current speaker, raises his hand while looking at the sign-to-voice interpreter—(who sits next to her colleague), and starts signing. When he raises his hand, the sign-to-voice-interpreter says his name.

In example 2, R. seems confused by the fact that he got the floor from the chairperson while the voice-to-sign interpreter was still signing. Thus, he does all the checking. After he is convinced that the current speaker has stopped talking and after having checked with the chairperson, he signals to the sign-to-voice interpreter by raising his hand that he is going to start. All of this checking, of course, takes time, so a fairly long pause occurs between the hearing speaker’s last utterance and R.’s first.

Signaling to the chairperson that one wants the floor can sometimes be quite difficult, especially when the chairperson has not noticed it, as in example 3 (from the meeting with two interpreters).


12. In the meeting with two interpreters, the Deaf participants could have also sought eye contact with the sign-to-voice interpreter so she could signal to the chairperson that one of the Deaf parents wanted the next turn, but this approach never happened during the entire meeting. I assume this strategy was not used because the Deaf parents knew that the chairperson could understand Flemish Sign Language. They probably preferred to signal directly to him that they wanted the floor rather than indirectly by means of the sign-to-voice interpreter. It would be interesting to see what happens in a meeting with a chairperson who does not understand Flemish Sign Language.

13. I chose not to transcribe this example and some of the other example interactions in a musical-score format because they would become extremely cumbersome and probably very confusing because of the complex exchange of eye gazes. For the sake of clarity, I chose to give a prose description.