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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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What's Your Sign for Pizza? An Introduction to Variation in American Sign Language

Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, and Clayton Valli

Chapter Four
Phonological Variation

We turn now to examples of variation from the project on which this book and the accompanying CD are based. These examples come from the videotapes we made during a project that began in 1994. We traveled to seven U.S. sites: Staunton, Virginia; Frederick, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Louisiana; Kansas City, Missouri, and Olathe, Kansas; Fremont, California; and Bellingham, Washington (see Figure 8).

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Clip 4. The project, as well as phonological variation, are also described on the CD.

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We chose these sites because they all have thriving communities of ASL users. In addition, Staunton, Frederick, Boston, Fremont, and Olathe are the sites of residential schools for deaf children. We chose these seven areas in order to represent the major geographic areas of the United States—northeast, east, south, midwest, west, and northwest. We videotaped a total of 207 people in groups. Some groups had 2 people; others had as many as 7. For the first part of the videotaping, people just chatted without the researchers present. Most of the people knew each other, so they could talk about shared experiences and current events.

After they had chatted for about an hour, we selected two people from each group. Then we interviewed these people in depth about their language backgrounds, their educational and work experiences, and their family lives. We then showed them a set of pictures, asking them what their signs were for the objects or actions represented in the pictures. In four of the sites—Boston, New Orleans, Kansas City/Olathe, and Fremont—both African American and Caucasian signers participated in the study. In Staunton, Frederick, and Bellingham, where relatively few African American people live, we interviewed only Caucasian signers. We interviewed people in three age groups: 15–25, 26–54, and 55 and older. We chose these specific age groups because they parallel the developments in deaf education. People who were 55 and older were educated at a time when state schools for deaf students focused on oralism and prohibited the use of ASL in the classroom.

When people in the 26–54 group were going through school, ASL was beginning to gain recognition as a language, and many schools were beginning to follow the philosophy of Total Communication, that is, signing and talking at the same time. Many of the signers in the youngest group have been able to use ASL in the classroom.


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