Talk Description to Me

Episode 36 - The Look of ASL

February 06, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 36
Talk Description to Me
Episode 36 - The Look of ASL
Chapters
0:46
The look of ASL
11:09
Christine's Questions
18:52
"Nice to meet you" tutorial
Talk Description to Me
Episode 36 - The Look of ASL
Feb 06, 2021 Season 2 Episode 36
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

What’s it like to watch people communicate in ASL? Are the gestures remotely comprehensible to those who don't speak the language? How is tone conveyed? And (apparently) most importantly, what's the sign for "Hamburger"?!  This week, Christine and JJ discuss the look of ASL, ask more questions than they can answer, and give a quick described tutorial for the phrase "Nice to meet you!"

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

What’s it like to watch people communicate in ASL? Are the gestures remotely comprehensible to those who don't speak the language? How is tone conveyed? And (apparently) most importantly, what's the sign for "Hamburger"?!  This week, Christine and JJ discuss the look of ASL, ask more questions than they can answer, and give a quick described tutorial for the phrase "Nice to meet you!"

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to Me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashtag in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

I was on a zoom call recently on the topic of diversity and inclusion. And the question came up, what makes you feel more included? What would make you feel more included, and more represented, and one of the Deaf participants said, I don't need everyone to learn sign language. But it would be really good if everyone knew how to just greet me and sign and that has really stuck with me. And I thought that's an achievable goal. I, I've been really intrigued by sign language, I never really thought about actually learning it. But when when she said that, I thought, yeah, that's a that's an achievable goal. And so today, we're going to talk about sign language in a broad sense. And, and then we're going to wind with wind up with how to how to assign a greeting, which I think is a lovely, a lovely thing. And of course, this has been very much in the in the North American media if you viewed the presidential inauguration, and the Pledge of Allegiance was done seamlessly in sign. And ASL is something that's always intrigued me in the way that a closed book is, is intriguing, because I never had the sense of what it looks like to watch it being done. Even if you don't understand any of the meaning. I felt like that as a blind person, there was a whole sort of swath of impressions and body engagements that I was never really going to understand. And so, JJ, is it fair to start there as you don't really know sign either? So can we take it from start from from that just as an observer? So when you see someone doing ASL, even if you don't know it, you know, that's what they're doing? You know, it's not just like a lot in person being really just, you recognize right away that it's ASL, right?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, that's right. The look of ASL is very distinctive. And you're right, I don't speak sign language. Most of my experience is seeing formal ASL interpreting, not so much casual signing. A lot of my experiences are either watching people on TV doing sign language, or at live events, and so forth. You know, in accessibility situations where a describer is there, there's an ASL interpreter there. And so that's kind of the kind of signing that I'm most used to seeing. And I was thinking about this, how to describe the look of sign language. And what I came up with was, it's kind of half secret handshake, half charades, with just a dash of sitcom actor mugging for the camera. So that's kind of, that's the overall look. So let's break that down. So the secret handshake side of it, you know, ASL is largely gestures with the hands. And the person who's speaking, their fingers form all kinds of complicated shapes, especially if words have to be spelled out, which is often the case, then you just flip through the alphabet. And that's a series of very quick movements of the hands, the hands generally held in front of the body at about chest height, but they move around a lot, right? They can, you know, hands can go over heads into the sides, and, but generally, it's out in front about chest height, and often one hand, kind of tapping the other. So sometimes both hands are involved, sometimes one hand is involved, and the speed is incredible. One gesture flows into another and into another. And for someone who doesn't speak the language, it's actually difficult to tell when one gesture is ending and another one is beginning because there's so fluid, right? And so that's the speed, the precision, the organized nature of it. To me, that's what makes it look like a secret handshake. And then there's the charade side of it. So sometimes the signs are seemingly random. They don't make any sense visually unless you speak the language. But sometimes the signs are illustrative, they're representational. So, for example, hamburger. To sign hamburger, you imagine making a hamburger patty with your hands. So imagine you have a ball of raw meat in your hands, and you're pressing it back and forth. It's like not unlike making a snowball, and you kind of pat your hands back and forth, one on top of the other. And then you flip it that hand that hands on top of the first hand, and then you flip it back and forth, that is hamburger. So it's kind of representational. The sign for day, for example. So take your right arm, I think it's your right arm, and you bend it at the elbow, and you leave your forearm parallel with the ground with the palm open and facing down. So the right arm bent at the elbow, forearm parallel with the ground, palm open and facing down, then you take your other arm, you bend it at the elbow, but you put your elbow on the back of the hand that's parallel to the ground, and you point your finger up at the sky. So you've just created an L shape, a right angle, with your right arm parallel to the ground, and your left pointing up at the sun. And what you do is; keeping the elbow on top of your hand, you lower your pointing finger down until one arm falls on top of the other. And that is the setting sun. That's the full day. And so you've got this representational sign. There are all kinds of them. And they're thrown into this very elaborate secret frat house handshake, right? So you've got gestures, flying by at speed. And then someone suddenly - it's like, "wait a minute, did that woman just mime that she was eating soup?" Yes, that's exactly what she did. She mimed that she was eating soup. That's what I mean by a mix of secret handshakes and charades. Right? Some of its representational, some of its not, it's happening at incredible speeds. That's the overall look.

Christine Malec:

I had always thought of sine as using the hands in complex ways, but I don't think I had appreciated the use of the arms. And so I was I was enacting the gesture as you were describing it and thinking, you'd be hard to do that in a crowd, you'd need some space around you.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely you do, especially if it's an animated conversation, because your gestures get bigger. If you are, you know, if you if you are excited, or if you are interpreting for someone who is speaking in an excited manner, then your gestures get bigger and broader. And in fact, that kind of leads perfectly into like my little dash, the dash of mugging for the camera, which is essential. With language, with any kind of communication, we need to not only convey our ideas, but we want to convey tone as well. So in written languages, we have punctuation like exclamation points, and we've got design options like underlining or italicizing. And in oral communication, we can fluctuate our voices to indicate that we're angry, or that we're serious, or that we're teasing, right, you can use your voice to indicate those things. So for example, if I want to say, "this is a big problem", I can use, I can do it just like that; "this is a big problem". And I can use a flat tone. Or I can use a sarcastic tone and say "this is a big problem". Or if I really want to emphasize I can say "this is a BIG problem". And the way ASL conveys those tones, because it means different things if you're interpreting this to an audience, the way ASL interprets those tones is by using facial expressions. So if an ASL interpreter is wanting to convey "this is a BIG problem", when they sign the word big, they might do something like open their eyes really wide, maybe puff out their cheeks to indicate BIG, right? Or if they want to convey that that the person speaking was using a sarcastic tone, maybe they're going to kind of pinch the corner of their mouths, maybe they have a little smirk so that this someone who is who is watching the ASL, someone who's using that language can get the tone as well as the direct translation. So the flashing of these broad facial expressions can be, and again, your gestures can get bigger, they can get broader, they can get bolder, and it can be really quite big. I've often heard it said that when acting for the movies, you should act for the camera because very subtle expressions are going to be shown close up on a massive screen. If you're acting for live theater, you're supposed to act for the back row, because your expressions need to be seen from 100 feet away. And I would suggest that ASL facial expressions are more like live theater than movie acting, not because they need to be seen at a distance, but because they need to be really clear. And they're going to flash by at a very fast pace. So there you have the you've got the the secret handshake speed and, and seemingly nonsensical signs. And then you've got the illustrated representational signs someone you know, miming that they're eating soup, and then you've got these broad facial expressions, and, and gestures that match tone. And that's the overall look of ASL.

Christine Malec:

Now, if you were on the street, say, and you happen to see someone signing, how would you know that they weren't just just articulating? Because the way you answered that question before was very context based, like they're in a theater, you know, or they're on a zoom call in the captioning part. So if on the street, would it be as obvious?

JJ Hunt:

Absolutely. The speed, the number of signs that are being flown, by the way that two people are facing one another or group of people facing one another and paying attention to each other signs? It's a little bit like, I would say the audio equivalent would be if you walk by and you and you hear two people humming. How would you know that that's different than two people speaking a language that you don't speak? It's not dissimilar to that. There's a clarity to the gestures, there's a speed to the gestures, there's a back and forth. You know, there's communication happening. So it's not just someone gesturing, you know, like we joked about the way Donald Trump moves his hands in and out, in and out and in and out, or someone who points a lot when they speak, someone who gestures a lot when they speak, they tend to have a limited number of gestures in their repertoire that they tend to go to over and over again, whereas someone speaking ASL, it's, I mean, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of signs are going to be flying by at an incredible pace. And then there's the expressions on the face, right? Big broad expressions that are matched by the enthusiasm of the gestures themselves.

Christine Malec:

I'm really struck by that. That the ASL interpreter, and even to an extent the speaker is kind of an actor. I hadn't considered that at all.

JJ Hunt:

One of my very favorite things is ASL interpreters at concerts. Have you experienced this phenomenon?

Christine Malec:

No, tell?

JJ Hunt:

Oh it's fantastic. So there are a couple of frankly, celebrity ASL interpreters who regularly pop up at rock concerts and rap concerts. And they're to the side on the stages at live concerts. And, of course, as an ASL interpreter, not only do they have to keep up with the lyrics, which at a rap performance can be very difficult,

Christine Malec:

Oh my gosh!

JJ Hunt:

But they have to, they're bopping to the beat.

Christine Malec:

What?!

JJ Hunt:

And they're signing to the beat. And they're signing slang. And sometimes they're lip synching along. And they rock it! It's honestly one of the most joyful, hardcore. It's just a lovely, lovely thing to watch.

Christine Malec:

Wow.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it's really cool. I've seen some videos where like a rapper is going at it, just doing their thing. And they kind of catch a glimpse of the ASL interpreter at the side of the stage. And they're like, totally blown away, and they look around to their like bandmates, or whoever else.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

And then they go over and they, like a guitar player and a singer might end up in a little back and forth where one person sings and the other one plays a riff and then they go back and forth like that? Sometimes a rapper and an ASL interpreter will go back and forth rapping and signing, trying to keep pace, and who's got the bigger, broader gestures?

Christine Malec:

Wow!

JJ Hunt:

And you're right, it's a performance. It's definitely a performance. It's very cool.

Christine Malec:

Oh my, I had No idea.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it's awesome.

Christine Malec:

No idea. I don't know if you can answer this as someone who who doesn't speak, but I have a feeling you can. Some people are remarked upon as having a beautiful voice or a good speaking manner. Is there an equivalent aesthetically?

JJ Hunt:

That's really interesting. I, as someone who doesn't speak it, I'm not sure I would know how to judge that. But I wouldn't be surprised if there are within the community. I'd love to hear from others about this. I wouldn't be surprised if there are people in the community who just appreciate elements of the way someone speaks; the fluidity, how articulate they are, right? I'm sure there are elements of watching someone speak or communicating with someone who's elegant in their manner of speaking. I can't imagine it wouldn't be the case, that that would translate to ASL as well. It's a beautiful notion.

Christine Malec:

Well, I think that, and again this is something that as a blind person, I know only by thinking about it and talking to people, but someone's overall attractiveness is partly based on how they move. Not just their look, not just what they look like, but how they move their body. And so I feel like something of that must come through. So that when someone's doing ASL, their natural grace or their level of physical grace must play out. And so, do you find yourself more drawn to watching particular interpreters, even though you don't know what they're saying?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, certainly, as I flipped around on YouTube in preparation for this, I was watching different people sign, and I was watching different instructional videos, and then getting into some rap ASL battles and whatnot. There are some people that you're drawn to and I guess if I was going to really break it down; for me, the engagement, the way some people use their whole bodies, the way some people are connecting, frankly, with eye contact. Like, how intensely are they looking at me? Even if it's in a YouTube video, am I connecting with you while we're having this conversation? Those kinds of things. And the fluidity of gesture, I mean, some people just have a gracefulness to their movements, like you said. Some people have it and some people don't. Yeah, I certainly find that. And so I'm sure others who are fluent are finding that as well. For sure.

Christine Malec:

Are their iterations of sign in which your arms would go out from the sides of your body? I'm just wondering how much physical space someone needs to be having a full on conversation or to be doing sign actively.

JJ Hunt:

For the most part it tends to be directly in front of the body, but gestures can get quite broad, so your arms might go out to the side. But I think that in general, the stage, the theater is in front of the body.

Christine Malec:

I'm super interested in things that can be said in one language, but not in another. So you have these maladies that you can only come down with in German or something.

JJ Hunt:

Ha!

Christine Malec:

So I don't know whether you came across any, but if any of our audience members or our listeners know of sentiments or ideas that can be expressed very easily in sign, but take five sentences in spoken language, please, please get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook or email, because I'd love to know more about that. So let's talk practical. Imagine that I'm on a zoom call. And there are deaf people and they have interpreters. But I want to greet them in a way that makes everyone feel like part of the group. And so even if I can't see them or see the interpreter, can we walk through how to make a nice friendly greeting in sign?

JJ Hunt:

"Hi, nice to meet you" is a nice simple phrase. And it actually kind of draws on a lot of the things we've already been talking about. So let's let's go through "Hi, nice to meet you". And again, I am not an ASL speaker. I am not an ASL teacher. This is just based on my watching a few videos. This is based on the visuals of that. So Hi, nice to meet you. First of all, hi, I mean, you can just wave. That's an accepted Hello, an obvious Hello, with a with a wave of your hand. But the official sign for "Hi!" is actually a salute. So you take your right hand, and I've seen it done in a couple of different ways. Either flat palm or just two fingers. So your pointer finger and your middle finger, and then the other fingers kind of tucked down and and bent under the thumb. So either a full flat palm or just the two fingers, and you bring your right hand to the top of the forehead. That's at an angle such that your palm is facing your left shoulder. Okay? Does that make sense?

Christine Malec:

Yeah, so like the hairline?

JJ Hunt:

Exactly.

Christine Malec:

In the middle, like above your nose?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, somewhere around there. The top of the forehead area, palm facing down to the left shoulder. And then there's just a quick action, a quick move away from your face, like five or six inches, the salute. Tick. That's it.

Christine Malec:

Okay. Okay,

JJ Hunt:

So that's the solute. And I've seen people do it either from the wrist, so they just tick with their wrist, or they go from elbow. So they keep their forearm and wrist straight, and they move from the elbow. That's the salute, that's "Hi". Okay, now you're gonna like this one. Nice in "Nice to meet you" is very similar to the raining money gesture that we talked about.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

You've got both of your hands flat, palms open, your left hand is palm up, and your right hand is palm down. So your left hand his palm up your right hand his palm down, and you swipe your right hand across the top of the left, moving away from you. Just one swipe. So imagine you're just like brushing crumbs off of your left palm. That's "nice". You hold it at a bit of an angle. So it's not like it's not like a flat plate, you're holding it at a bit of an angle, and you're swiping your hand. That's "nice". So "Hi, nice". And then "to meet", this is quite a quite a lovely one. So you bend your elbows and make two fists. And you hold your fists in front of you at about shoulder height with your knuckles pointing up, right. So in a way, it looks like you're about to start a fist fight.

Christine Malec:

In front of your shoulders or your fist closer together?

JJ Hunt:

They are more or less about shoulder width apart.

Christine Malec:

Okay.

JJ Hunt:

And then what you do is you raise both of your index fingers, you point them at the sky.

Christine Malec:

Oh.

JJ Hunt:

What you're doing is, you're representing two people.

Christine Malec:

Oh.

JJ Hunt:

And then you just bring those two people closer together toward the center.

Christine Malec:

Oh!

JJ Hunt:

And that's "meet", "Nice to meet". And then you just point to the person you're speaking to. So all of that together is a salute; "Hi", "Nice"; you sweep you're right open palm on top of the left, "Nice to meet"; you take your fists, fingers pointed up, and you bring those two together, "Nice to meet you", and you point to the person.

Christine Malec:

Hey I can do that.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. I've seen some variations where the "to meet" is actually one pointed finger further away and one closer to you, and you bring them together. And that kind of combines "to meet" and "you" at the same time. But I thought it was simpler and sweeter to for the "Nice to meet you" with the point. That's it. That's a nice simple way to understand. And so that's just as an example of, so you've got "nice", which is a seemingly nonsensical gesture, "to meet", there's a representation, right? There s something about that that's ki d of clear, I understand it v sualy even though I don't spe k the language, and then point ng to you. And so you can imagi e all of that happening at spee , you can get through that n seconds. It doesn't take any l nger to gesture that than it do s to say it. "Hi, nice to mee

Christine Malec:

I'm feeling like blind people, especially who know Braille, are in a funny position where we might actually learn it more quickly. Because it's representational. And I'm not sure why I feel that way. But can you give a sense of the alphabet? Not what it is. But if you are watching someone go through the alphabet A to Zed, what's what's the positioning and the gesturing there?

JJ Hunt:

So the some of the letters are representational but for some, your fingers just can't make the shapes so they're seemingly nonsensical. So "O", for example, you make an O, you make a ring. That's easy to do with your fingers. A "J", I know this because my name is JJ. Again, I'm not going to get this accurate. I haven't I haven't done this for a long time, studied it, but it's something like you stick your pinky and your thumb wide apart. You spread those and you tuck your middle fingers down. So it's like you know, what's that surfing gesture where you got your pinky and your and your thumb spread? Then you make a swoop down with your pinkie. So you're kind of making a J gesture.

Christine Malec:

Ah, okay.

JJ Hunt:

J J. So sometimes the alphabet is like that. There are letters of the alphabet that look like the written letter. And sometimes it's not, because how do you make a K with your fingers? It's tricky. You know,

Christine Malec:

But it seems like, if you were spelling a word, it would be better to use smaller gestures that were more precise with the fingers, as opposed to big, sweeping gestures with the arms because they take more time. So is that what it actually how it looks?

JJ Hunt:

That's it, you're exactly right. So the gestures for spelling are hand based, not arm based. So the gesture that we did for full day, where you've got one arm on top of the other, and one arm falls, you know, they're not that they're small, they're tight. And they tend to be one hand straight in front of you like front and center, making a series of gestures. So it's like, imagine counting with your fingers for someone 1,2,3,4,5. And you just hold up one finger after the other, it's happening like that, that speed and just changing the position of your fingers and perhaps your wrist, maybe rotating your wrist a little bit, but you're not, you know, your hands are not going to be bouncing around going from right to left, up and down, combining two hands. When you're spelling, it's one hand, very tight.

Christine Malec:

When you're watching it being done, is it ever kind of hypnotic and hard to look away from? Because I'm imagining the interaction of expressions. And so if you see a deaf person signing, and you think you're getting a sense of what they're saying, by their facial expressions, and then the person is speaking for them, and maybe, you know, using that inflection that you expected, the sarcastic or the humorous. Does it ever become almost like a distraction to watch the interaction?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it's quite lovely. I've certainly been in the position where I have to remind myself Don't stare, don't stare.

Christine Malec:

That what I feel like I would be doing too!

JJ Hunt:

It's terrible! Because it is, it's lovely. And it's nice to see other people communicating and, you know, it can be quite beautiful. It's mesmerizing, and it's interesting. And so you know, for all of those reasons that I think I can be proud of I want to stare and watch. But then there are probably some other reasons that I shouldn't be so proud of, reasons that I still want to stare and watch. And I just have to remember these are people having a private conversation. No one wants to be stared at when they're just having a conversation on the street. But it is really hard. And I will confess, oh this is so embarrassing. It's like knowing one phrase in any language, you kind of want to throw it around.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

When I first learned how to say "My name is JJ" and for some random reason knew how to say "hamburger". The number of times I'd be walking on the street and I'd see two people speaking sign language and I would like pull myself away from jumping into their conversation and saying, "Hi, I'm JJ! Hamburger!"

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

Cuz I've got the instinct! I want to join! I like what you're doing.

Christine Malec:

I wanna show off!

JJ Hunt:

Totally! And then they what? They reply to me, like, "What are you talking about? Are you are you crazy person?" And all I can reply with is "Hi, I'm JJ! Hamburger!"

Christine Malec:

Just smile stupidly and keep walking.

JJ Hunt:

Ha ha ha! The story of my life, Chris. Story of my life.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha! We hope you're loving the show. We really enjoy the challenge of putting together a new episode each week. To ensure that our efforts are worthwhile. We need to reach as many people as possible. That's where you come in, help spread the word. Maybe send a podcast link to three friends. post about the show on local listservs and Facebook groups. Perhaps tweet about a favorite episode and tag some followers you think might like it, or show your love by becoming a patron. The broader our reach, the longer we can stay Boyd and keep afloat. With your support. We'll be around for a long time. Thanks for listening and staying connected on social media. It's what makes this so rewarding for us have feedback or suggestions of what you'd like to hear about. Here's how to get in touch with us. Our email address is talk description to [email protected] Our Facebook page is called talk description to me. Our website is talk description to me.com and you can follow us on Twitter at talk description.

The look of ASL
Christine's Questions
"Nice to meet you" tutorial