Sign Language Expression VS Chinese Culture
02 May 2008
I got several comments on the Deaf, Not Dumb post (one comment actually on the site) relating to Alice‘s facial expressions. The observation was that Alice seems to be much more expressive when she signs than the average Chinese person is during conversation.
I can understand this point. I remember when I first arrived in China and was still learning to communicate in Chinese, I was often told, “你的表情很丰富” (your [facial] expressions are very “rich”), in other words, “your face is so expressive when you talk.” I may have been exaggerating my expressions a bit to make up for lacking linguistic ability, but I remember once trying to coach a Chinese friend into being more expressive, trying to get her to raise her eyebrows more, etc., to which she responded, “I can’t. I’m Chinese.” Of course that response is somewhat ridiculous, but clearly there are different cultural norms at work.
When it comes to sign language, facial expression is an integral part of communication. According to Wikipedia:
> In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not “real languages”. Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as true languages.
> Sign languages, like oral languages, organize elementary, meaningless units (phonemes; once called cheremes in the case of sign languages) into meaningful semantic units. The elements of a sign are Handshape (or Handform), Orientation (or Palm Orientation), Location (or Place of Articulation), Movement, and Non-manual markers (or Facial Expression), summarised in the acronym HOLME.
So, basically, when Chinese culture (less emphasis on facial expression) duked it out with the key elements of sign language (HOLME), Chinese culture had to give.
I think it’s fair to compare facial expression in sign language with sentence intonation in speech. You can still communicate if you’re bad at it, and some students might even think it’s unimportant, but the reality is that it’s essential for natural, native-like communication.
This difference in the role of facial expression can be hard to get used to for students of sign language. As I understand it, the Deaf sometimes chide hearing students of sign language with the remark, “you talk like a robot.”
UPDATE: Alice tells me she has actually been criticized by other Deaf people for being too expressive (especially as a woman) when communicating. Interesting…