Sign Language Expression VS Chinese Culture

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…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Ni Eng Lim Says: May 3, 2008 at 3:20 am

    Specifically for Chinese, not only is intonation used, crucial lengthening of the vowel (yun mu) and appropriation of common lexical items and fixed expressions (such as 就、我也没、也) as discourse markers also serves to communicate stance (normally done thru facial expression).

    It is interesting to consider how Chinese being a tonal language might to a certain degree prohibit intonation as a productive method of indexing attitudes and dispositions.

  2. Yes, imagine that, a woman with facial expressions. What’s the world coming to 🙁
    China’s sexism continues to piss me off.

  3. I think we often underestimate the importance of facial expressions in communication. They are even more important when there is a language barrier. I work as a medical interpreter for Chinese here in the US. Quite often I notice patients who can barely understand English predicting the doctor’s meaning based on facial expressions. More often than not, their suppositions are accurate. This can create problems as well. On several occasions I have had a doctor say an off-color, or sometimes even offensive remark to me on the premise that the patient cannot understand what is being said. While the patient cannot understand directly what is being said, they usually get the gist of the comment which they were not intended to understand.

    When we learn a language for the first time, we often subconsciously rely on getures and facial expressions to compensate for the lack of oral language. For me, I have noticed that many of these original gestures and expressions have carried over from when I began learning Chinese until today…now they are more of a nuissance, that just make me look goofy when I talk. I also went through a period when I would subconsciously represent the rising and falling of Chinese tones with my hands. I can only imagine how ridiculous this must have looked to native speakers.

  4. I had friends who mimicked all their tones with their head. Not only did Chinese people laugh at them, but the bobble-head language made people who had no clue what they were saying laugh too. I think the arm think is better because it is easier to hide.

  5. @ Ben,

    I’ve done Chinese tones with hand gestures before as well. Despite the progress I’ve made with tones and speaking in general, if I say something out of context it more often results in furrowed brows as whoever I’m talking to tries to comprehend. (I find that more often than not I say things that are out of context for many Chinese people simply because of our cultural differences.) But I’ve never seen a native speaker use hand gestures for tones except when teaching foreigners.

  6. 中国传统的教育就教会我们要严肃一点呵呵。从小妈妈经常说的话就是“不要嬉皮笑脸的,严肃一点”呵呵,在这种耳提面命之下,想要表情丰富恐怕也很难吧,而且在中国的文化中严肃的表情往往是权威的象征,是你作为一个大人该有的表情是成熟的表现,相对的总是嘻嘻哈哈的就显的有点幼稚呵呵。同时中国人经常会有心事不外漏的想法。古语有云“胸有激雷而面如平湖者可拜上将军也”就是讲的这个道理。所以就造就了我们稀少的面部表情呵呵。

  7. sophie,


  8. 呵呵
    thank you! 我只是怕 我用中文留言你们会觉得不受尊重。我也想用英文写啊可是实在是能力有限:-) ,见谅了!

  9. So do you think I could improve my perceived fluency in Mandarin by making a poker face whilst speaking instead of throwing the facial expressions out there like I’m speaking English and actually care what I’m saying? You know what else I noticed? Chinese don’t make any voices but their own when delivering stories. Of course relating real stories my “bad ass dad” voice and “bitchy mom” voice are nothing like my parent’s real voices, but they can reveal a lot about my attitude towards the things they would say to me. (Be it authoritarian or intentionally trying to annoy me by talk on about trivial affairs.)

  10. […] a comment on my Sign Language Expression post, commenter Justin […]

  11. Just remotely related … can anyone recommend a good voice engine (Chinese) for Windows, for free download?


  12. Green dragon Says: July 1, 2008 at 9:04 am

    My Chinese work colleagues, have a wealth of facial expressions! They have smiles, frowns, sly grins and other ones that are just as vibrant as those I’ve seen back at home.

    I seem to notice that older people are more stoic. So perhaps the trend is changing for the new Chinese (At least where I work in Tianjin).

Leave a Reply