The pandemic is forcing sign language to evolve

Signers are having to adapt to video conferencing — or risk being misunderstood.

Chances are your life underwent some pandemic-related adjustments over the past year — maybe you started working from home, or had to give up date nights out for movie nights in — but you probably didn’t have to change the way you speak.

That’s not the case for some members of the deaf community.

About half a million deaf and hearing-impaired people communicate primarily through American Sign Language (ASL), and the increased use of Zoom and other video conferencing platforms during the pandemic is forcing them to change the way they sign.

More Than Handshapes

If ASL signers used stationary handshapes to communicate with one another, the transition to video conferencing would be straightforward, but handshape is just one of ASL’s five components.

The movement of the person’s whole hand, its location in relation to their body, and the direction their palm is facing all affect a sign’s meaning.

The signer’s facial expressions and the way they move their body and head during a conversation are also important — the addition of a raised eyebrow and head tilt can turn a statement into a question, for example.

“People think of American Sign Language as a very expressive language because they see all these different facial expressions, but it’s more than just emotional information; there’s linguistic information, too,” Lori Whynot, director of Northeastern University’s American Sign Language Program, explained.

Video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, limit signers’ ability to make use of all five of the language’s components.

Because most people only appear from the chest up during video chats, signers can’t see or show as much information as they could in person.

“The signing space is expansive,” Michael Skyer, a senior lecturer of deaf education at the Rochester Institute of Technology, told Scientific American. “Even if many signs are produced easily or normally in the ‘Zoom screen’ dimensions, many are not.”

If a video conference includes many people, each person can appear very small on the screen, too, which can make it difficult for viewers to make out tiny — but meaningful — details in handshape.

An Evolving Language

Skyer teaches ASL, so it’s particularly important that his meaning is crystal clear to his students — and since he now communicates with them primarily through video, he’s had to make a few adjustments.

If a sign requires that he moves his hand away or toward his body, he now turns so that he’s slightly in profile, making the direction of the movement easier for others to see.

Many signs are not produced easily in the ‘Zoom screen.’

Michael Skyer

He’s also begun limiting some movements so that they remain within the Zoom field — instead of bringing his hands all the way to his waist when signing “body,” for example, he now stops at his chest.

Skyer said he’s also begun signing more slowly to account for the fact that students may be watching him on a tiny screen.

If the transition to more people working from home outlasts the pandemic — as many experts believe it will — these changes to ASL might be permanent, too.

“ASL is defined by how it is used,” Skyer said. “How it is used is not static, and the Zoom changes show us this. Words, concepts, and pragmatics (the use of language in social contexts) themselves evolve and shift given new mediums of expression.”

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