Monday, January 21, 2008

Fellow travellers

Being a belated entry in yesterday's Sunday Scribblings blogmemethingy, prompted by Pacian's utterly brilliant story.

On a longish subway journey recently, I sat across the aisle from a deaf-mute pair who were holding an animated conversation in sign language. Being the irrepressibly curious person that I am, I watched them for most of the journey (covertly, being the unalterably polite and shy person that I am).

I found their conversation quite fascinating to watch, even as I had no idea what it was about. If I had to guess, I would say that they were a relatively fresh pair and were discussing mutual friends; but who knows?

Several things in particular interested me. Firstly, the deaf are not silent! Both of them moved their lips frequently while speaking (i.e. gesturing) and often made odd, quiet little vocalizations, not unlike a baby's first attempts at speech, while doing so.

Secondly, I was astonished to see that they did not actually watch each other's hands while communicating, as I had expected. They maintained eye contact almost all of the time, with their hands in their laps fluttering like birds, well out of their field of view. I'm trying it right now, looking up above the monitor while I type, seeing how well I can judge what my fingers do on the keyboard. It works better than I thought: I can't see the details of what happens, obviously, but the shape of what my fingers are doing is quite clear.

Still: I was very surprised. I would love to know how they understood each other. Did they get the content of their conversation from lipreading and micro-expressions, using the gestures as almost subconscious reinforcement? A mystery.

Thirdly, I was amused to note a difference in conversational style just as profound as between the voices of speaking persons. His gestures were clipped, short, abrupt, inwardly-directed, linear; hers were soft, flowing, opening, outwards-directed, circular.

I was fascinated and curious, and had we been seated comfortably in a train rather than packed like sardines into a rattling subway car, I would have found a way to strike up a conversation—or would at least have attempted it.

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Blogger Chris said...

Very interesting post. I too find it amazing and hard to look away from.

January 22, 2008 at 1:26:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Anonymous marja-leena said...

Since you asked... They were using sign language - sometimes letters are spelled out, but usually words and expressions are conveyed by the way the hands and fingers are held. The facial expressions and body language add to the emotions expressed, and can be truly lovely and, as you noted, very individual, just like amongst speaking people.

Most deaf people are not mute (ie they do have vocal chords), they just haven't developed normal speech, which, If you think about it, is pretty difficult without hearing it.

If you had spoken to them, they might have been able to lipread you. If not, writing out your message on a piece of paper would be a great communication aid. It would be interesting to hear about that communication, should you meet them again.

January 22, 2008 at 1:41:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger tumblewords said...

Interesting story - I don't believe I've ever seen people using sign language other than in classes designed to teach. The comment from marja-leena adds to your post! Nice work, for sure.

January 22, 2008 at 5:31:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger JoeinVegas said...

I went to college at Rochester Institute of Technology, site of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf. Out of a student body of several thousand about 800 were deaf. We usually had a translator up front in almost every class. Most of them read lips, and even when signing payed more attention to the face than the hands. As you said, they looked at the emotions and ready what the other said, probably only looking at the fingers when a word was spelled out rather than a standard sign used.

January 22, 2008 at 6:04:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Lioness said...

It's funny that you should post this now, I saw an old highschool acquaintance a few days ago, Bernardo, he was deaf but able to speak and lipread and I actually had a crush on him, one of the highlights of high school was slow-dancing with him at a party, he could feel the vibrations and dance to the rythm. He was with what I assumed were his wife and child and I'd have loved to talk to him but was in a hurry. Now I regret it, of course.

A childhood dream of mine, and one that intensified after reading Michael Crichton's Congo, is to learn Ameslam so I can talk to gorillas. Can you imagine talking, actually holding a conversation, with another species? A bloody privilege, that's what it is.

January 22, 2008 at 9:14:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger zhoen said...

I expect it's a bit like heard speech, we don't really hear all the sounds, but piece it all together in context glued with intent and emotion.

January 23, 2008 at 1:53:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger keith hillman said...

I have a deaf/mute customer who comes into my pub each day. Like most of the regulars I have learned sign language - albeit at a fairly basic level. Mostly we use letters of the alphabet but increasingly we are getting better at words. Being fanatical about Indian food, the first sign we all learned was the one for curry - the index finger pointed at the forehead!. It has always intrigued me , as it does you, that he never looks at my carefully crafted finger and hand shapes!

January 23, 2008 at 4:47:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Pacian said...

I think it's interesting to consider the visual equivalents of intonation and emphasis.

January 23, 2008 at 8:50:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...

Welcome to all the new readers from Sunday Scribblings, make yourselves at home.

Signers are like three-legged cats in that one doesn't often see them but they are clearly much more common than one might think. I'm curious whether our paths will ever cross again.

I was astonished (and on mature consideration infuriated) to learn that sign language is not international; not even spoken-language specific: American English SL is different from British English SL. What a waste: it might have been international! Think what an advantage that would have given them over the rest of us. A missed opportunity.

January 24, 2008 at 12:05:00 a.m. GMT+1  

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