Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Misunderstanding and Repair in Tactile Auslan

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Misunderstanding and Repair in Tactile Auslan

Article excerpt

Tactile sign languages are used by deaf-blind individuals who have normally lost their sight during or after adolescence as a result of conditions like Usher syndrome, rubella, and glaucoma. In tactile signing, the "hearer" places one or more hands on those of the "speaker"1 in order to follow what is signed. Deaf-blind users of tactile sign language are thus reduced to the limited communicative channel of touch when speaking to another deaf-bhnd interactant (cf. Quinto-Pozos 2002).These deaf-bhnd speakers may still make use of nonmanual signals such as eyebrow raising and shoulder shrugs along with tactile sign language, having acquired and used these cues before sight was lost. However, these nonmanual signals can neither be seen nor interpreted by their deaf-blind interlocutors. Furthermore, the deaf-bhnd speakers cannot see or interpret the cues themselves when they are used by visual signers, interpreters, and other deaf-blind interactants.

In this article we explore how the loss of visual paralinguistic features in tactile signing leads to misunderstandings in deaf-blind conversation and the strategies experienced tactile signers draw on to resolve them. Analysts have increasingly viewed conversation as an interactional achievement resulting from the successful interpretation of inference (Tannen 2007). Inference here refers to the ability to infer what the conversation is about, including participant roles and goals, as well as the meanings of the individual utterances (ibid.). Since sign languages use nonmanual signs such as facial expressions and head nods to achieve inferential ends such as turn taking or the giving of feedback, establishing and maintaining inference is a potentially problematic area in tactile signing.

Research by Petronio and colleagues (e.g., Collins and Petronio 1998; Emmorey, Korpics, and Petronio 2009; Petronio and Dively 2006) explores the alternative inferential conventions that experienced users of Tactile American Sign Language (ASL) employ. Among others, they have noted a variety of hand taps and squeezes when giving feedback as a hearer (Petronio and Dively 2006) and the prequestion use of you to direct a question (Collins and Petronio 1998). Yet research on tactile sign languages (particularly those based on sign languages other than ASL) remains in its infancy globally, and the processes of transforming a visual sign language for tactile delivery are still poorly understood. This lack of understanding means that often only quite general advice is available to interpreters on how to work with deaf-bhnd clients (cf. Napier, McKee, and Goswell 2010; Petronio 2010), and this may negatively affect the clarity of interpreted messages for these clients (Frankel 2002; Metzger, Fleetwood, and Collins 2004).These concerns led us to begin a project to document features of Tactile Australian Sign Language (Auslan) with the aim of producing improved interpreter-training resources. In this article we present our initial findings by exploring the types of misunderstanding observed in our data.We chose to focus on misunderstanding and repair for three reasons.

From a practical point of view, identifying misunderstanding gives insight into what aspects of interactions are most problematic in tactile signing and the strategies signers use to resolve them. On a more theoretical level, it is also interesting to consider the similarities and differences in misunderstanding and repair strategies in different modalities; in other words, to what extent can and do tactile signers follow rules of interaction that have been documented previously for spoken and/or signed languages? Finally, we seek to demonstrate that detailed conversation analysis is both possible and highly useful in understanding the causes of interactional trouble in this modality.

In order to explore these issues we first present an overview of the mechanics of tactile signing before introducing literature on misun-derstanding and repair in human communication, with a particular focus on Deaf and deaf-blind communication. …

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