By William Vicars Ed.D.
When ASL students are first starting out I often get the question, should I
watch the hands or try to watch the face. The word
"try" in regards to watching the face indicates that they feel
that they miss a lot of information if they aren't watching the signers
hands. Beginners who focus on watching the hands sometimes look as if they
were trying to keep their eyes on a fly buzzing around in front of them.
In personal one on one conversations you should indeed
watch the signer's face and not focus on the hands. After enough
practice you will find yourself "catching" the signs via your
There is a time to watch the hands
though. Suppose you are sitting in an audience watching a skilled ASL
user give a speech or lecture. If you are "hearing" (meaning
if you are a person who has the ability to hear) and there is a
sign-to-voice interpreter who is voicing the lecture, you may wish to
focus on the lecturer's hands more closely so you can pick up new signs.
If you are signing with a Deaf person and one of your
hearing friends calls out your name or comes up and starts speaking to you
while the Deaf person is signing to you, don't knee jerk react
by looking away in the middle of your conversation to see who is
calling your name or what your friend wants. Instead, keep your eyes
on the signer while simultaneously holding up an index finger in the
"wait a minute gesture" toward the interrupting friend. Then, after the Deaf person has
finished his comment go ahead and see what your friend needs. Also be
aware that it is rude to chatter away (voicing) in front of a Deaf person
without signing as if the Deaf person isn't even there. If you need to
say more than a few words to your hearing friend-- politely excuse yourself
from your ASL conversation so the Deaf person won't be left hanging.
As the receiver in an ASL conversation you keep your
eyes on the signer. But if you are the signer you will be using your
eye gaze to add meaning and support to your signing. For example, if
you are going to set up a pronoun or absent referent (see
you will glance to some area in space that you will associate with the
referent for the rest of your conversation.
Something that often confuses beginning signers is a
Deaf person will start signing to and looking at an imaginary person.
You may be tempted to look over your shoulder to see if that person is
really there. Try to stifle the urge. In ASL we often turn our
bodies and sign to a spot in mid air as if we were having
"real-time" conversation, when in fact we are just using an ASL
principle of role-taking instead of using the English method of
saying, "he said" and "she said" before quoting.
Sometimes a Deaf person will look away for a moment
while he is thinking of his next sign. That prevents you from thinking
that it is your turn to talk.
As part of a turn taking strategy--when one person is
ready at that moment to take his turn and not wait for the other person to
finish--he can look away and start signing.
I see (and occasionally use) the
look-away technique during heated discussions where both persons are trying
to make their points. I don't recommend you try that until you have an
extremely good relationship with the other person.
Good ASL storytellers use eye gaze to model the characters in their story as the
communicate with each other (short person looking up, tall person looking
Eye Gaze in
American Sign Language
By Erin Tate
April 14, 2002
Sign Language, eye gazing serves a variety of functions. It can
regulate turn taking and mark constituent boundaries. Eye gazing is
also frequently used to repair or monitor utterances and to direct
the addressee’s attention (Lucas, 1998). However, this paper is
going to focus on the role of eye gazing in indexing and in
expressing object and subject agreement and definiteness versus
the establishment of a point in space as a referent to a noun. This
is generally done by pointing, with either the dominant or
non-dominant hand (Wilbur, 1987). Eye gazing often accompanies
indexing by looking at the same location that the finger is pointing
to (Valli, 2000). Eye gazing can also index independently, but this
does not occur too often, and, when it does occur, it is usually
considered a less emphatic way of indexing a noun (Lucas, 1998). So,
eye gazing in indexing is usually an optional component that is
meant to draw extra attention to the sign being indexed.
plays a greater syntactic role in expressing object and subject
agreement. In transitive sentences, eye gazing expresses agreement
with the object, while head tilting expresses agreement with the
subject. In the sentence, generally, subject agreement begins first
and then object agreement beginning with both starting before the
signing of the verb phrase. Both agreements end around the same time
a little bit before the finishing of the verb phrase (Neidle, 2000).
So, for example, if a person signs COMPARE while looking over a set
of books, the signer is indicating the direct object of books
through eye gaze. The sentence would then translate to approximately
“Compare these books” (Liddell, 2003) However, when the object is
the first person (the signer), the roles switch and eye gaze agrees
with the subject and head tilt agrees with the object. This is most
likely because people cannot look at themselves and, therefore,
cannot express the first person with eye gaze. In intransitive
sentences, eye gazing, head tilting, or both express agreement with
the subject and, as before, the agreement starts just before the
verb phrase begins and finishes just before the verb phrase ends.
However, this time, the eye gaze and the head tilt begin at the same
time (Neidle, 2000). In sum, eye gazing can be used to express
agreement with either the subject or the object depending on the
two types of eye gazing: one associated with the definite form and
one associated with the indefinite form, which are comparable to the
English ‘the’ and ‘a’ respectively. However, note that it is not a
direct match. The definite eye gaze is pronounced by a direct eye
gaze at a precise location associated with the indexed sign. In the
indefinite form, the eye gaze may wander around slightly or take the
form of an unfocused stare (Neidle, 2000). Thus, the pronunciation
of the eye gaze can distinguish the definite from the indefinite
eye gazing serves a variety of function, including indexing,
expressing subject and object agreement, and distinguishing the
definite and indefinite forms.
Scott K. (2003). Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign
Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ceil. Ed. (1998). Pinky Extension & Eye Gaze: Language Use in
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Carol, Judy Kegl, Dawn MacLaughlin, Benjamin Bahan, & Robert G. Lee.
(2000). The Syntax of American Sign Language. Cambridge: The
Clayton & Ceil Lucas. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign
Language: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. Washington
D.C.: Clerc Books.
Ronnie B. (1987). American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied
Dimensions. 2nd Edition. Boston: College-Hill