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ASL Linguistics: Mouthing in ASL / Mouth Morphemes
Also see:  Mouthing in ASL (paper)


In a message dated 11/1/2006 3:53:11 PM Pacific Standard Time, colleen.busche@ writes:

Hi Bill,
I am working on a project called: Basic ASL Signs for Health Care Professionals
I will be teaching a one hour course to 30 of my co-workers ( nurses, therapists, cna's etc.). I will also teach fingerspelling and numbers which many of them "already know". I plan to touch on Deaf Culture and etiquette and how to work with an interpreter. After one week of practice, the group will meet again and rather than having them just sign and have me validate, I will sign to them and have them interpret. I have always found that end more difficult--especially when caught off guard or when working with a Patient who may be illiterate.

One question that has come up as I have been preparing for the class is the issue of mouthing the words. I was taught to mouth the words as I signed, but some of the literature about the Deaf culture suggests there is an aversion toward oralism. The Deaf Patients I have encountered in the 10 years I've worked in this area have typically mouthed the words as they spoke. Any suggestions?
Thank you again for you wonderful work!

Yes, feel free to use the pictures in your project.
Regarding mouthing:
American Sign Language uses facial expressions, head tilts, shoulder raises, and mouth movements in grammatical ways (non-manual markers).  If your mouth is busy mouthing English words it will be unavailable to use for grammar purposes.
It is true that many Deaf do mouth many of the words they sign.  The appropriateness of mouthing depends on numerous factors.  Some of those factors have to do with whether or not a sign is traditionally done with a specific mouth morpheme (for example: NOT-YET uses a slightly open mouth showing the tongue covering the lower teeth) or whether the sign is a multiple-meaning sign, (for example: single/someone/something/alone/only). 
A high level of experience is required to know which signs require non-manual markers (NMMs), which signs have the option of being enhanced by which NMMs,  and which signs can be mouthed.  Many Hearing, ASL as a second language learners, mouth inappropriately by either overexaggerating their mouth movements, or mouthing English words while doing signs that require specific mouth morphemes.
It is also true that many Deaf people are bilingual and have had some degree of oral training in their youth.  These Deaf people often switch to a form of signed communication that uses for the most part ASL signs in English word order when communicating with Hearing people.  They will also tend to mouth English words much more than they would if they were talking to another Deaf person.
With all that in mind I will now share with you my thoughts and opinions since you asked. 

If you were teaching a college or high school class labeled and promoted as an ASL class, then I would indeed encourage you to have your students avoid mouthing English words as they sign.  If they are to ever become fluent (in later classes and via association with skilled signers), it will be important for them to incorporate ASL non-manual markers into their signing.
I do not believe the majority of your class will ever become fluent in ASL. And I don't think that is their goal either.  I believe the goal of your class is to help your students become courteous, helpful, and competent in their very specialized field of service.  I also think that the majority of Deaf people who come in contact with your students will be very aware that they are dealing with a Hearing person who has made the effort and taken the time to learn a bit of signing.  Many of those Deaf people will have some level of residual hearing and or some degree of facility at lip-reading.  It seems to me that since the goal of your class is to provide competent, courteous communication and considering the time constraints and other demands on your student's time, that which you will likely end up with is a group of graduates who are capable of a limited amount of "sign supported speech." (Sometimes referred to as "sim-com" --short for simultaneous communication.)
Sure, in a perfect world we Deaf would like all Hearing people to be totally fluent in sign language.  But that just isn't feasible in a few weeks or months of sign language classes.
I do think it is good that you are culturally aware enough to be asking these questions and I encourage you to touch upon this topic briefly with your students. 
Dr. Bill Vicars


In a message dated 5/25/02 3:40:16 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:


In all the readings I did about ASL, I keep encountering these statements:

"ASL is an independent language - it's complete in itself - it has its own syntax."

I don't have any objection over that, but my inquiry is: How come if I sign in ASL , I have to mouth some English words!!! Does that mean ASL is not that independent?? If it is independent from English, why don't ASL signers mouth Arabic words for example?



What a fun, sticky topic! 

I remember a delightful young lad who went to the church I attend.  He and his father, both Deaf, had moved from South America to Chicago.  Then they moved to Utah.  That is where I met them.  The father's name was Luis.  South American Sign Language and Spanish were his first and second languages.  ASL his third, and English his fourth.  While I never formally interviewed the son, it was obvious to me that his two main languages were ASL and Spanish.  My wife, who is Deaf, happens to know quite a bit of Spanish.  She is also quite the lipreader.  She remarked to me one day that she thought it was cool how this young lad signed ASL but mouthed Spanish.  I asked her what she meant and she said, "For example, he signs 'tomorrow' but mouths maņana."

Let me state right up front that I personally know of many, many Deaf who mouth occasional words while signing ASL.  There are many, purists who will draw their knives and advance on me for making that assertion. 

Let me clarify though that these individuals are not mouthing every word, or even most words, but they are indeed occasionally mouthing a word or two.  It doesn't make them less Deaf. It doesn't mean they aren't signing ASL.  It just means that most deaf people are to some degree bilingual and have to some degree went through "speech therapy."  Some mouth more than others.

Now, another point:  You cannot appropriately sign ASL and use no mouth movements whatsoever.  Notice I said "mouth movements."  I did NOT say "mouthed words."  By mouth movements I mean, mean "mouth morphemes."  A morpheme is a basic meaningful building block of language.  This has traditionally been a neglected area in ASL classes.
One more point before I sign off.  All languages share words with other languages. "Lexical borrowing" is one way that languages remain alive and strong.  ASL is no different.  Of course, ASL will tend to borrow heavily and be influenced heavily from English because so many ASL users are bilingual.  Codeswitching and codemixing take place frequently as Deaf people interact with Hearing people.

Have a nice day.

Bill Vicars

In a message dated 8/25/2002 7:47:49 AM Pacific Daylight Time, a student  writes:

When I took my first ASL class back in 1996 (from a Hearing teacher), he suggested that we "mouth" the English words we're signing, because it would help the Deaf person to understand our signs as we continued to learn and improve. 
At that time, I took a Beginning and an Intermediate course, and continued to "mouth the words" through both those classes. Now, six years later (after six years of almost no opportunity to use signing), I am back at it! I've taken another Beginning class to refresh my memory; I'm enrolled in a Deaf Culture Class at Ohlone College; I plan to take ASL-102 in the Spring at Ohlone; and I frequently chat with Deaf people at my job. 
So now I'm wondering if continuing to "mouth English words" is still beneficial to the Deaf people I sign with, or if it just annoys them and is actually holding me back from moving away from "ASL in English word order" to a more correct form of ASL? 
In the Deaf Culture class, we're reading A Journey into the Deaf-World by Harlan Lane. In the chapter on "The Language of the Deaf-World" he says, "Speaking and thinking like a hearing person are obviously fine, if one is hearing. . .Within Deaf culture, however, between one Deaf person and another, speaking and thinking like a hearing person are disparaged, as are mouth movements when signing (unless they are called for by the ASL signs)." 
I understand that this particular sentence is referring to Deaf people making mouth movements when signing. But it got me to thinking about my own signing. At what point should I, as a Hearing person learning ASL, stop mouthing the English words and concentrate on only making mouth movements that are called for by the ASL signs? 
Do you think that if I stop mouthing my signing in English, it will help me to start "thinking in ASL" and thereby start signing more in correct ASL structure?  
I'm very interested in your opinion, and I will, of course, ask my Deaf Culture instructor as well. Thank you so much for your time. 
Terri A.

Hello Terri,

There are a number of signs that cannot be done correctly in ASL if you mouth the English word while doing the sign.  For example, "NOT-YET."  That sign includes a non-manual marker that consists of placing the tongue over the bottom teeth and along the backside of the lower lip.

Mouth morphemes are a part of ASL.  This means certain mouth movements are intrinsic to being able to accurately represent ASL.  Making a "th" -type of mouth shape is used to indicate recklessness or carelessness.  Using an "mm" mouth shape is used to show that something is ordinary, uneventful, and being done or taking place in a regular manner.

You cannot appropriately do these mouth morphemes (sometimes called mouth adverbials) if you are busy mouthing English words.

Hearing people tend to think in English word order.  If they are mouthing words it makes it even harder for them to get away from English syntax and start thinking in ASL.

Now, on the other hand. In my many years of being a member of the Deaf community it has become patently obvious that the vast majority of Deaf people mouth "some" words here and there.

This discussion brings to mind the old adage, "You can fool some of the people all of the time; and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Some deaf people (a tiny minority) mouth all of the time.  All (the vast majority anyway) deaf people mouth some of the time. But not all deaf people mouth all of the time.  [wink]

Dr. Bill

In a message dated 2/10/2012 6:53:36 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, Brenda writes:

Hi Dr. BILL!

I've spent a couple of hours online at You Tube looking for practice areas shown by those I deep worthy of my accepting as good native/native-like models for Fingerspelling and conceptual signing.

I want mouthing (not the word English style) but the sound of the word) when showing or quizzing watchers. I'm not finding this anywhere...even though all the research and text books I've used in 20 years TEACHES to "say the word not the letters." NOT ONE resource or bit of research have I encountered says to "KEEP MOUTH CLOSED".

ONE of the reasons we use fingerspelling is to clarify what we are talking about... it isn't supposed to be a "Guessing" game. So why does everyone making these video exercises available want to make it that much harder for students to understand?

Another point all FS sources agree with is the focal point of the watcher: ON THE FACE with catching the fingerspelling with peripheral vision on the hands area... so what is the benefit of looking at a blank (pan) face where there are no visual clues?

Some I've asked say, "Well, I don't want to make it too easy on the students... they'll depend on lip reading. IF THIS IS TRUE, what about the other research that is often spouted in teaching ASL: "Only 30% of English words are discernible on the mouth". What about the 70% we spell that aren't that visible? AND AGAIN... are we preparing future interpreters to make the Deaf GUESS (not to say teach them to watch the hands and miss any visual clue the client may be giving them?

I WANT them to make use of You Tube and sites like yours and Michelle's but neither of you mouth the words when fingerspelling... I see it perhaps accidentally show up in short dialogues but not in practice sessions.

You know I love you... we've had over a decade of respectful dialogues and I bow to your expertise as much as I'm in awe of the work you make freely available to my (and all) students. So if you can discuss this issue with me, I'm all ears... uh ... EYES. smile
- Brenda


Dear Brenda,
Hello my long distance friend :)
We both know you are absolutely right about this and that all the quoting of research and statistics is just window dressing on what common sense and your gut already tell you is true.

As we also both know, "natural fingerspelling" doesn't occur in drills. Natural fingerspelling is embedded in sentences that take place during discourse.
Fingerspelling exists and succeeds because provides a way to tie into and take advantage of an existing vocabulary.

Fingerspelling is closely tied to the language of the surrounding Hearing culture in which Deaf people find ourselves.

Ah and therein lies the rub. In the "big picture" of Deaf Culture we value movement of the hand and we demonize movement of the mouth.

Laurent Clerc? Good.
Alexander Graham Bell? Bad.
Signing? Good.
Voicing? Bad.
Voice in (an immersion approach) class and you'll lose points, be given ear plugs, be moved to a different seat, receive dirty looks from your instructor, and no one will play with you at recess.
To mouth more than one or two words in a typical signed sentence would smack of Oralism.

Yesterday I had lunch with a couple of close friends of mine, Robert and Karen -- a dear old couple, "Deaf of Deaf, (with Deaf children and grandchildren). I invited one of my teacher aides, Katie, -- an eager young Padewan -- to join us for the meal. To her credit, Katie held her own in the conversation quite well. However as is common in such circumstances, the moment Katie's stumbled over Karen's fingerspelling, Karen added voice to her fingerspelling. Karen switched to a mode of communication that would be more readily understood by a Hearing person.

The intentional switching to or adding of voicing or mouthing is a very obvious indicator that the signer feels (judges) the watcher as being less skilled and in need of additional support (or in other words, "a crutch").
Key words: "intentional," "judge," "skill," and "crutch."

Fingerspelling naturally occurs embedded in sentences accompanied by partial mouthing of the salient characteristics of the spoken version of the word -- when not overpowered by other ASL grammatical features.

Fingrespelling drills are not natural.
Thus to repetitively produce mouthed/fingerspelled words one after another would be to repetitively produce mouthed words one after another and doing so "feels" very wrong to the skilled ASL signer. Thus when drilling our students to (supposedly) build up their "skill" we tend to remove the (supposed) crutch and the "wrong feeling" by keeping our mouths firmly shut.

The real problem?
Using an unnatural process (such as drills) to teach students how to do a natural process (such as signing a sentence with an embedded fingerspelled word).
The solution? Video record 300 naturally occurring conversations and then "clip out" 300 sentences that each have an embedded fingerspelled word.
A worthy, yet very time consuming project.

My best to you and your students.
Take care,
-- Bill

p.s. Later today I will ride my new motorcycle for the first time.
If I die, hey, it has been great!

Also see:  Mouthing in ASL (paper)

Also see: Facial Expressions: "If You Are Not Using Facial Expressions You Are Not Using ASL"

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