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American Sign Language: Eye Gaze:

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 peripheral vision.  

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 Indexing) 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 characters communicate with each other (short person looking up, tall person looking down, etc.)


Supplemental reading:


Eye Gaze in American Sign Language

By Erin Tate
April 14, 2002


In American 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 indefiniteness.

Indexing is 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.

Eye gazing 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 sentence.

 There are 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 form.

In total, eye gazing serves a variety of function, including indexing, expressing subject and object agreement, and distinguishing the definite and indefinite forms.




Liddell, Scott K. (2003). Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lucas, Ceil. Ed. (1998). Pinky Extension & Eye Gaze: Language Use in Deaf Communities. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


Neidle, Carol, Judy Kegl, Dawn MacLaughlin, Benjamin Bahan, & Robert G. Lee. (2000). The Syntax of American Sign Language. Cambridge: The MIT Press.


Valli, Clayton & Ceil Lucas. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. Washington D.C.: Clerc Books.


Wilbur, Ronnie B. (1987). American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied Dimensions. 2nd Edition. Boston: College-Hill Publications.


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