Monday, March 15, 2010

Prosody (and other 50 cent words)

Be patient with me, gentle reader,through this little linguistics lesson.

Prosody can be simply defined as the patterns of stress and intonation in a language.

Prosody is what helps us know whether the speaker (or signer) is asking a question, giving a command, being sarcastic or angry.

Prosody is not about vocabulary and not about grammar. (Wait...isn't that what is taught in sign language classes? Vocabulary and grammar?)

Have you ever overheard a conversation where you can hear the people, but you can't make out the words? Can't you still tell if it is an argument, celebration or a question and answer session? You recognize the prosody (the flow, intonation and rhythm).

So called "dry humor" is built on the fact that it is delivered as a statement, not as humor, so the listener has to figure out the true intent. (This is also why dry humor so often leads to a punch in the mouth.)

To have mastered the prosody of ASL is to have the fluency and naturalness that you need to be an effective interpreter.

Lack of prosody leads to misunderstanding of intent, emotion and mood. Lack of prosody means that deaf consumers have to make certain leaps in order to make sense of the string of signs presented to them.

How do you develop prosody?

Surround yourself with native or near native signers. This is the piece of the language you probably will not get from an ITP. The lack of appropriate prosody is sometimes called "a hearing accent."

ITP instructors rarely give feedback about this, mostly because the feedback would be "It just doesn't look right." (And that, albeit true, would not be considered helpful.)

So forget the word prosody for now.

Let's just say--Does your ASL look natural?

We have a certain rhythm or cadence in spoken English, that when represented in it's written form is partially handled through punctuation. Our voices show the end of a statement (period) or one in a list (comma) or command (exclamation point).

The reason why e-mails are so often misunderstood, though, is because you just can't make the written word reflect exactly what you want to say. The voice is mightier than the pen, so to speak.

ASL has a distinct cadence which can be modified to add layers upon layers of meaning and intent. Some of this can be taught in a formal class (non-manuals, for example), but most are learned most effectively through "osmosis." (a usually effortless often unconscious assimilation)

EFFORTLESS? Yes, it should be effortless because all you have to do is live your life and carry on conversations with competent native or near-native signers.

UNCONSCIOUS? Yes, if should be unconscious because you are so bust getting your point across and understanding your friend's point that you don't even realize you are learning.

Okay,so what prevents this effortless and unconscious learning?

Formal classes, my friends, formal classes.

If you depend on formal classes, you'll learn a stilted, somewhat unnatural form of the language. Prosody is about exposure to many different signers, many different experiences and not one of them can be duplicated in the classroom.

It's a double edged sword, I know. It's not unlike being a creative child and being forced to take art lessons. There's benefits, of course, but sometimes you'll have the gift squeezed right out of you.

The classroom is for instruction, guidance, feedback and practice.

Never, never, NEVER doubt that your true grasp of the language will come from being with native ASL signers in real life, doing real life things.

So yeah, this was another little lecture about getting out into the deaf world. I just thought maybe if I used some 50 cent words you'd believe me.

1 comment:

Dean Evans said...

Very well put. This said, I am simply shocked that you suggest that interpreters should be fluent in BOTH languages. I mean, are spoken language interpreters held to that standard? Wait... never mind.

Good message!