The gesture location symbols of Stokoe notation, mapped onto a chart of the upper torso, arm and head

Teaching intro sign phonetics

A few years ago I wrote about incorporating sign linguistics when I taught Introduction to Linguistics at Saint John’s University. The other course I taught most often was Introduction to Phonology. This course was required for our majors in Speech Pathology and Audiology, and they often filled up the class. I never had a Deaf student, but almost all of my students expressed some level of interest in signed languages, and many had taken several semesters of American Sign Language.

The texts I used tended to devote a chapter to sign linguistics here or there, but not present it systematically or include it in general discussions. I always included those chapters, and any mention of signed languages was received enthusiastically by my students, so having a love of sign linguistics myself, I was happy to teach more.

The first thing I did was to add sign phonetics. I had previously found that I needed to start Introduction to Phonology with a comprehensive review of spoken phonetics, so I just followed that with a section on the systematic description of hand, face and upper body gestures. A lot of the spoken phonetics review was focused on phonetic transcription, and the students needed some way to keep track of the gestures they were studying, so I taught them Stokoe notation.

A list of Stokoe handshape symbols, with corresponding illustrations of the handshapes

Some of you may be remembering negative things you’ve read, or heard, or said, about Stokoe notation. It’s not perfect. But it’s granular enough for an intro phonology course, and it’s straightforward and relatively transparent. My students had no problem with it. Remember that the appropriate level of granularity depends on what you’re trying to communicate about the language.

The orientation and movement symbols from Stokoe notation, mapped onto a chart depicting the right side of a human head and attached right shoulder

I developed charts for the Stokoe symbols for locations, orientations and movements (“tab” and “sig” in Stokoe’s terminology), corresponding to the vowel quadrilateral charts developed by Pierre Delattre and others for spoken languages. To create the charts I used the StokoeTempo font that I developed back in 1995.

A list of additional movements of ASL and their symbols in Stokoe notation

The next step was to find data for students to analyze. I instructed my students to watch videos of jokes in American Sign Language posted to YouTube and Facebook by two Deaf storytellers and ASL teachers, Greg “NorthTrue” Eyben and Joseph Wheeler.

Deaf YouTuber NorthTrue makes the ASL sign for “mail”

The first exercise I gave my students was a scavenger hunt. I had previously found them to be useful in studying spoken language features at all levels of analysis. Here is a list of items I asked my students to find in one two-minute video:

  • A lexical sign
  • A point
  • A gesture depicting movement or location
  • An iconic gesture miming a person’s hand movement
  • A nonmanual miming a person’s emotion
  • A grammatical nonmanual indicating question, role shifting or topic

The students did well on the exercises, whether in class, for homework or for exams. Unfortunately that was pretty much all that I was able to develop during the years I taught Introduction to Phonology.

There is one more exercise I created using sign phonology; I will write about that in a future post.