First-of-its-kind research on how sarcasm is expressed using ASL

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As a native English speaker, sarcasm is something I learned as a child and am well-versed in. I convey messages sarcastically often, and can recognize when other English speakers are being sarcastic as well. Primarily, I connotate sarcasm with certain facial expressions and voice inflections. However, when I use Spanish, which I speak conversationally, I can use sarcasm but struggle to recognize it. I believe this is because I have not lived with native Spanish speakers long enough to fully understand how sarcasm is used in the Spanish language.

A similar problem arises when hearing interpreters of American Sign Language attempt to translate for Deaf or hard of hearing people who use sarcasm when signing. Despite interpreters being fluent in sign language and being able to convey it effectively, they sometimes are unable to recognize sarcasm when conveyed through ASL. This can cause major issues for Deaf people attempting to communicate with hearing people through an interpreter, and vice versa – if the person signing is attempting to convey sarcasm, but the interpreter delivers the message seriously, those receiving the message could understand it completely differently than how the sender intended.

The University of Manitoba is looking to conduct research to learn specifically how users of ASL express sarcasm through ASL, and are looking for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to participate. According to CBC News Manitoba, this will be “the first time researchers have looked at how adults use sign language communicate and understand sarcasm.” Rick Zimmer, who is Deaf, works as a teacher of hearing interpreters at Winnipeg’s Red River College’s ASL interpretation program. Part of his job includes teaching hearing interpreters the intricacies of ASL sarcasm and how to detect and convey it. Zimmer states that, “We certainly know [sarcasm is] prevalent in sign language usage, but there is not that research that actually provides evidence how sarcasm is relayed.” He also states that he teaches sarcasm to hearing interpreters, “By demonstrating sarcasm and in that way they see it and learn it. Whether or not interpreters are actually capable of using it and conveying sarcasm themselves is another question.” According to Zimmer, the main cues of sarcasm in ASL are facial expressions, exaggerations, or slowing down the delivery of signs. Zimmer also mentions individual creation of sarcasm conveyers, saying, “I know one person who attended a deaf school and was always very sarcastic. He would sign it with the opposite movement that would be found in the actual sign … to sign ‘good’ [your hand moves] outward from the mouth. Instead he would sign it towards the mouth. It was just his unique, trademark way of conveying sarcasm.” Zimmer emphasizes the need for official research into ASL, especially since it wasn’t even recognized as a language until 1985. Potentially, official research could increase the understanding and awareness of ASL and Deaf culture by people not in the Deaf community.

Melanie Glenwright is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, and is working on the research with student Nicole Hiebert. She has previously studied sarcasm comprehension in people who speak English as a second language, as well as the more direct form of sarcasm, or at least the closest equivalent to sarcasm, that occurs in the Japanese language. The study is estimated to be complete by April 2016.

People interested in participating in the study can contact Melanie Glenwright at Melanie.Glenwright@umanitoba.ca, or Nicole Hiebert at hieber20@myumanitoba.ca

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