Have you ever watched a sign language interpreter in action? Well, having taken American Sign Language (ASL) courses, and then moving on to get the ‘nuts and bolts’ that an interpreter training program provides, I’ve learned many aspects of ASL communication and would like to share just a few in this article. The main, and most important, component in learning ASL is called Parameters. Following are the five parameters which constitute the production of signs for communication.
But wait, what are parameters? Parameters are distinguishing features or notable characteristics used for creating signs with meaning in ASL. In order to produce a sign and relay a word with meaning, that sign must follow five parameters that determine its meaning and tone.
The five parameters are:
- Handshape; this refers to the hand configuration which is used in beginning any word production in American Sign Language (ASL). If you’re familiar with ASL Alphabet, you’ll notice that every word begins with one of at least forty handshapes found in the manual alphabet. Here are just a three examples of handshapes: the ‘c’ as in class; the open ‘a’ as in ahead: the bent ‘v’ as in squirrel.
- Palm orientation; this refers to the direction in which the hand is turned to produce a sign. Palm orientation is the direction of your palm which may include palm up, palm down, palm right, palm left, palm outward (away from you) or palm inward (palm facing you).
- Movement; this refers to the changing of the location of the hands within the set physical parameters during sign production. For example, a sign may be moving away from you or towards you to indicate a directional verb such as ‘I give you the book” or “She gives him a pencil”. Movement also refers to the frequency of an action.
- Location; this refers to the physical parameters or bodily location where the sign are produced. The general physical parameters for sign language production are approximately four inches above the head, elbow room as with hands on waist, and about four inches below the belly button or belt buckle.
- Non-Manual Markers; also referred to as NMM, are signals or gestures done without the use of the hands and mostly from the shoulders, head, and face to relay a message. ASL Non-Manual Markers may include: a head tilt, a head nod, a head shake, a brow raise, or even a shoulder raise.
The above parameters are necessary components for communication in ASL. An aside note of interest regarding parameters is that when interpreting for large audiences, the parameters change dramatically. Large audiences may include interpreting for a theater performance, a lecture in an auditorium, or sports events. The parameter differences change in size only and signing space in which the signs are produced. They are expanded or exaggerated so the audience can see the interpretation from a distance. As a sign language interpreter myself, I still find it fascinating to watch sign language interpreters in action. I still learn so much and love to watch how they produce those signs so smoothly and within the ASL parameters.
So next time you see a sign language interpreter, watch how those parameters are adhered to for clear and concise communication.