Researchers at the University of Manitoba are looking for deaf and hard of hearing Manitobans to participate in a new study covering uncharted territory — discovering how people who use American Sign Language convey sarcasm.

It's the first time researchers have looked at how adults who use sign language communicate and understand sarcasm.

For those in the community, it's no secret.

Rick Zimmer, RRC instructor

Rick Zimmer co-ordinates the ASL interpretation program at Winnipeg's Red River College and instructs interpreters. He says he uses sarcasm in his instruction, but whether interpreters can understand and use it is another question. (CBC)

"There isn't a lot of research. We certainly know [sarcasm is] prevalent in sign language usage, but there is not that research that actually provides evidence how sarcasm is relayed," said Rick Zimmer, who co-ordinates the ASL interpretation program at Winnipeg's Red River College.

Zimmer is deaf, as is his wife, Kyra and son Cody. Kyra and Zimmer are both instructors at RRC, and Zimmer said sarcasm is a part of his instruction — teaching hearing interpreters how to understand and convey sarcasm between people who use ASL and the hearing community.

"I do it by demonstrating sarcasm and in that way they see it and learn it," he said. "Whether or not interpreters are actually capable of using it and conveying sarcasm themselves is another question."

Nicole Hiebert

Nicole Hiebert has completed the Deaf Studies Program at Red River College and the University of Manitoba. Now, she's an undergraduate psychology student bringing the two programs together with a study on sarcasm. (CBC)

That's where the U of M's Nicole Hiebert comes in.

"I've just been really fascinated and passionate about signing for my entire life pretty much," she said. "I've had a deaf friend since I was really young."

Now, she's melding her experiences in the deaf studies program with the research of Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor who specializes in sarcasm and sarcasm comprehension for the U of M's psychology department.

The study is going to look at the cues within the deaf community for understanding and comprehending sarcasm.

In the hearing community, those can be in the language choice and intonation (the rise and fall of your voice) or they can be what researchers call "paralinguistic" — things like body language, facial expression and laughter.

"It develops slowly with age. It can be different in people who speaks different languages or people who use ASL for example," said Glenwright, who just finished a study that looked at sarcasm comprehension in English as a second language students. "We found that those students sometimes tend to think you're speaking sarcastically when you're actually speaking literally."

University of Manitoba's Melanie Glenwright

Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor in Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, meets with undergraduate student Nicole Hiebert to discuss their study on sarcasm and ASL. (CBC)

It wasn't what researchers were expecting to find.

"Whereas kids miss the sarcasm and think it's all literal, when undergraduate students participate in a study where they expect to hear sarcasm, they make many sort of false hits where they'll identify literal language as sarcastic," said Glenwright.

And sarcasm use is different across languages. A less indirect form occurs in Japanese, "but it's definitely not a cross-cultural event that we know of. There isn't enough research on that topic," she added.

ASL is markedly different from English, and most often, English is a second language for deaf children, who learn ASL first.

There is some research on how children who are deaf interpret humour, she added, but there hasn't been a study that focuses specifically on sarcasm and works with adults.

So how is sarcasm conveyed in ASL?

Zimmer says it's not hard to catch sarcasm in ASL, and it's often clear through facial expression.

"Some things may be exaggerated. Some things may be reduced," he said, adding slowing down signs can be an indicator as well. "Facial expression is a key relayer of that and you can very quickly identify when a deaf speaker is being sarcastic."

He also says it depends on the person.

"I know one person who attended a deaf school and was always very sarcastic," he said. "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 said even though sarcasm is obvious within the community, research on ASL is welcomed and sorely needed.

"Research on ASL is very new, probably only since 1975 that it's even been done in just the basic sense, and it wasn't even identified as a language at that point," he said. "Linguists did not believe that sign languages were languages until 1985 ... There's a lot of research yet to be done,"

Glenwright said beyond general interest, the research will hopefully be useful to families and educators.

"It's got practical applications — so when do kids understand it? That information is useful for parents and teachers," she said. "Sarcasm isn't an inherently negative form of language. It can be used to strengthen relationships."

Hiebert and Glenwright are aiming to complete the study by April 2016.

Hiebert and Glenwright are still looking for deaf or hard of hearing participants for their study. Anyone who wants to get involved can contact the pair by email at or or send a text to (204) 782-8931.

How sarcasm looks in American Sign Language0:45