Arts·SEEN & HEARD

It's called sign language, but facial expressions are super important too

The team behind our new series Seen & Heard tells us how facial expressions are crucial for understanding sign language.

The team behind our series Seen & Heard tells us how facial expressions are crucial for sign language

Seen & Heard's Jack Volpe guides us through the importance of facial expressions in sign language. (CBC Arts)

In our new digital series Seen & Heard, streaming now, we follow the story of a 30-person Deaf and hearing theatre group in Montreal as they cast and stage a unique adaptation of The Little Mermaid for both a Deaf and hearing audience. One aspect of sign language that the hearing members of the group and production crew had to learn is the importance of using expressive facial expressions and body language to augment the signs made with your hands.

What you do with your face makes a big difference. "In sign language, you modify the meaning through facial expression," says Fawn Alleyne, an ASL interpreter working on the project. "The sign for 'understand' [could mean] 'Oh, I get it!' or 'I'm starting to understand...' It's the same sign, but the facial expression is completely different."

Watch the video:

The team behind our new series Seen & Heard explains how important facial expressions are in sign language. 1:52

In the video above, Alleyne and the play's director and ASL instructor Jack Volpe guide us through some examples of what a big difference facial expressions can make and the hesitation hearing people often feel around making big expressions. Volpe explains: "As a hearing individual is growing up, their parents teach them not to use large gestures and facial expressions because it could look like inappropriate behaviour."

But this is a big problem for sign language! "If they have no facial expression, I can't understand them, because there's all this hidden meaning that was communicated in their voice inflection that I'm not getting." says Volpe.

Watch the Seen & Heard trailer:

"So as a person is translating between English and sign language they have to dig deep into their soul to be able to express it in the way they should — with their face."

"Yes, it's sign language, but the facial expressions are super important. Sign language has its own grammar, English has its own grammar — their own rules, their own syntax. They're very different."

Find out more about Seen & Heard and stream the full series now!

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