Friday, January 29, 2016

Language Pies

Dr. Albert Mehrabian is the author of Silent Messages. In his book he posits that the meaning in communication is divvied up as follows:

7% through the words themselves
38% through vocal elements
55% through non-vocal elements, such as expressions

We have our own idea. The popular misconception is that ASL is nonverbal. This couldn’t be further from the truth. ASL – and all sign languages for that matter – is a language with its own idiosyncratic grammar, syntax, and wide influences.

In simple terms, we can think of the motions of our signs as the tone or inflection of a voice; the nuances of these motions – the way we do them, with what emphasis or brevity that might imply our meaning – are just as foreign to the untrained eye as would a voice be to deaf ears.

Furthermore, sign language defies the divisions between Dr. Mehrabian’s communication pie. For example, ASL uses certain facial expressions as communication cues. Just as a raised vocal inflection might imply a question, raised eyebrows do the same. Which means the nonverbal cues bleed into the verbal cues, conflating the 38% and 55% portions into some super-slice of language pie. 

We at BIS feel that, to a lesser degree, Dr. Mehrabian’s pie is dependent also on which spoken language is being used. Think of Italian. The way it employs gestures and hand motions, you’d think everything has an exclamation point at the end!

The main point here is that communication, just like science, is highly fluid. So while Dr. Mehrabian’s study is quite interesting and fun to look at, it’s important to note the antecedents that go into such studies, and to keep thinking about the implications moving forward. 

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