eye gaze in bsl

Why is Eye gaze so important in BSL?

Eye gaze in BSL (British Sign Language) is important because it serves a range of functions within the language itself as well as confirming that you have someone’s attention. Gaze is slightly different from eye contact as it involves taking all non verbal cues and linguistic cues. Check out post below for a deeper explanation:

Eye contact or eye gaze?

Many hearing people find eye contact difficult to do because of the way that it is perceived. The average gaze lasts around 4 – 5 seconds max. If someone’s gaze is held any longer than that, hearing people interpret this in one of two ways:

  1. Someone is attracted to you
  2. Someone is threatening you

Equally, avoiding eye contact can also be meaningful but can be quite damaging to building rapport with others:

  1. avoiding eye contact can imply you are arrogant and over confident
  2. avoiding someone’s gaze can imply you are ignoring them

Eye contact is a form of non verbal communication which all humans and animals use. Eye gaze is an extension of this type of communication and is enhanced by its use in Sign Language.

Eye Gaze in BSL

In BSL, a signer’s gaze provides visual cues to show:

  • The position of objects. Using the eyes in your signing space is a linguistic feature of BSL and is called placement. So in this instance, you might show that you are watching a plane taking off or watch it across the sky.
  • Objects moving: for example, you can show that you are watching a tennis match. So, you’re eyes show the ball moving from left to right and back again. The movement of the eyes can also show how fast actions happen. Again, this is part of the linguistic feature called placement where you change the location of an object in your signing space.
  • ‘Role shift’: this is where a person in story telling mode switches between people (or characters) in their story. Learners find this type of eye gaze really difficult and tend to overdo changing characters by physically moving too much from one space to another without realising that you can do all the ‘movement’ between characters with just your eyes. Watch the clip below to understand how your eyes can be used to show different characters when you are communicating in BSL:

  • Measurements: for example, you can show a person’s height or stage of development (i.e. child or adult). A signer’s gaze may look up to show that they are talking with someone who is tall. Equally, you might look down to indicate you were communicating with a child.
  • Time: for example, your eyes focus on the area just behind your shoulder when signing about the recent past. Your eyes can also be used to explain events along a timeline.
  • Turn taking: when a person has finished what they want to sign, they will use eye gaze to let you know that it’s your turn to take over the conversation if you want to.
  • Attention: hearing people pay attention to vocal expressions like ‘uh-huh’ as confirmation that someone is listening. This is called back-channelling. A sign language user will use their gaze to check you are paying attention to what is being signed. In return, when ‘listening’, our eyes are looking at the signer whilst nodding (if you have understood what’s been signed).

Why is breaking eye gaze bad?

Hearing people often break eye contact when there is an unexpected sound but neglect to explain what caused the interruption. Culturally, this type of behaviour is perceived as rude – it’s a bit like someone answering their mobile while you’re in the middle of sharing a story. It is basic etiquette to let someone know if something is happening e.g. a fire alarm going off.

Just like in the hearing community, it’s very important to maintain eye contact in conversations.  In the Deaf community, once you break eye contact you are no longer listening to the other person.  This is considered to be rude and disrespectful.

ASL Defined

Eye contact is just one of the various visual cues that are taken into account when conveying information. Sign language users also use:

  • mouth cues
  • hand information i.e. paying attention to moving hands
  • the space being used
  • facial expressions

So ‘eye gaze’ is more about taking a number of non verbal cues rather than focusing on a signer’s eyes

Eye gaze difficulties

Some people have difficult with eye gaze. Anyone on the autistic spectrum, is an introvert or even someone who is shy will find learning BSL difficult. There are also cultural considerations to take into account – some cultures find eye contact offensive. However, it is important to remember that gazing at a signer is essential for signing and for passing BSL exams!

eye gaze
eye gaze

Online communication can also be difficult for learners. It should be comforting to know that native signers also find it difficult to watching other signers online because sign language is a 3-dimensional language.

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