How a Simple Math Problem Taught Me Poststructuralist Linguistics

The Story

There I was teaching addition to a Deaf student one day. The math problem as stated in the workbook was 7 + 2. I held up my hands with the sign for 7 on top and the 2 underneath, just like in the book. The boy looked at my hands for a few moments, then gave the answer.


I looked at my hands to make sure I was signing it correctly. (This happened early on in my ASL-learning, so I could have made a mistake.) No, my hands were correct. I asked him to try again. He did. And came back with the same answer. Five.

One more time, I encouraged, and this time work through it more slowly. He began. He started at one and counted the vertical fingers on my top hand first — one, two three — then the vertical fingers on my bottom hand — four, five. Five.

Aha! The error only makes sense if you know the ASL sign for seven (touching your thumb and ring finger together to make an “o”). He was taking the sign for 7 too literally and counting the vertical fingers as he was probably taught (by me?) to do with the numbers one through 5.

This story is partly about my sloppy math-teaching skills. Also, the boy quickly corrected himself and we moved on.

The Moral of the Story

The story is also an example of how the signifier (the ASL sign for 7) and the signified (the concept of “7”) are only loosely linked. Ferdinand de Saussure, the fellow who is most often credited with the signifier-signified relationship, suggested that signs are only arbitrarily hinged together into a single sign. Seven (written in English) doesn’t have to mean the number 7 any more than the ASL sign does. Furthermore, all you can do with signs is to relate them to other signs; you can’t get behind them to something intrinsic, authentic, or pure. This claim seriously undermines the value of the intent of an author. In short, I really wanted that “7” hand shape to mean the concept of “7”. Yet try as I might, it wasn’t working with this student at this time.

Roland Barthes extended Saussure’s claim to suggest that if signs fall apart this easily, and if we can’t trust the author to simply convey or provide meaning, then we had better stop reminiscing so much about “the author’s intent”. In other words, we can’t think that the author of a text – even if they are right in front of us! speaking! signing! writing! –  can provide us with the authentic meaning. Every explanation requires more signs, more signifier-signified relationships, more slippery language — and therefore every explanation is also an interpretation.

Barthes gets us a little further down the path of the first blog post, namely trying to understand why ASL interpreting is important far beyond our field. And also, this gives us directions for improving our own understanding of the interpreting process.

Can you think of some examples of why these ideas are practically important for working interpreters?

If you want more, check out this video.


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