Making Research Count 3 – Language Policy

Language Policy
Language Policy

Language Policy

Even though I’m writing this workshop in English, the original was presented in ASL. The workshop also offered voice interpreting, but since none of the registered participants requested it, there was no voicing.

I was treading a fine line on an important issue at RID conferences that is reminiscent of Hamlet: “To sign, or not to sign.” I chose to sign. The reason was, I really do think that all interpreters should have the chance to learn and to present in their second language. It’s an important and fun (yes, fun!) challenge that will make you a better presenter, better signer, and better interpreter.

I have empathy for those who say they would prefer to learn in their first language. I also want to honor (and not alienate) those who are new to interpreting or who have never had the opportunity to be in an immersive ASL environment.

I also want to say that my goal in presenting was certainly not to show off or to provide a language model for ASL. I’m definitely not qualified for that.

What was the feedback on language policy?

I was curious to know how participants would feel about the language policy. I received only two comments on the language policy in the feedback:

  1. Really grateful this was in ASL 🙂 Great Presenter.

I suppose you could read those remarks either way you wish. I choose to think that even if not everyone preferred to learn in ASL, everyone probably benefitted from it.

I want to emphasize that in keeping with the principle of language access that defines our field, OCRID was happy to provide voice interpreting as requested. No attendees requested those services.

What do you think?

What do you think of the above language policy? What would you change?

Why ASL Matters

The intellectual history of ASL and Deaf studies is a fascinating one. It has yet to be written. But if I get to tell that story, here’s how part of that story will go.

Interpreters and hearing scholars, often working alongside Deaf collaborators, recognized that “Deaf gesturing” was much more than gesturing: it was an actual language. To legitimize calling it language, these scholars drew heavily upon the structural linguistics of their day to show that ASL could be studied and described as any other language, albeit without a written form. While Deaf advocates have always existed, this linguistic research drew upon the anthropological idea of culture to reinforce their claims that ASL belonged to a social minority and could be studied alongside a study of the everyday life of the Deaf community. A powerful idea was born, which, alongside the commodification of interpreting services and social service in general, created a relatively coherent and internally consistent argument about Deaf difference, oppression, and justice.

There was just one problem: much of this literature, for very good reasons, uncritically assumed the ideas of majority academic research and popular thought at the time. Until today, these ideas have been relatively unchanged. (I would argue that the early articles in Sign Language Studies are an un-mined source of new ideas for us today.) Much like geography departments today, interpreting programs and Deaf studies programs are under constant pressure to justify their existence. They must answer the question: why does ASL matter? Why do we need to know anything about the Deaf community? The usual response about Deaf people being an oppressed minority is true, but insufficient. I think Giorgio Agamben provides a very thoughtful way forward. This thought came to mind as I was reading selections from his book Potentialities (1999).

In his essay The Idea of Language, Agamben describes language as revelation like this:

“…the content of revelation is not a truth that can be expressed in the form of linguistic propositions about a being (even about a supreme being) but is, instead, a truth that concerns language itself, the very fact that language (and therefore knowledge) exists. … humans see the world through language but do not see language.” (40)

And in a later essay On Gesture, he describes

“If speech is originary gesture, then what is at issue in gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as, so to speak, the other side of language, the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, it’s speechless dwelling in language. … gesture is always the gesture of being at a loss in language…” (78)

These two quotes matter for the following reasons.

First, they show that despite many years of recognition, visual languages still haven’t made a strong impact in precisely the most important philosophical circles that they should. You can see that Agamben’s notion of human language is still very oral/aural.

Second, don’t be too harsh on Agamben, because within these short excerpts you can already see that there is great potential here to extend these arguments to ASL. In fact, I think we can start to see why visual languages have been resisted for so long. It’s not just longstanding prejudice against the body and against sign languages. It’s also about the historic understanding of being as the one who responds to the event of spoken language, even when one can’t decipher language. Philosophers have always been fascinated by sign language communities — if only marginally — because they represent the limits of linguistic communities.

ASL matters because it is the point where gesture, which is typically the loss of language, becomes language itself. We should not try too hard to equate visual languages with spoken language, but to demonstrate how they push philosophy beyond its ontological limits.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities should be required reading at all interpreter training programs. (I just added it to the Interpreter’s Library.) The thesis is quite simple. The idea that you and I belong to a community called a “nation” is an enormous stretch of reason, given that we can’t possibly be in daily relationship with the other people in this “national community”. Yet, this is precisely the ideology of nationalism, which seeks to collectively represents people on the “inside” against people on the “outside”. Anderson never says that imagined communities aren’t real simply because they are imagined. On the contrary, imagined communities have even more power because they are imagined. If this seems trivial, take a quick glance at the news coming out of Crimea this morning.


Politics of Language

Language is central to Anderson’s argument. The bulk of Imagined Communities is about how nationalism took off and where nationalism got its start (spoiler alert: its not just about Europe). One of the major players here is language, because language became such an important element of nationalism. Even in the U.S., where the dominant language of English is hardly owned by U.S. citizens, English-only policies have been regularly introduced for well over a century to distinguish so-called “assimilated” immigrants and foreigners from “native” residents. Yet, Anderson reminds us that what is truly at stake in the politics of language is its ability to create a strategic boundary around a political community.

“It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them — as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much The most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building effective particular solidarities. (133)

Why should interpreters care?

Here’s why I think this is important for interpreters to think about.

First, we know that Deaf communities have always experienced social oppression in various forms. What hasn’t been sufficiently explored is why much of this has taken place within the field of language. In my view, the literature in Deaf studies and interpreting studies has over-emphasized the direct anti-Deaf discourse by people like A.G. Bell, but hasn’t sufficiently challenged the nationalist ideas that makes language discrimination possible in the first place. When the English language is used as a “national bond” for U.S. citizens, it justifies the exclusion of non-English speakers (Deaf individuals included). In other words, the U.S. as a “nation” is an imagined community – it is not simply “real” in any everyday empirical sense. (As a side note, it is fascinating to me how many Deaf and hearing ASL users have made anti-immigrant comments to me, always failing to recognize that every argument against immigrants in the U.S. – true or not – has been used to discriminate against Deaf people, too.)

Second, the politics of language isn’t just about hearing English-speakers. As I said in my previous post, Deaf consciousness in the U.S. emerged alongside ideas of culture and nationalism in the 1880s. Sign language in the U.S. (even before it became “ASL”) became a signature feature of the U.S. Deaf community, and for very good reasons which my readers probably do not need explained to them. But the story isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems. If we want to take Anderson seriously, we should recognize that language identity is always a political strategy, not just an empirical reality. And like all strategies, it includes some things and excludes others. ASL research — again, for very good reason — has tended towards ASL purism in the confines of a media room with Deaf-of-Deaf participants. No significant research exists on the everyday diversity of language use in mixed Deaf-hearing workspaces, for instance. So I wonder how this imagined community that Anderson talks about also applies (as he says it does) to minority social groups like the Deaf community. It’s not just about dominant groups; it’s about the conditions of political recognition for minority groups, too.

Third, this starts to provide a more interesting context for understanding Deaf advocacy. The value of the strategy of rigid Deaf cultural distinction (see Mindess 1999) and ASL purism is that makes it possible to advocate for recognition of ASL as a real language at a time when many people are still ignorantly skeptical that ASL should count. ASL has justifiably been seen as probably the marker of the Deaf community, or as Anderson says, an “effective particular solidarity”.  But in doing so, we should always be cautious about believing in the idea of linguistic or cultural purism itself, an idea that is tied to the conditions of Deaf oppression in the first place.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Calling the Deaf community an “imagined community” sounds risky. Many people have lobbed misplaced and ignorant criticisms at the Deaf community for not being a “real” culture, a “real” social group, not using a “real” language. The reaction has been to dig our heels in to the slippery soil of the “real”. And we respond. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” culture. Yes, Deaf people use a “real” language. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” oppressed social group. Indeed, much of the research on ASL, interpreting, and the Deaf experience has defended this position. This is somewhat unfortunate, in my opinion, but entirely understandable. But the side effect is that we are less and less capable of challenging oppression on its own conceptual grounds. We end up playing a game in which the rules are already set against us. Suggesting that we understand the Deaf community as an imagined community (per Anderson) doesn’t compromise the credibility of Deaf advocacy. Instead, it advances advocacy a step further by suggesting that not only do Deaf individuals not need to justify themselves to hearing individuals, hearing critics themselves don’t have a foundation for judging what a “real” language, culture or social group is in the first place. But it may also mean that as interpreters, we need to let go of simplistic divisions between what we think of as “Deaf” and “hearing”, what we view as “pure” ASL, and to challenge the ideas (such as some versions of nationalism) that make Deaf oppression possible.

The Deaf Church on Calle Alhambra (or an Exploration of Religious Deaf Space)

In my early days of learning sign language, I occasionally visited a Deaf church in Hato Rey on Calle Alhambra near the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. The school I worked at was religiously-affiliated, and the Deaf and hearing staff often attended together. The church occupied the first floor of a two-story concrete building in a residential neighborhood. An enormous tree sheltered the limited on-street parking and refracted the evening street lights in yellow splotches across the pavement. The slim doorway opened up into the first of two rooms. Brown, plastic-molded school chairs lined three walls. An indestructible wooden table sat low in the middle of the room where children could play with minimum risk of breakage. A short hallway connected the front room to the sanctuary. Metal folding chairs, easily put away and taken out again, formed six rows, front to back, arranged to minimize the visual barriers of two load-bearing columns, inconveniently place there by the building’s architect long before anyone knew this would become a Deaf space.

On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, church members would filter into the first room and chat, some enthusiastically, some with trepidation, in what I can only summarize for the unfamiliar as a Spanglish version of sign language. This hardly does justice to the politics of sign language in Puerto Rico, since, like many places in Africa and Latin America, the spread of ASL by missionaries such as those called to serve this small church, has frequently displaced local signing conventions. Nonetheless, an ASL user, even one determined to eliminate all initialized signs and preserve the purity of the language,  will quickly learn with great interest how many English conventions have been incorporated into ASL. Initialized signs such as YELLOW are signed with a Y hand shape, even though amarillo begins with an “A”. Red and rojo conveniently share the first letter. But Christmas, signed in ASL with a C, becomes navidad with an “N”. Even simple phrases such as, “how old are you?” (YOU OLD HOW-MANY?) is often signed YOU YEARS HAVE HOW-MANY?, following the Spanish Cuantos años tienes? (How many years do you have?). Regional sign differences also abound: grade level looks a bit like KILL, search (buscar) is signed more horizontally looking down than looking straight ahead, and graduate looks a bit like signing the initialized sign for WEIRD backwards.

So varied were these signs that when I moved back to the U.S. and went through an interpreting program, I spent the first year discovering what these differences actually were. I’m pretty sure my teachers thought I was making things up even though I seemed to sign them with perfect confidence. The lobby of that little church was one of many spaces of language immersion before I knew that the term existed. People from all over San Juan came to the church in buses, shared cars, by foot, and in the back of the white, unmarked church van. They came for community, came to have their souls washed clean, but I suspect even more importantly, came for conversation in .

Of all the people who have remained rooted in my memories over the years, one man sticks out. Having grown up on the margins, I somehow always feel drawn to back to them. My experience with the Deaf community reminds me of that nearly universal truth, that even the margins have their margins. This man was in his late 40s when I met him. His name may have been José. I say “may have been”, because I think that was his name, but I also have a pitiable time remembering names. I still remember the speed of light in metric and standard, which I memorized on a boring day in high school chemistry (299,792,458 miles/sec or 186,281.7 meters/sec). I still remember the words to Ice, Ice, Baby, and a 16-character cheat code to Castlevania II for Nintendo (CTMVW26KR5KNSIBK), both of which I memorized in 5th grade on the 7 minute bus ride from my house to school. But if you introduce yourself to me at a party, wait two minutes, and ask me what your name is, be prepared to have your feelings hurt. José, then. Not much was known about José except that he seemed to understand sign language although he never used it, and there was at at least some indication of him being hearing.

One Wednesday night when I dropped him off at his house on the way back from church, he asked me a question about how I learned sign language, then said “thanks” with a handshake as he left. This might be conclusive evidence that he was hearing. But during Miranda’s (my wife) graduate school training in language disorders, I learned about a number of forms of selective mutism and autism that impact language in socially-mediated ways. I’m totally against reducing people to diagnoses. But I have often wondered if there was a psychological or medical context for the way that we knew José. I imagined – then and now – that if José was different in some way, he might have been ostracized in school, ignored, or worse yet, ridiculed by his teachers and peers for the way he spoke – or for not speaking at all. I wondered if the members of this Deaf church, with their relatively more accepting spectrum of language styles, was a logical, if unconventional, social fit for José.

Like all memories, one cannot remember without re-membering, dis-membering, and trans-membering the very people we wish to remember. Memory is an act of fidelity and infidelity at the same time. This picture of José is inaccurate and insufficient. Likely factually wrong in some way. But it’s in the inconsistencies – the inconsistencies that I produce through the act of re-membering, as psychoanalysis suggests – makes this memory interesting to me and productive of my present.

It is with at least some embarrassment that I think about this early experience. I feel unease today about the relationship between missionaries and Deaf communities around the world, and self-consciousness about the fact that my formative signing years overlapped (though not exclusively) with these missional spaces. I’m not naive, about this, of course. Whatever one says about religious missionaries, they cannot be easily dismissed as fanatics or interlopers. Many of them were former farmers and working class laborers, who carried out long-term commitments with a dedication unmatched and  unimaginable among today’s social justice volunteers. In fact, the time may soon come when we would gladly take a reformed missionary education over the individualizing consumerism of global capitalism, though the two don’t stand entirely at odds. Yet, I can’t help but blush when I think about the condescending side-comments made to me about Puerto Ricans (to which I probably acquiesced), and the tacit Anglo-centrism of their particular form of fundamentalist theology. But there’s no sense in angrily snubbing people with whom we have profound differences, even when that person is a former version of ourselves. We must make peace with the person we embodied in the past as much as we must make peace with others in our present.


Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in ASL

Lincoln’s most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, is approaching its 150th birthday on Tuesday. At a mere 272 words, it is a testimony to the power of brevity, but also to the unpredictable permanence of some texts and not others. In a time of social media and news tickers, the thought of celebrating an actual public speech is extraordinary and appropriate. Yet for many Deaf folks, for whom English is a second language, obtaining these historic texts in a ASL can be difficult. The same is true for interpreters who often have to translate these important texts on the fly, and don’t get to see ASL examples ahead of time. That why when I found the video below of Chad, an AP history student, signing the Address, I was elated. Please check it out below.

An important footnote about Lincoln. He signed a bill recognizing Gallaudet University as a full-fledged university.