CityLab Got it Wrong: The Real Story is English Monolingualism

Is the U.S still influenced by Anglo-centrism? In an article published yesterday by the CityLab project at the Atlantic, researchers at the Urban Institute claim that “one in fifteen children are linguistically isolated.” By “linguistically isolated”, they mean that a child lives in a home where no one over 15 years of age speaks English less than “very well.” This research is based on census data that reports language proficiency in the home.

Map From Article


While the researchers may be right that English proficiency is an important factor in accessing public services, and certainly may have an impact on socialization, I read this and wondered if this conclusion is not only inadequate but ethnocentric. Rather than dive into the conclusions of the investigation, I want to reverse the claim to illustrate what I mean.

Are we aware of the enormous linguistic isolation of American children all over the country? Are we aware that in the majority of states, children from a young age are inflicted with monolingualism as a result of parents who are carriers of the monolingual illness? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the ignorance and prejudice that results from having no way to communicate across language barriers? I decided to draw up a quick map (below) of the percent, by state, of residents who are monolingual in English. The map shows that in most states, that number is above 75%, with the national average being at 79%. In other words, 79% of the people in the United States are linguistically isolated by only knowing English. I think that’s a more important story about racial and linguistic segregation.

My Map of Percent English Monolinguals (by State)



Monolingualism is contagious, but it is also treatable. It seems that more children in the U.S. should be required to vaccinate as early as kindergarten so that we can build a future where no children is “linguistically isolated”.

Making Research Count 2 – About Me

Images Explained

  1. About Me: This includes two photographs that I’ve taken, the first from Toronto (one of my favorite cities ever), and the second from a sadly decaying house in rural Ohio.
  2. How many?: I learned ASL alongside newly enrolled Deaf children. Here’s me trying to sign “HOW MANY?” as in “How many toy elephants are there?” – which, if you’re five years old and don’t know ASL just looks like “Please take these toys and throw them in the air!” Which the endearing student did immediately.
  3. Deaf Geography: This is from our sessions on Deaf Geography at the AAG in New York City. A beautiful mess of language: hearing people, Deaf people, Deaf people who sign ASL and BSL (British) and QSL (Québéçois) and Turkish Sign Language… some hearing people can speak to each other but can’t sign to each other, some hearing people who can’t speak to each other (different spoken languages) but can sign to each other, some Deaf people interpreting between hearing people… just wonderful! The person on the right is an excellent CDI who was fantastic at working between BSL and ASL.

About Me

I live in Columbus, Ohio. Even though I work as an interpreter, interpreting has never been my main connection to the Deaf community. My first involvement in the community was as a dorm counselor and classroom aid in a school in Puerto Rico. It was here that I developed a passion for language, communication, and cultural context. When I moved back to Ohio I enrolled in an ITP and graduated in 2006. I eventually went on to study chemistry and geography at Ohio State University. I was later accepted into a combined MA/PhD track in geography in 2009, where my research on U.S. immigration enforcement is driven by an interest in space, power, and law. I have had the experience to work with other Deaf and hearing graduate students and faculty who are thinking through the relationship between the Deaf community, space, and language. My own goal in this project has been to assess the ways that the Deaf community is imagined and represented in interpreting texts, and how this shapes interpreters’ behaviors.

Trouble in Malta: Interpreting Services are Vanishing

As you all know, I pay close attention to the daily news coming out of Malta, the small island off the southern coast of Sicily. (Okay, that’s a joke. But click here for a map if you don’t know where Malta is.) And the big news recently is that interpreting services are nearly going away as a result of the lack of government funds for interpreters – or a lack of will of the government to fund interpreting services. It’s always so hard to tell, isn’t it?

Is a Malta a microcosm of the coming collapse of interpreting services? Or is it specific to the island economy of this small, Mediterranean land? (And honestly, if interpreting was going south, wouldn’t you rather lose your job on a beautiful island than in rural Ohio? And is there an old colonial bias in the phrase “going south”, as if “going south” implies that things are getting worse? After the last economic meltdown started squarely in northern housing economies, maybe we should say “going north” to mean that something is tanking.)

In any case, here’s your news of the day. (Click headline to see full article.)

Malta Deaf Association warns of collapse of sign language interpreting services

Flashback: Does anyone remember Laurent, South Dakota?

When I moved back to Ohio in 2004, I remember hearing a lot about Laurent, South Dakota. Laurent was intended to be a planned community near Sioux Falls where American Sign Language would be held on par with English and where Deaf and hard-of-hearing families would be welcomed. It didn’t work out. Laurent failed to materialize. But that doesn’t mean Laurent was a failure. We should remember Van Cleve and Crouch’s research on Deaf communities in the U.S. in their excellent book  A Place of Their Own. These planned (but never executed) towns have symbolic value within the Deaf community as an “imagined community” in the flavor of Benedict Anderson. (See previous post on this topic.) They are the imaginary geographic solution to the everyday existential distances experienced by many Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. You can see a timeline compiled by DeafWeekly here, and some images below from the original plans.

Just for fun, what elements of the town plans signal that this is a “Deaf town”?





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.


Apache ASL Trails and the Problem of Deaf Space


Apache ASL Trails* is an independent living center in Arizona, one of the few places for sign language users to retire with others who speak the same language. Apache was built in part with stimulus money and opened in 2011 with 75 apartments and a suite of amenities. Early last year (2013), the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decided to investigate Apache (a story also covered by Limping Chicken) claiming that the complex violated what seems to be fair housing law by specializing in a single “disability”. Here’s what I think this means: if you take federal money for disability-related residential construction you can’t make those homes specifically for individuals who are deaf, autistic, of any other federal category of disability. Just  last week, HUD exercised discretion and dropped their investigation and it looks like Apache will be free – for now – to run the living center as intended. In my view, this is definitely the right choice for HUD and for Apache, although no one should consider the legal problems resolved. An aggressive (or bored) HUD director could cause more trouble for Apache in the future.

While the storm seems to have blown over, I though this an opportune time to reflect on the relationship between Deaf space and the state. Deaf space was probably first solidified as a term at Gallaudet University when architects, professors, and students began to ask the question, “What would a distinctively Deaf space look like?” One of the central conclusions of this question was the recognition that architectural spaces are designed with the assumption that the users of those spaces are hearing, speaking individuals for whom sound is a fundamental element of social experience.

Now, Deaf folks are not, as many presume, unaware of the physics of sound, nor are individuals in the Deaf community ignorant of sound as a social phenomenon. Sound and speech are much more complicated than their physics suggest. The result of this study was the development of architectural principles that have been used to construct buildings that are more photo-centric (I just made up that term, I think). A similar discussion happened in Columbus, Ohio where I live during the design and construction of the new parts of the Ohio School for the Deaf. This is all kind-of mainstream in the Deaf community at this point.

But this is not entirely new. Social space has been central to the identity of the Deaf community as long back as we have record. In fact, Mike Gulliver wrote his MA thesis and PhD dissertation on this topic. Such spaces include, famously, Deaf clubs, Deaf residential schools, Deaf sports teams, (a) Deaf university (Gallaudet, of course), and so on.

The challenge that Apache ASL Trails faced from HUD illustrates an important, often overlooked element of Deaf space: the state. There is a strange tension between the state and the Deaf community. On the one hand, states such as various levels of the U.S. government have cruelly targeted members of the Deaf community for sterilization, forbade immigration of individuals with hearing loss or who used sign language, and wrongfully imprisoned individuals within what used to be called “insane asylums” for their signing. Yet federal and state administrations have also funded Deaf residential schools, provided funding for places like Apache ASL Trails, provides the disability classification that enables many Deaf individuals to receive social assistance, and passed laws requiring interpreters in public  school and college. None if this is as neat as I’m presenting it, but you get the point: the Deaf community and the state have a love-hate relationship to say the least.

Yet this complicated relationship with state goes almost entirely unmentioned in Deaf studies literature. I think it’s important to remember that communities don’t just “exist”, but that they are formed, in part, through their relationship with the state. This is certainly true for the Deaf community, as is evident in the recent Apache ASL Trails situation. And that’s all I want to point out.

*”Apache” seems to be a strange term to use for the facility. It feels like one oppressed group is appropriating a term of identity from another. Imagine a residential center for Native Americans called “Deaf Apache Dorm”. Just saying.

ASL Interpreters Among Peers

Much to do has been made about whether sign language interpreters should consider spoken language interpreters partners in the same profession or similarly-titled language workers with vastly different everyday experience. 


The “separate-but-equal” argument has been promoted by people on both side of the isle, from Dennis Cokely to the AIIC (click here to read more about the AIIC). I believe there is good reason to view interpreting as a whole profession regardless of some important differences. I’ll come back to this question in a later post. But for now, I’m back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Basically, I want to know what percent of interpreters nationwide and by state are sign language interpreters. There are two pieces of data. (1) RID membership, which I’m using as a proxy for working interpreters even though I know this is far from true. (2) The total people who identified as a 27-3091, the BLS code for an interpreter or translator. If you look at the numbers below, you can tell just how wonky this approach is. Nationwide, RID members make up about one-third of all reported interpreters and/or translators. Yet in some states, there are more RID members than interpreters/translators!

Here are some plausible explanations for what’s going on. I hope that you will suggest more explanations for the data, and perhaps send better data if you have it. This is a community exercise. We should all know what’s going on in our profession, shouldn’t we?

  1. The BLS data is skewed because not everyone who works as an interpreter is filling out 27-3091 on their IRS paperwork. (That is where the BLS is getting their data, n’est pas?
  2. The RID membership numbers are not entirely working interpreters.
  3. The RID membership numbers represent only a fraction of working ASL interpreters (which fraction, then?)
  4. In many cases, interpreting is so part-time that it’s hard to get accurate data.
  5. Many interpreters aren’t claiming interpreting wages on their taxes.
States RID Members Total Interpreters/Translators (BLS) Percent of Total are RID members
Total 15,617 48050 32.50%
Alabama 174 290 60.00%
Alaska 49 50 98.00%
Arizona 460 1470 31.29%
Arkansas 82 90 91.11%
California 1,762 7860 22.42%
Colorado 343 1200 28.58%
Connecticut 188 280 67.14%
Delaware 36 unk
District of Columbi 147 400 36.75%
Florida 1,064 1930 55.13%
Georgia 420 1410 29.79%
Hawaii 62 190 32.63%
Idaho 83 250 33.20%
Illinois 500 1570 31.85%
Indiana 298 870 34.25%
Iowa 151 420 35.95%
Kansas 88 580 15.17%
Kentucky 273 400 68.25%
Louisiana 150 350 42.86%
Maine 104 150 69.33%
Maryland 565 870 64.94%
Massachusetts 357 1820 19.62%
Michigan 407 690 58.99%
Minnesota 755 1220 61.89%
Mississippi 43 110 39.09%
Missouri 169 680 24.85%
Montana 30 50 60.00%
Nebraska 75 450 16.67%
Nevada 95 310 30.65%
New Hampshire 65 180 36.11%
New Jersey 354 590 60.00%
New Mexico 240 280 85.71%
New York 1,007 3590 28.05%
North Carolina 419 130 322.31%
North Dakota 21 1870 1.12%
Ohio 620 330 187.88%
Oklahoma 106 1030 10.29%
Oregon 280 1470 19.05%
Pennsylvania 546 310 176.13%
Puerto Rico 22 120 18.33%
Rhode Island 34 390 8.72%
South Carolina 96 230 41.74%
South Dakota 81 560 14.46%
Tennessee 237 3860 6.14%
Texas 735 640 114.84%
Utah 206 90 228.89%
Vermont 37 4000 0.93%
Virginia 455 1170 38.89%
Washington 542 110 492.73%
West Virginia 50 1070 4.67%
Wisconsin 371 70 530.00%
Wyoming 14 unk

Field School in Deaf Geographies

The second annual Deaf Geographies summer institute will be taking place in 2014. Please pass this along to any undergraduate students you know who are studying in the humanities, social sciences, or practice professions (including interpreting), and who also have some experience with or interest in Deaf studies.

Deaf Geographies Field School

Language, Interpreters, and Qualitative Research

I received a call for papers at the annual geography conference about fieldwork using interpreters. I was already engaged with another panel. The panel coordinator included these citations about doing research in a second language or through an interpreter. I haven’t read any of them, so I can’t say anything about them. But just look at the titles. Doesn’t this stuff sound interesting and relevant to interpreters? Maybe these resources will benefit someone out there.

  • Crane, LG, MB Lombard & EM Tenz. (2009) More than just translation: challenges and opportunities in translingual research. Soc. Geog. 4:39-46.
  • Putsch, R. (1985) Cross-cultural Communication: The Special Case of Interpreters in Health Care. Journal of the American Medical Association 254 (23): 3344-3348. Smith, F.M. (1996) Problematising Language: Limitations and Possibilities in ‘Foreign Language’ Research. Area 28(2):160-166.
  • Squires, A. (2010) Methodological challenges in cross-language qualitative research: A research review. International Journal of Nursing Studies 46: 277-287.
  •  Temple, B. & A. Young (2004) Qualitative Research and Translation Dilemmas. Qualitative Research 4(2):161-178.
  • Twyman, C., J. Morrison & D. Sporton. (1999) The final fifth: autobiography, reflexivity and interpretation in cross-cultural research. Area 31(4):313-325.
  • Veeck, G. (2001) Talk is Cheap: Cultural and Linguistic Fluency During Field Research. Geographical Review 91(1/2):34-40.
  • Watson, Elizabeth E. (2004) ‘What a dolt one is’: Language learning and fieldwork in geography. Area 36(1):59-6