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”?





Morsi’s Defense Wanted to Learn Sign Language

In another terrific article by Peter Hessler (March 10, 2014), a journalist covering the ongoing revolution in Egypt, he remarks that Mohammed Morsi’s defense wanted to learn sign language to communicate with their client through the soundproof cages in which they are kept in the courtroom.

“At the next hearing, another defense lawyer stood up and requested that the trial be delayed until his legal team and its clients were able to learn sign language, so they could communicate. (The judge rolled his eyes–request denied.)”

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.

Why is ASL so important to Deaf culture?



This post cannot answer the title question thoroughly. Nor is this a “study” of Deaf individuals’ narrative frameworks for understanding ASL and culture. (Interestingly, no such research exists.) Rather, this is an attempt to understand how ASL and Deaf culture have been conceptually linked, and how this particular link between language and culture is a double-edged sword.

In his 2005 article on “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World”, Harlan Lane provides a well-argued critique of applying the term disability to Deaf individuals. Lane suggests that hearing people should view the Deaf community as an ethnicity, and he provides long list of properties which are intended to demonstrate that Deaf people are an “ethnicity”: language, kinship, “the arts”, social structure, values, knowledge, customs, etc. In the short paragraph describing language, Lane quotes well-known linguist, Joshua Fishman, in defense of language as a primary ethnic marker. I’ll quote the entire paragraph:

“‘The mother tongue is an aspect of the soul of a people. It is their achievement par excellence. Language is the surest way for individuals to safeguard or recover the authenticity they inherited from their ancestors as well as to hand it on to generations yet unborn’ (Fishman, 1989, p. 276). Competence in ASL is a hallmark of Deaf ethnicity in the United States and some other parts of North America. A language not based on sound is the primary element that sharply demarcates the Deaf-World from the engulfing hearing society.” (Lane 2005)

Anyone with a week of experience in the Deaf community will grasp the common sense of this statement. As Mindess quotes in an epigraph on page 110 (a quote from Schein 1989) of Reading Between the Signs, “For many members of the Deaf community, they and ASL are indistinguishable. Their self-concept is based on being Deaf and being Deaf to them means using ASL.” Interpreting students learn this simple fact from Stewart, Schein, and Cartwright (1998), too: “ASL is the language of the Deaf community.” (134) Minor quibbles aside, these are rather incontestable observations as far as I can tell. And they are – or should be – foundational knowledge of sign language interpreters.

But there is something missing for me.

Something is Missing

What’s missing for me is a history of the ideas that make the Deaf community a community – or ethnicity, or culture, or linguistic minority – and which therefore make interpreting a profession in the first place. I hope the following illustration explains what I think is missing from our current literature and creates an opening for further discussion within interpreting in the future. (See post What Do Interpreters Need to Accomplish?)

If we could summarize the above quotes in a brief assertion that sounds like anthropology 101, it would go something like this: “Language is one of the primary markers of distinct social groups.” This has been true for as far back as the historical record shows. But there’s a twist. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that language took on a particularly powerful role in defining social groups in the sense that we think of it today.

What is language and culture?

The main figure in this evolution is Johann Gottfried von Herder (according to Peter Watson in The German Genius). Locke claimed that language was a natural phenomenon, not a divine gift – a transformation in thought that interpreters should certainly revisit. But it was Herder who gave language a new power it didn’t have before. It’s worth quoting from Watson’s book at length:

“Language identifies a Volk or nationality, and this, the historico-psychological entity of the common language, is for him ‘the most natural and organic basis for political organisation… Without its own language a Volk is an absurdity (Unding). … A Volk, on this theory, is the natural division of the human race, endowed with its own language, which it must preserve as its most distinctive and sacred possession.”

Herder should also be known for his advocacy a rather new idea at the time: culture. For Herder, “whatever the ‘collective consciousness’ of a Volk was at any particular time, was its culture.” (The term Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – was Herder’s neologism.) For Herder, these concepts of Volk, language, culture, and nation are all intertwined. Ultimately, all of these features reach their height in the establishment of a nation-state, a political organization which has the authority to represent the political will of the people – in fact, the state itself is the political will of the people.

Why does this matter?

First, I think Herder’s original writings are more philosophically robust than most of what we find in interpreting literature today. This is not a criticism of books about interpreting, but it suggests that there is much to be gained from reading the original texts of thinkers who we often think of as old and irrelevant. This may not interest most working interpreters. But working interpreters deserve to know that it hasn’t interested scholars in Deaf studies and interpreting either. In other words, despite about 50 years of scholarship in our field, we still don’t know where our ideas came from. This is no small matter. And it would be a great topic for a MA thesis is anyone out there is thinking of going back to school. (See post All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

Second, I think we can detect in these excerpts the double-edged sword that is about to fall on Western civilization. This is a bit more complex, but it is very important. When Herder argues that language is the most natural, authentic characteristic of social groups, he is lending support to the idea that “natural divisions of the human race” exist, and therefore can’t be challenged. This is known today as essentialism. And he is lending support for the newly-formed nation-states of Europe. By 1945, these European states and their many counterparts in the Third World will have experienced a century of nearly unending conflict and war precisely on the basis of these “natural” human divisions. Horkheimer and Adorno will later call this the “triumphant calamity” of the enlightenment. (See The Culture Bargain post.)

Third, this is the time (late 1700s, early 1800s) that what we now call the Deaf community was beginning to take its modern form in Europe and the U.S. Notably, early texts written by Deaf individuals refer to themselves as a “nation”, not as a culture. Culture didn’t take on its modern meaning in English until the 1860s, and didn’t fall into common use until the 20th century. Interestingly, when it did enter English in the 1860s, it was introduced by German-trained anthropologists who were trying to identify and categorize Herder’s “natural divisions of the human race”. In other words, the term culture has a particularly colonial ring to it. Culture, like Herder’s theory of language, is going to but both ways against the emerging Deaf community. The Deaf community will see itself as a “nation” during the 1800s, and by the late 1960s, see itself as a “culture” (with the aid of hearing academics, no small matter, indeed). But culture and language are also going to be the tools of oppression. Deaf people do not have Herder’s nation-state to back them up. Quite the contrary, it will be the ASL users themselves who will later be seen as deviating from the national cultural model. (See Anthropology’s Culture Problem post.)

Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas

Lane was right: ASL matters to Deaf culture. But when we claim, as we often do, that language and culture are inseparable, it can make it seem as if this is how it has always been since the beginning of time. Or it seems that this way of thinking is “natural”. In fact, this idea is relatively recent. And this idea has cut both ways, sometimes hurting the Deaf community, sometimes empowering the Deaf community. Without attention to where these ideas came from, I can’t help but think that we are captive to these ideas. When we are captive to our ideas, it becomes hard to imagine a different world and our options for advocacy are stunted, hampered, restricted. Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas. It is worth our time to excavate these ideas and enrich our ability to be excellent interpreters and strong advocates.

This is not a definitive answer to the question, “Why Does ASL Matter to the Deaf community?”. But it is an often-overlooked part of a larger answer.

List of references:

  • Lane, H. L. (2005). Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10(3), 291–310. doi:10.1093/deafed/eni030
  • Mindess, A. (1999). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Intercultural Press.
  • Stewart, D. A., Schein, J. D., & Cartwright, B. E. (1998). Sign language interpreting: Exploring its art and science.
  • Watson, P. (2011). The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. HarperCollins.

Sign Language Interpreter at Mandela’s Memorial Services Was a Fake

Despite important gains in public awareness and human rights, many people are still proudly ignorant about sign language and deafness. Homophobic comments are increasingly seen as socially unacceptable, regardless of individual beliefs. Anti-semitism is highlighted and denounced in the news. Racial slurs, such as the ones by Don Imus, are viewed as obviously ridiculous But  broad social consensus indicates that it is still acceptable to be ignorant about the Deaf community and about sign languages.

The most recent and egregious example comes from Johannesburg, South Africa at the memorial service for the great Nelson Mandela. The sign language interpreter at the ceremony was not only unqualified – he was a complete fake. What’s worse, it seems like this isn’t the first time this interpreter has been hired for public events! The Deaf Federation of South Africa has apparently released a comment saying that the interpreter wasn’t signing anything of meaning in South Africa sign language or American Sign Language. As we often say, interpreters only get recognized when things go wrong – we rarely get recognized for being qualified and doing our job.

This particular event may simply be a product of the overall poor organization of the memorial service, as some news sources have commented upon. But it illustrates the point once again that when society has to make tough decisions about who should have access to information and who shouldn’t, the Deaf and signing community gets excluded. Once again, we see that the pejorative view of sign languages lead people to think that they can just “fake it” without the slightest embarrassment. Once again, we see that  ignorance about the field of interpreting leads people to think that interpreting is an irrelevant social “performance”.

Mandela’s own fight for justice should inspire us to push for Deaf rights and demand qualified interpreters.


Click here or the image above to see the video.

How to become a sign language interpreter

So you saw Lydia Callis interpreting for Mayor Bloomberg or you saw Marlee Matlin’s interpreter, Jack Jason, on Dancing with the Stars and you thought to yourself, “I wanna do that!” What’s next? Here’s what it takes to become an interpreter.

  1. Develop fluency in your local sign language and Deaf culture: That’s right – sign language is not universal. You will have to learn your country’s or region’s sign language. If you’re in the United States, much of Canada, and some parts of Latin America and Africa, that will some dialect of American Sign Language. If you’re in the U.K. that will be BSL, QLS in Quebec, and so on. Developing fluency will require a mix of college-level course work and community interaction.
  2. Develop explicit knowledge of your dominant language and dominant culture: Yes, you may have spoken English since birth, but that doesn’t mean you are knowledgeable about its morphology, syntax, and pragmatics. Since you are using your dominant language at least half the time, you need to be as knowledgeable about it as you are about sign language.
  3. Develop interpreting skills and knowledge: Being bilingual isn’t enough. Interpreting is a whole other skill set. You need to be able to recognize how language works in theory and in practice, and be able to think quickly in two languages. This, too, will involve college coursework, skill development, and on-the-job training.
  4. Attend and Graduate from an Interpreter Training Program: In the U.S. and many parts of Europe, steps #1, #2, and #3 are combined in what we call an ITP – interpreter training program. This is the most direct path to becoming an interpreter, but I mention it separately to let you know what you should be getting out of your ITP. It’s not enough to get a piece of paper – you should take charge of your education and make sure you get what you need.
  5. Get Qualified: Just because you have an interpreting degree in your back pocket, doesn’t mean your actually good at what you do. Interpreting is largely skill-based, which means if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Qualified means a lot of things to lots of people, but let me put it like this: being qualified means being able to do the job someone hires you to do. You might be a great medical interpreter because you used to work in a hospital, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to interpret a three-day workshop on government accounting procedures. Getting qualified means attending advanced workshops, developing industry-specific knowledge (accounting terminology, for instance), and teaming with more experienced interpreters.
  6. Get Certified: Certification is important, as well. Many countries have an interpreting organization or government agency that has developed a standardized test for certifying interpreters. Think of it like the ASE certification for mechanics: it tests your basic, general knowledge and skills of your field and is nationally recognized. In the U.S., the test is administered by RID (the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) and involves a written portion and performance portion, both of which you must pass before getting certified. Do this sooner rather than later. There are also a few states with state-led certification, and there is an education-specific certification.
  7. Get Work: I strongly advise against going it 100% alone. Find an agency to work with, get a full-time position (rare, I know), or work in a school system. This will keep you connected to the profession and give you a network of colleagues for support. Of course, always keep your options open. Learn how to drum up work on your own without undercutting other interpreters, and learn how to manage taxes and contracts as a freelance interpreter.
  8. Grow. Grow. Grow: Let’s be honest, no one respects a colleague who tries to do the bare minimum. This is especially true in the language services field where language, the economy, and the social groups we work with are changing all the time. Workshops are a great way to stay on top of the game. But I actually believe that peer study groups, college coursework in closely-related fields, and volunteering are better ways to develop as a professional. — Following blogs like this one is a good way to keep abreast of new ideas, too. 🙂

So that’s what it takes to become an interpreter. This isn’t much different than a lot of professions. We could be talking about becoming a lawyer, a welder, a teacher – lots of things – and it would easily map onto this list. I love interpreting and I’m sure if you go down this path, you will, too.

Need a Spark of Creativity? Check out Deaf Magazine

It’s great to see something innovative in the field of sign language, technology and media. Check out this terrific mixed-media magazine produced in Germany that uses smartphone technology to add video to print media. Imagine if interpreters could create a market for themselves translating print media into more permanent signed media. This is the kind of project that could really add to the field of interpreting.

Lifeinlincs – a great interpreting blog

As I’ve noted before, there aren’t too many blogs about interpreting. But here’s a great one:  LifeinLINCS.

LifeinLINCS is ran by the members of the Language and Inter-cultural Studies Department at Hariot -Watt University in the U.K. If you can get past the awkward name, LifeinLINCS is unparalleled in the quality of its content. Which makes sense, because the contributors are instructors and professors in an excellent department. Jemina Napier, probably the most published sign language interpreting researcher in the business, undoubtably has something to do with this. Check it out. You’ll love the content.

The LifeinLINCS is hereby inducted into the Interpreter’s Library on this site.

What You Don’t Know About Milan

The story of the Milan conference in Italy in 1880 is a well- and often-told historical moment in Deaf history. Delegates to this conference decided that oralism was the preferred mode of instruction for deaf students and sign language would be phased out. Starting immediately and continuing for several decades, deaf teachers were removed from instructional positions within deaf schools, sign language become increasingly prohibited, and the deaf community at large underwent a kind of dark ages following an otherwise bright 19th century.

What did we miss? During my ITP I wrote a term paper on the Milan conference. To complete the assignment I purchase an excellent monograph by Richard Brill. Brill’s book outlines the history of the International Congresses on Education of the Deaf, of which Milan was the second.

That’s right. Milan was not  the first. Nor was it the last. And what actually happened at the conferences is mostly glossed over and its rich details ignored. As I hold the book open in front of me, it’s remarkable to read the names of presenters: E.M. Gallaudet, Edward Fay, George Veditz, William Stokoe, Stephen Quigley, and more. And the conferences themselves continued for years: Milan in 1880, Chicago in 1993, London in 1925, Washington, D.C. in 1963, Tokyo in 1975.


I can’t help but wonder. What we would gain from excavating the ongoing debates at these conferences? What were the international politics of the conferences like? How did these conferences tie into other political and economic issues of the day such as colonialism, white supremacy, and women’s suffrage? Also, how did a vote at a conference in Milan become so widely accepted as legitimate and decisive? There’s so much more to these conferences than meets the eye.

I am mentioning all this for a simple reason: when we are learning (or teaching) about deaf history and the deaf community, things often get compressed into tablet form, like chewable children’s vitamins. But in fact there is a lot more to this history that no one has looked at very closely. I wonder if this history will get the attention it deserves someday?