Someone on Google+ today asked me what I thought of the article All Things Linguistic — Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL. I responded with the following comment, which I felt should be shared here:
Yes, I’m familiar with this. The segregation of black Deaf children in black Deaf schools, and the segregation of black and white people in general, led to a distinct variety of ASL. The cultural and linguistic heritage of that dialect endures today.
When I was a video relay service (VRS) interpreter, I saw Deaf people call in from all over the US, and I learned a lot of different signs I had never seen before, since there are so many regional varieties. I saw difference in pace, rhythm, signing space, syntax, words that were fingerspelled instead of signed, and vice versa.
I wish this would not come as a surprise to hearing people who know nothing of ASL, because they should understand that ASL is as varied as spoken language, and emerges and evolves organically among language communities. Instead, it seems most hearing people assume that ASL is a fixed system invented by hearing people and taught to Deaf people all over the world. They also seem to assume that Deaf people take what is “given” to them without question or alteration. Of course they don’t realize they assume this, but the way they talk about it, they do. For example, when I tell them I am an ASL interpreter, they assume I teach ASL to Deaf people, as if Deaf people needed a hearing person to teach them how to communicate. They also say things like “why isn’t it universal? It should be!” I ask them “why isn’t English universal?” They seem to take for granted that hearing people have the sovereignty to create and use their own languages, yet they think Deaf people don’t create their own ways of communicating, and should be made to communicate the same way all over the world.
I’ll leave you with the video that inspired the original article:
1. It takes patience and creativity to sign with people who know little sign language.
I have a new respect for Deaf people who take the time to sign with ASL students. Having more respect for Deaf people and more creativity in how I express myself is making me a better Deaf community member.
2. I’ve been doing it wrong.
Well, maybe not wrong, but there are things I never knew, such as that Y is considered a down letter; that is, Y is made by tilting the palm downward. I’m sure this is not a hard and fast rule; in fact, I can see even on the Signing Naturally DVD the language models do not always sign Y that way. Still, I never knew it ever tilted down at all. Now I see it in the way I and other signers spell the lexicalized #style and #yes. I also never knew that the sign WHEN meant what day, not what time. Again, I’m sure this is not a hard and fast rule, but I never knew it was a rule at all. Those are just two examples of several. Learning how to refine my signing is making me a better interpreter.
3. Now I see what my students have learned.
Since many of the interpreting students and working interpreters I teach have learned ASL with the Signing Naturally curriculum, I have a better idea of what they were taught. Knowing what my students have learned is making me a better interpreter trainer.
These are the slideshows from the series of three Interpreting Vague Language (VL) workshops I taught in July. I’m sharing these for people who are interested in vague language and how I teach it.
I recommend taking these three parts together as a Friday night, all day Saturday workshop. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 623-252-5171 if you are interested in hosting. Thanks!
The customer is the person we need, not the person who needs us.
At first glance, this quotation seems paradoxical. In truth, we need each other. But good customer service means forgetting, for the moment, the truth that the customer needs us, and focusing instead on the truth that we need the customer. People sometimes feel embarrassed and powerless when they need something from someone. As an interpreter, I serve customers who need my help to communicate with each other. I find that when I focus on the truth that I need my customers, my attitude improves and so does my customer service. I believe that when customers feel proud and powerful instead of embarrassed and powerless, they are more able to communicate with each other and more inclined to ask for me again.
“What about slang words and acronyms, aren’t they vague language?” Someone asked me this recently, and I wanted to say no right away, but I had to think about why. After thinking on it, I say no, slang words and acronyms are not vague language because they do not have inherently vague meanings; if anything, they are very specific. Vague words have inherently vague meanings– vague language is language you know, but can never be sure of. Take the word noonish– we know it means sometime around noon; we just don’t know exactly when. We also don’t know how late someone might be when they say they’ll meet you at noonish: 12:05? 12:10? What about quarter past– is that noonish anymore, or just plain late? I don’t think a dictionary, slang or otherwise, will ever tie noonish down to the hands of a clock. When people talk with each other in front of you in a language you don’t understand, they’re being cryptic, not vague. Or maybe you’re just being paranoid.