ASL is not a vague language

Nor is any language “a vague language.” Rather, every language has vague language, just as every language has specific language. Vagueness is a natural phenomenon; not everything in life is certain, specific, accurate, or clear. Since things are sometimes vague, people must be able to use language to express this vagueness. ASL has ways of expressing vagueness; therefore, ASL has vague language in it — just as English and every other language has vague language it it. Any language is too complex to be labeled “a vague language.” Conversely, it is not reasonable to say that any language is “not a vague language” — except insofar as to say there is no such thing as “a vague language.”

Until recently, people thought ASL was “a simple, concrete language incapable of expressing abstract thought.” Research has proved that wrong. My research into vague language (VL) in ASL dignifies ASL by proving that it is capable of expressing vagueness. Can you imagine if it were impossible for an ASL user to express vague or abstract thoughts? If that were the case, ASL would be a limited language. On the contrary, ASL is a healthy, natural language that affords its users the ability to express an infinite range of ideas. That is why I say ASL has vague language, and I support my point with the empirical research I conducted for my master’s thesis “Keeping it Vague: A Study of Vague Language in an American Sign Language Corpus and implications for interpreting between American Sign Language and English.”

I welcome discussion on this topic! Please use the comments section below to respond with whatever thoughts or feelings you have about vague language in ASL and/or other languages.

Deaf Heart, confidentiality, vagueness, and transparency

There is currently a discourse within the American Deaf community about the resignation of two Deaf members of the board of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). The members who resigned, Lewis Merkin and Naomi Sheneman, say that the confidentiality agreements they signed when they joined the board prevent them from discussing in detail what happened that they felt they had to resign. They say, vaguely, that they were reprimanded for something they did that was a trifling matter within the norms of Deaf culture, and that, in general, they do not feel the RID board has a Deaf Heart. The resigning members, and others who support embracing the values of Deaf Heart and Native View, demand more Deaf leadership in RID and more transparency from RID.

In an attempt to understand the term Deaf Heart, and to catch up on the conversation regarding Deaf members of the RID board, I sought, watched, and collected a playlist of videos about Deaf Heart on YouTube. I also Googled ‘Deaf Heart’ and read and listed two articles below (actually, I had read one of them when it came out last month, and I’m still not sure I understand). I’m sure this is not the complete discourse on Deaf Heart and the Deaf RID board member resignations; this is just all I was able to find. If you know of any other vlogs or blog posts I should add, please let me know. In the meanwhile, I hope these references help others who want to get the news and listen to the discourse.

Each of these videos touches upon the concepts of Deaf Heart and/or Native View, though none of them defines it. The first video in this playlists seeks clarification from the diverse membership of the Deaf community (including Deaf people, interpreters both hearing and deaf, people with Deaf family members, social service providers, and others) about Deaf Heart. Deanna Donaldson, the author of this first vlog, requests answers to four questions about Deaf Heart, and invites vloggers to make additional comments for up to two minutes. Her invitation goes out to Houston, Texas, but as it is on the World Wide Web it is a good prompt for vloggers everywhere, and I encourage people to post video responses. I would like to see what people have to say about this thing called Deaf Heart.

An observation that might make for another whole blog post is the vagueness in which these vloggers couch their discussion of these confidential issues. Anyone who thinks ASL is not a vague language, or there is no vagueness in ASL, will see that people can in fact use ASL to be vague. I invite those who know ASL — which, by the way, you have to do to be able to watch these videos (sorry) — to note the vague language and tell me what you see.

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More about introducing oneself as an interpreter

Another need to introduce myself as an interpreter came up recently: a little CODA asked me what I was doing while I was interpreting for their parent. I forgot that little bilingual children might not understand that their parent speaks a different language, much less that they need an interpreter. The more aware I become of an interpreting issue (such as the need to explain one’s role as an interpreter), the more I recognize it when it arises, and the more I have to think about how to handle it.

In this situation, which was low key and interactive, I simply took a moment to say sweetly, “I’m interpreting for your [parent].” I realized at that moment that, in the future, I would make sure small children — and all participants in interpreting for — understand what I am doing there.

The stigma of “signer” upon ASL-English interpreters

Doctor to patient: “Hi, I’m Dr. Y.” Doctor to me: “Oh, the patient’s deaf! So this isn’t interpreting; you’re a signer.” Meanwhile, I’m interpreting.

It seems there’s a stigma that an interpreter who works between a spoken language and a signed language is a “signer” while an interpreter who works between two spoken languages is an “interpreter” (not a “speaker”). I actually try to impress upon people that I am an “interpreter” by introducing myself as an “interpreter,” not a “sign language interpreter.” I want them to perceive me and treat me just as they would a spoken-spoken language interpreter. At this appointment, I introduced myself to the front desk as “the interpreter for your [x-o’clock] appointment with [Patient Y.]” I saw the receptionist tell the nurse I was the interpreter, and I saw the nurse tell the doctor I was the interpreter. So it should be! I know doctors are busy, so I don’t want to take too much time introducing myself and explaining the situation. I simply met the doctor where I was waiting for them outside the patient’s exam room saying, “Hi, I’m Daniel Greene, and I’ll be interpreting for you.” At the moment the doctor said this wasn’t interpreting and I was a signer I didn’t feel it was the right time to correct them. I didn’t even feel like it was the right time to correct them after the appointment, so I let it go.

Now I’m reconsidering my introductions to consumers. I wonder if spoken-spoken language interpreters tell doctors what language the patient speaks. I could say, “I’ll be interpreting for you and Patient Y, who uses American Sign Language,” but one problem with that is that some d/Deaf people mouth or speak English with or without signing, and this can be a surprising change from the way they communicated with me in the waiting room before seeing the doctor. I also hesitate to say a consumer is “Deaf” because some consumers call themselves “hard-of-hearing.” I honestly don’t know if any amount of introduction or explanation would have dispelled this doctor’s perception of me as a “signer.” Still, it makes me rethink how I introduce myself to consumers. Just about every interpreting job I do leaves me with questions… isn’t what we do fascinating?

P.S. (January 5, 2013 7:21 PM) I thought about how the appointment went, and really the fact that the doctor did not recognize what I was doing as “interpreting” did not affect the interpretation or the interpreted event. If I had made an issue of it, it might have had an effect on the dynamic. The doctor’s statement wasn’t a snag in the communication between doctor and patient; it just gave me a micro moment of pause and a lingering thought about how people could think what we do is not interpreting. Very interesting… ’tis a puzzlement.