Banning the words male & female? Not quite

Based on the hype and misunderstanding I see on the links people post on social media, and the way some media outlets distort the truth, I am concerned that many people don’t think to look past headlines to read actual stories— and to seek out primary sources. Case in point: if you only read the headlines last week, you might think the entire University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) banned the words male and female. I did not believe the hype, so I took it upon myself to read past the headlines. This is what I found from an article in The Washington Post:

“Use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, or generally offensive language in class or submission of such material will not be tolerated,” professor Selena Lester Breikss’s syllabus read. “This includes ‘The Man,’ ‘Colored People,’ ‘Illegals/Illegal Aliens,’ ‘Tranny’ and so on — or referring to women/men as females or males.” (Breikss, 2015 as quoted by Moyer, 2015)

Notice it was only one teacher saying that the words male and female would not be tolerated, and only when used as nouns, not as adjectives. I am sure many teachers would not want students to refer to people as adjectives, just as you might not want somebody to call a blind person “a blind” or a deaf person “a deaf.”

I am not a fan of banning words, but I do believe teachers should prepare their students to be writers in the workplace. Stylebooks of publishing houses and influential associations such as the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and American Psychological Association (APA) all have words they deprecate. Another teacher at UTK writes this in their syllabus in “A Note on [In]appropriate Terminology”:

Not “illegal alien” or “illegals” but “undocumented” migrants/immigrants/persons. Note that the Associated Press (AP) has determined not to use it: ‘The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.’ (Fowler, 2015 as quoted by Moyer, 2015)

One may or may not agree with these professors, but it behooves one to cut through the hype and read critically to see what they actually said.

References

Moyer, J. W. (2 September 2015). Washington State University class bans ‘offensive’ terms like male, female, tranny, illegal alien. Washington, DC: The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/02/washington-state-university-class-bans-offensive-terms-such-as-illegal-alien-and-tranny/

Status Update for July 2015

What have I been doing since last summer, you ask? I have been teaching ASL classes, mentoring and leading case supervision, interpreting, and teaching interpreting workshops. I have not been much of a blogger because, honestly, as busy as my days have been, the only thing I want to do at night is watch TV. On the weekends, when I am not grading or prepping, I am relaxing, doing housework, and getting out of the house to go to a park, mall, museum, theatre, restaurant, or friend’s house.

After the Spring 2015 semester ended, I took a 15-day vacation with my husband to Alaska and British Columbia. We moved into a new (to us) house in April, so renovating and redecorating have consumed much of my spare time. This summer, I am editing and taking teacher education courses. I update my Facebook profile pretty regularly, mostly just to my Friends, but sometimes publicly. I tweet occasionally, mostly live-tweeting television broadcasts, commenting on current events, or reviewing products and services— only sometimes tweeting about interpreting or teaching.

So, I am alive! Just making an appearance on my blog for a moment to say “hello world.”

Why there is no “Google Gesture” sign-to-speech translator

Aside from the irresponsible journalism that propagated this story in the first place, the basis for the concept is fundamentally flawed. There cannot be such thing as a wristband a signer can wear that will translate their signed language into spoken language; why? Because signed language is not just on the hands! Signed language is on the face and the body as well. The grammar of signed language is made through eyebrow, mouth, cheek, and even nose movements. Signed language is made with head nods and shakes, head and body tilts, and even shoulder shrugs. Anyone who ever took an introductory course in ASL should know this.

There is one other important flaw in the concept of a gesture-to-speech translation machine, and that is the notion that there is one “sign language.” No, folks, “sign language” is not universal! No sir, no ma’am. Even if Google were able to take input from a human interface device located on a signer’s body–even if that included all the points on the face and body necessary to read signed language–Google would have to add hundreds of signed languages into their Google Translate engine. Language is culture-bound, just as gesture is culture-bound. I’d like to see how this supposed “Google Gesture” would translate the thumbs up gesture, which can mean something like “up yours” in countries other than the United States.

American Sign Language (note that the A in ASL stands for American; i.e., not universal) is a much richer and more complex language than people give it credit for; in fact, so are all the signed languages in the world. Until enough people learn to appreciate the sophistication, complexity, and diversity of signed languages, we will continue to swallow false stories like this hook, line, and sinker.