Live-tweeting the democratic presidential debate

Paul & Tina’s Signalong: Haters gonna hate

I am not as offended or concerned about Paul & Tina’s Signalong as some people are. I think exposure to ASL can be a good thing, regardless of who’s signing. Personal experience: the first time I was truly impressed with the beauty of ASL was at a monologue competition in 1985, when a hearing girl spoke and signed a monologue from Children of a Lesser God. I have no idea, in retrospect, how good she was at signing; all I remember is I thought it was beautiful. The fact that she spoke and signed at the same time made it accessible to me. I don’t think I would have gotten the same impression at the time if I had seen a Deaf woman delivering the same monologue, even if it were interpreted. I might have been more intimidated than entertained. I might have seen more differences than similarities. I might not have been ready for the culture shock.

If you read the comments on Paul & Tina’s Signalong Facebook page post about taking down their donation site, you’ll see a variety of views, both supportive and critical, both from hearing and Deaf people. I think this dialogue is a good thing. The comments from d/Deaf people were more supportive than those from interpreters, though, and I think that’s telling. If Deaf signers want to be offended by Paul & Tina, and educate them about their language and culture, that is their job. It’s not ASL/English interpreters’ job to be offended for Deaf people.

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish

Where you start isn’t necessarily where you end up. It’s not Paul & Tina’s job to be Deaf, and they’re not trying to be. They’re just being themselves and having fun with it. They’re not the be all, end all; they’re just doing their thing. Where people take it from there is their business. Time will tell whether future interpreters might have first thought ASL was fun by watching their videos. Eventually, we learn from Deaf people if we get that far. And if we don’t get that far, what’s the harm?

Encountering bigotry on interpreting jobs

I have encountered bigotry in the workplace as an ASL-English interpreter, but I must stress that it has come from both Hearing and Deaf clients, and has not always transpired between the clients I was interpreting for at the moment.

I usually gloss over the well-meaning paternalism of some Hearing people, especially if the interaction is brief and I sense that what is being communicated is more important than how it is being communicated. Many of the Deaf people I interpret for are familiar with this paternalism that sometimes borders on oppression, and they can handle it themselves. If they don’t handle it, it is usually because they don’t want to waste their time. One of the common errors I see among people who use interpreters is saying, “Ask/tell him/her.” This is a fairly innocent mistake. I will usually interpret it the first time, and see if the Deaf client corrects their hearing interlocutor or not. If they don’t, I usually just change the third person address to second person address in my interpretation.

However, I have experienced situations of bigotry that created a hostile work environment for me. Here are two that stand out:

  1. A boy in a high school class bullying another boy by calling him a “faggot” and carrying on in that vein deliberately and relentlessly during study time. The Deaf client was not paying attention.
  2. A Deaf client who used old, deprecated signs for Chinese and American Indian (pantomimes of mockery, pulling the eyelids to the sides with the forefingers while bowing up and down for Chinese, and raising one hand and patting the mouth with the other for Indian) and carried on about hating “faggots” in the waiting room at a doctor’s office

In both cases, my longterm solution was to no longer interpret for those people. My short term solutions to cases like these vary. The first situation I listed was the last straw after hearing occasional homophobia from this student over the previous few months. I chastised the bully, told the Deaf student what happened, and went to the vice-principal’s office. When neither the vice-principal nor the classroom teacher supported neither the bullied student nor me, I walked off the job with an hour to go because I was too upset to carry on. In the second situation I listed, I didn’t bother to say anything. In both cases, I let the interpreting agency who sent me know that I would no longer interpret for these people because I could not tolerate their bigotry.

In 24 years of interpreting, my encounters with insufferable bigotry have been extremely rare. More often, what I see is paternalism among hearing people toward deaf people, and I usually let it roll off my back. I just interpret and let the clients work it out themselves.

Yes, the people I interpret for display bigotry toward each other occasionally, but the worst bigotry I have encountered has had nothing to do with the cultures and languages I was mediating, and instead has been a kind of “environmental” bigotry I just could not stand.

Related Articles

When the interpreter faces a bigot.

Bimodal interpreters, not just sign language interpreters

Sign language interpreters are spoken language interpreters too

To talk about our work, it helps to have efficient terms that accurately define it. Typically, we ASL/English interpreters call ourselves “sign language interpreters,” while we call (for example) Spanish/English interpreters “spoken language interpreters.” Yet signed language is only half our language pair; the other half is spoken language; therefore, we are also spoken language interpreters.

How to distinguish, then, between interpreters who work with two spoken languages and interpreters who work with a spoken language and a signed language? Saying “signed-spoken” and “spoken-spoken” is a mouthful. Luckily, there are better terms for this comparison: bimodal and unimodal (Emmorey, Borinstein, Thompson, & Gollan, 2008). What we share with unimodal interpreters is that we are bilingual. What sets us apart is that we interpret between two modes: signed and spoken; therefore, we are bimodal interpreters.

Visual language interpreters are aural language interpreters too

I like the name of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada better than the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf because we are interpreters for the H/hearing as much as we are interpreters for the D/deaf. Yet the term visual language interpreters fails to acknowledge that we are also aural language interpreters. This is where bimodal is more accurate. We interpret in two modes: call them aural and visual or audible and visible; either way, we are bimodal interpreters.

We are also bimodal when we do sight translation; i.e., interpreting from written text to signed language for those who have difficulty reading. An interpreter might also do tactile sight translation for a Deaf-Blind person who does not read Braille or cannot obtain a certain document in Braille. There are many different ways we facilitate communication; not all of them are visual, but they are all bimodal.

We need terms as inclusive and specific as our work

Bimodal is an accurate and comprehensive term for what we do to facilitate communication between D/deaf and hearing people. We, as a collective of individuals, serve a diversity of deaf (not always Deaf) consumers using a variety of methods to make audible language visible and vice versa.  Some use American Sign Language (ASL); some use manually coded English (MCE), a.k.a. pidgin sign English (PSE), or, preferably, contact language; some use oral methods such as mouthing and gestures; still others use cued speech. Whatever opinion people have of these modes of communication, there are D/deaf people who use them, and there interpreters and transliterators who serve those D/deaf people and their hearing interlocutors. Not all of these methods are bilingual, but they are all bimodal.

To be even more accurate, some of us sometimes interpret using audible, visible, and tactile methods between hearing, D/deaf, and Deaf-Blind people, so when we do that, we are trimodal interpreters.

Let scholarship inform our practice

The demand for bimodal interpreting services has always outpaced the supply of available practitioners, and consequently, federal funding has primarily been directed at increasing the number of available practitioners, not on research and development. As a result, we contend that the field has adopted and maintains a “culture of practice” rather than a “culture of scholarship.” (Nicodemus & Swabey, 2011)

There is a time and place for specialized terminology. I am not suggesting we start calling ourselves bimodal interpreters outside of the profession. I do not plan to say to hearing clients, “Hi, I’m your bimodal interpreter!” I will continue to call myself an interpreter first, and an ASL/English interpreter second. I might even slip and call myself a sign language interpreter if I am careless. However, when talking about our work vis-à-vis the work of interpreters who work in spoken languages only, I would like to see us compare bimodal interpreters with unimodal interpreters instead of sign(ed) language interpreters and spoken language interpreters. Fellow interpreter educators could start by introducing the term bimodal bilingual, if they have not already done so, and fellow interpreters could use the term in professional discussions. It would be ignorant to use the same terminology we have always used when scholarship informs us of a better option. We are professionals, and part of professional practice is scholarship. I believe it is time for us to take a more global, research-based view of what we do, and start talking about it in ways that demonstrate greater awareness.


Emmorey, K., Borinstein, H. B., Thompson, R. and Gollan, T. H. (2008). Bimodal bilingualism. In Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11(1), 43–61. Retrieved from

Nicodemus, B. & Swabey, L. (2011). Bimodal bilingual interpreting in the U.S. healthcare system: A critical linguistic activity in need of investigation. In B. Nicodemus & L. Swabey (Eds.) Advances in Interpreting Research. Inquiry in action, 241–259. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. Retrieved from

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.