The -isms & -ists of Oralism & Oralists

Since so many people responded on my blog to the first video about this topic, “Re Oralism vs Speaking” that I embedded in a blog post, I have been responding and thinking about this issue. One thing that stands out for me is the meaning of the suffices -ism and -ist. These can simply mean “system” or “practitioner” but they also have loaded connotations of strong belief systems and prejudices– and the people who espouse such attitudes and prejudices.

My view is that there is nothing wrong with any mode of communication, be it ASL, signed English, or speaking and speechreading. Although I realize that “oralism” is a hot-button issue with many deaf people for whom it carries heavy emotional associations, I believe that if all of that emotional baggage is put aside, it can be seen that speaking and speechreading are simply ways of communicating. (To quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “…there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”)

Far be it from me to tell oral deaf what to call themselves, but (more…)


Re Oralism vs Speaking

This is my response to Ella Mae Lentz’s vlog about the difference between the philosophy of oralism and the mere act of speaking, either by deaf or hearing people. In this video, signed in ASL—PSE (along the continuum), I tell of my experience as an interpreter with oral deaf, English-oriented deaf, and strongly ASL deaf people. In my experience, I have not found oral deaf people to be against signing deaf or condescending toward culturally deaf people who choose to use sign language instead of speaking and lipreading. I share my experience being an oral transliterator for certain deaf people who were able to read almost 100% of what I mouthed, despite the “myth” that oral deaf people understand only 30–40% of what the get from reading lips. I also share my experience of having a deaf boyfriend who was culturally deaf and very strong in ASL, not so strong in English. When his mother came to visit, she insisted that he could read her lips even when she wasn’t facing him. He looked to me for interpretation, and I thought, “Why should I have to interpret for my boyfriend and his mother? Come on, Mom, learn sign!”

My basic message echoes what Ella said in her blog: (more…)


I Don’t Represent the Deaf Community

I was criticized by a deaf person for posting a one-minute long closed-captioned spoken video on YouTube the other day. The deaf person said that they were disappointed that I didn’t sign my video and that, being a sign language interpreter, I “represent the deaf community.” This is my response, signed and closed-captioned.

Interpreting or Transliterating?

In previous installments, I’ve written about the importance of matching the Deaf speaker’s mastery of language, vocabulary, and register, especially when it comes to our ability to produce spoken English that is worthy of that speaker’s signed language. In my last, somewhat “controversial,” column, I wrote about the dilemmas we must face as interpreters when Deaf speakers produce signed English that is “wrong” or “broken English,” (as many second language speakers do). I believe that some of the controversy really turns upon the issue of whether we are voice interpreting or voice transliterating. This article will examine more closely the process that we might use to determine whether a Deaf speaker is producing an ASL message that must be interpreted or a signed English message that must be transliterated.

I’d like to start off with the assertion that, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Many of the sentences that Deaf people sign, either in ASL or some form of manually (and orally!) coded English, follow the same syntax as regular, spoken English sentences, and should be voiced exactly as they are signed. This means that we, as interpreters/transliterators, must constantly assess the speaker’s syntax and encoding system to ascertain whether each particular word, phrase, and sentence should be interpreted or transliterated. We must ask ourselves, “if I say exactly what they are signing (and mouthing), will the Hearing audience receive the same message as the Deaf speaker intended, or must I change the wording and/or phrasing in order to produce an equivalent message to the speaker’s intent?” My assertion is that, more often than some would have us believe, transliteration is the way to go. (more…)

Correcting the Message

A while ago, a colleague of mine made an interesting interpreting choice that got me to thinking about how much we should “correct” the signed messages we voice in English. As my team person was voicing, the deaf client misused an English idiom, and my team person voiced the English idiom in the same “broken” way the deaf person had signed and mouthed it. The hearing people in the room softly chuckled, not only because the deaf person had said something funny, but because the way s/he said it was funny as well. I will point out here that the deaf person was taking a turn speaking in a group in which the register was casual, and the deaf person was using a combination of ASL and PSE with a good deal of semi-audible mouthing. “Interesting choice!” I thought to myself, as my ears pricked up when I heard this “broken” English coming out of the interpreter’s mouth. Why did the interpreter choose not to “correct” the deaf person’s English? Is it our job to interpret any and all signed messages into perfect English, no matter how they are signed? Perhaps not, I thought, and I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since.

Let’s take the above scenario and place a hearing immigrant in the deaf person’s place. Let’s take the interpreter out of the picture as well, because in the above case I believe it can be said that the deaf person did not need the interpreter so much to bridge languages as to bridge communication modes (from aural/oral to visual/gestural). The immigrant is likely to speak English like a foreigner and occasionally misuse English idioms (sometimes to charmingly humorous effect) just as the deaf person did. The native members of the group might softly chuckle and might, perhaps, offer the correct English idiom to the foreigner, so as to teach them the right way to say it. Or perhaps they will try to be polite and not correct the foreigner’s speech. The immigrant either learns the correct idiom or not. Either way, a natural process has occurred among people whose respective languages have come into contact with each other. The natives acquire a natural understanding of the foreigner’s level of familiarity with English, and the foreigner may or may not acquire a better familiarity of English through the feedback s/he receives from the natives. There is no intermediary present to smooth out all imperfections and create a false sense of the foreigner’s fluency in the natives’ language. Without the intermediary, mistakes come to light, and the participants are empowered to make choices based on this knowledge.