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Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

MJ Bienvenu presented Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examines if sign language interpreters are proficient bilinguals as expected and if not, is it okay for them to work in the field while still acquiring the language?

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of MJ’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access MJ’s talk directly.]

Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual?

In a discussion about bilingualism I asked the question, “Are sign language interpreters bilingual?” I was struck by the thought that I have posed this question before. Upon reflection, I realized that we have asked this exact question repeatedly over the years. It almost feels silly to ask that question. So I queried some people and found that, indeed, this question is still considered relevant and important. I find that fascinating.

I entered the field of sign language interpreting in the early 80s. Having grown up seeing my share of interpreters, and in light of the fact that this question still persists, I’d like to explore the concept of sign language interpreters as bilinguals a bit further.

“I am an interpreter because I am a bilingual. I am bilingual because I am an interpreter.”

I have seen people say, “I’m an interpreter because I’m bilingual. As a bilingual, I should be able to use the opportunity to work as an interpreter.” That logic seems to make sense. But then, if you look at the second sentence, that’s an interesting concept. “I am bilingual because I am an interpreter.” This gives me pause. Is that statement true?  It is an interesting assumption. “Because I’m an interpreter I am bilingual.” I’d like to talk about this idea a bit more.

Bilingualism Revisited: The Ability to Comprehend and Use Two Different Languages

The reason I’m interested in talking about “bilingualism revisited” is because I feel that many people talk about bilingualism and being bilingual, but I don’t think we have a common, shared understanding…well, we may have a shared understanding, but we don’t have a shared measurement for what “bilingual” means. On its face, on the most simplified level, one might want to say that bilingualism is the ability to comprehend and use two languages. Is it, in fact, that simple? Do we consider levels of proficiency in both languages? That’s something to ponder.

Language Ability vs. Language Use

Now, I’ve done extensive analysis of both language ability and language use. This was an excellent opportunity for me to review the literature on bilingualism and I found some information as I did so. Language ability refers to productive competence, meaning that a person has a level of ease or fluidity…As an example, I’m here [at StreetLeverage Live – 2014 | Austin] because ASL and English are the designated languages and I am able to fluidly navigate between either language as needed. In our daily worlds, Deaf people move between ASL and written forms of English. As for sign language interpreters, in theory, they, too, navigate between two languages – ASL and spoken English. That’s the theory, anyway.

There is another term to consider – passive competence. This refers to a person who may have the ability to comprehend other people’s language usage, but display an inability or lack of fluency in their own expression of that language. Certainly, there is a range of what is considered fluent. When I first saw this term, I was intrigued. Deaf people’s experience with interpreters is very often summed up as: “They don’t understand us.” I was taken with/intrigued by Tom Humphries’ comment this morning when he talked about not always having an English vocabulary equivalent for an ASL term. Most literature and discussion about bilingualism focuses on the interaction of spoken languages, not between signed and spoken languages, as if Deaf people don’t exist around the world. When the discussion is about spoken language, passive competence makes sense. In our world, passive competence could mean that someone who can’t fully comprehend ASL and can’t produce it expressively can still work as an interpreter. If that is true, what are the implications? It is certainly food for thought.

Individual Bilingualism and Societal Bilingualism

Individual bilingualism occurs when an individual person has fluency in two languages, often obtained through interaction and social contact with parents, friends, educational institutions, the community, etc. These exposures all help to develop that person’s language competency.

Societal bilingualism is related to socio-linguistics – the power structures of the languages involved. This is a core element of the Deaf experience. In our experiences as Deaf people, we are aware of those dynamics. When we talk about the power structures of ASL and English, some of you may insist that both languages share equal power. I see several heads turning in reaction in the audience. The reality is that the two languages are not considered equivalent. The general view is that English carries much more status and power than ASL.

And regardless of how “good” the interpreter is or how hard they try, that message is often conveyed through the interpreter, as well. It is conveyed through teachers of the Deaf, through interpreters, through friends, who don’t recognize the power they wield. My students will often say that they need to “match” the hearing person and in their ASL production, they automatically give hearing people a higher level of status simply by referencing them in a higher position spatially. The disparate power structure is unconsciously established in a few simple moves. That implicit message is woven throughout the discourse. Throughout our interpreter training, we see this unconscious establishment of the hearing power structure within the language we use. Interpreters internalize these messages and propagate them. The idea that hearing people hold superior status is passed along and Deaf people are given lower status. So, this is how students internalize our language, our experiences and our community.

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages in their every day lives.”
(Grosjean, 2010)

I have a strong affinity for that quote. This definition resonates for me. The reality is that bilingualism is a daily, day-to-day state of being. It can’t be attained in a 9-to-5, clock in each morning, interpret all day and clock out at 5pm to return to your English-speaking life, never seeing ASL in use. It isn’t possible. You cannot become a competent bilingual under those conditions. It is not possible.

It is interesting to note that years ago, in our history, there were many so-called “community interpreters”, friends of Deaf people, who had intimate knowledge of the daily lives of Deaf people. Some of those interpreters were CODAs, had Deaf neighbors or were somehow, for some reason, fully engaged in the Deaf World. Those individuals devoted much of their time to engaging with Deaf people, using ASL in that world – sometimes only briefly exiting to maintain relationships with their non-signing family. Even when they spent time in their hearing, English-oriented environments, they didn’t discard or disconnect from the Deaf community. They still participated in the Deaf World on a regular basis.

Today, things are different. I certainly understand that we need to produce interpreters in an expedient way. Does that mean we have to produce “9-to-5 interpreters”? What are the implications of that? Are those “9-to-5 interpreters” truly bilingual?

Level of Proficiency

Level of proficiency. In my reading, I found some fairly utilitarian definitions of levels of proficiency. In contrast, I asked Deaf people and interpreters about their definition of interpreter proficiency. Overwhelmingly, the answer was native-like fluency in expressive ASL and native fluency in all forms of English – spoken, written and reading comprehension. It’s interesting that we have on the one hand a definition of proficiency that entails multiple levels, while on the other, we have the sign language community instead aspiring to a singular, ultimate point of proficiency.The reality in our daily lives is that most interpreters’ proficiency is significantly lower than the expectations of the Deaf community. The intent here is not to be negative. This is the reality. So, we have an expectation of native-like fluency and as I see it, there are individuals who fall somewhere between those two places.

More and more Deaf people are coming into contact with interpreters now. Not necessarily in face-to-face, in-person, in-the-flesh interactions but via video relay services. In those moments, we are confronted by language that may make us think, “Is that my language? Is that ASL?” We’ve been given the right to request a change of interpreter, but often, in deference to the interpreter, we don’t have the heart to ask them to switch. This is an interesting phenomenon because we may have that moment where we pause, but go on with the call, forgetting ourselves and falling into our natural language patterns, leaving the interpreter to try to keep up. Upon checking in, we may find ourselves altering our language to meet their skill level. So again, it is important to consider levels of proficiency.

School Experience

The school experience. I’ve done quite a bit of research and have had many conversations about this topic. The d/Deaf experience, irrespective of educational background or language use – whether one comes from an oral education, SEE signing, total communication (that is really more of a philosophy), simultaneous communication, the Rochester method or ASL – includes a number of commonalities. Deaf children internalize various patterns of their language that are unique to the educational realm. When they see something presented to them that is unclear, it is common that Deaf students will check in with their peers who can provide some clarity and explanation which may be in language that is more accessible to them. This is a critical part of their language development which starts from the time they enter school – probably around age 3-4 through about age 18.

Typically, interpreters don’t have this experience, regardless of their entry into the Deaf community as CODAs or friends of the Deaf community. If those interpreters are placed in a classroom – where they experience what I often call my “other language” – as hearing people, they would be able to access the academic English. Certainly, there may be topics that some are less familiar with or with which they might struggle, but generally, they could process it. But when placed with Deaf people talking about academic subjects – math, science, etc., the interpreter doesn’t have the proficiency to follow. In theory, they should have the language proficiency, but in missing that period of language development, that school experience, they are missing a critical part of the Deaf experience and a part of our language. If we are relating this idea to the topic of bilingualism, shouldn’t a bilingual person have access to “everything” in a language?

Often, interpreters seek language input. For example, they may be preparing for a social studies unit on American history and are seeking appropriate language for ships and the colonization of America. When asked, Deaf people often find themselves educating the interpreter. The interpreter may also say something like, “Spelling the names of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria is too difficult. Do you have any ideas for creating signs for the ships?” Deaf people are confronted by this conflicting behavior – a “bilingual” person whose behavior doesn’t seem to indicate bilingual proficiency.

Social Experience

Social Experience. Right. So, back in the day [translation note: presenter uses a sign that could be glossed as LONG AGO], well, it wasn’t exactly that long ago. Either way, in years past, I believe that there were myriad opportunities to interact with interpreters – we attended social events, learning and interactive events where we conversed and shared ourselves and the language used there was rich and natural and fluent.

Currently, I see what I would label classroom or “Textbook ASL.” This type of signing is typically a mechanized, citation form of signing that does not convey fluency or natural, common usage of ASL. That natural, fluent expression comes from social interaction. It is perfectly acceptable to learn ASL in the classroom, but to translate that kind of language to real-world work or to label that usage as “bilingualism” is inaccurate. That isn’t bilingualism. That kind of language is almost robotic – the person may display perfect grammatical and linguistic forms, which I applaud. They may produce all the grammatical and non-manual markers in the right place, at the right time, but the message, the core meaning is absent.

Cultural Behaviors

Culture. This is most often the place where conflicts arise – problems, struggles, misunderstandings can all impact the message in the attempt to bring two languages and cultures together. Finding that place where two languages and cultures can come together effectively is a challenge because cultural understanding is so critical. Culture is so integral. Cultural immersion from a young age is critical for true understanding. This is true for any language and culture – it isn’t specific to interactions between Deaf and hearing people, but the struggle is very real.

You’ll remember the reference to societal and socio-linguistic issues. Again, the power differentials between one culture and another come into play. Yesterday, in her presentation, Stacey Storme talked about privilege, which resonated with me. Privilege. In terms of real world application, when we bring two cultures together, we often confront issues of privilege – issues that are in conflict with the bilingual experience.

In all honesty, it was a relief to know that there would not be voice interpreters today. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I can present in ASL without other considerations. Secondly, I’ve grown tired of being stopped after a presentation only to be told that the interpreters didn’t understand or had misinterpreted my message. Finding that out is a blow, especially when the information comes after the fact. A hearing interpreter who is presenting with voice interpreters can catch and correct an error while it is happening. That is privilege at work. It doesn’t align with cultural behaviors. To hear an error and accept it, carrying on as a Deaf presenter must, without immediate repair is the culturally appropriate thing to do. A Deaf presenter doesn’t have any option – they only find out about it when it is too late to repair. This is one illustration of the struggle, the disconnect between the definition of bilingual and the cultural behaviors which should align with that definition.


Situations. There are a whole host of situations that people experience on a regular, even daily basis, and this point applies both to situations and my discussion of cultural behaviors, how do/can interpreters prepare for all of these situations? We could select examples from hospitals, legal situations, academic settings, weddings, funerals, or a number of other settings.  Each setting and situation has unique and difficult demands.


Flexibility. How flexible can we be? As Carla Mathers mentioned yesterday with regard to legal interpreting – there are rules in place so the interpreters can’t be too flexible and at the same time, we must allow for some flexibility. That flexibility is related to language use. I could see language flexibility as one measure of bilingualism.

Yes because…

I got an interesting answer when I posed the question: “Do you think sign language interpreters are bilingual?” The slide says “Yes,” but really, most people responded with a resounding, “No.” I was surprised by the response. When I was given the reasons people said no, I understood more clearly. To those few individuals who answered “Yes”, I asked, “Why did you answer yes?” Several of the “Yes” respondents said they answered that way because interpreters were able to communicate. I found that answer intriguing. The purpose of using language is to communicate but effective communication doesn’t mean effective use of language. Some responded that what was important was the interpreter conveying the main idea or basic concept. The idea that someone who has access to a full language (a bilingual) communicating only the most basic information in an interpretation gave me pause.

MJ Bienvenu
MJ Bienvenu

One Deaf person said that their own educational experiences, in the mainstream and at the Deaf school, prepared them. Their interpreters and hearing teachers signed basic, surface ideas and concepts, leaving them to decipher the rest of the information on their own. So, an interpreter, in that person’s view, could be considered bilingual and interpret only basic information because they (the Deaf person) had developed the skills to navigate through that kind of language input. But this also illustrates the inequity that exists between English and ASL. I work in a university setting. Across the United States, there are individuals who are not proficient in trying to decipher vague or basic language input. Remember earlier when we talked about the school experience – that peer learning that takes place? In these other settings, there may not be a peer to ask. In that situation, the Deaf person has only the interpreter’s rendition. That’s a problem.

Others responded that the interpreter had probably been measured by linguists and labeled bilingual. Others felt that interpreters, by virtue of their certification, must be considered bilingual.

I posed the same question to those who answered, “No.”

No because…

The “No” respondents had a variety of reasons for their answers. On reason given by many was that interpreters aren’t fluent enough in expressive ASL. It is interesting to note that most people, when asked this question, focused on ASL proficiency and not English. Both Deaf and hearing respondents, almost across the board, focused on ASL skills even though an interpreter must have English language proficiency, as well.  So, most people focused on ASL fluency. Other answers included finding interpreters hard to watch (either causing fatigue or they were uninteresting), they had too many miscues or misunderstandings, etc.

One of my own personal experiences might be good to insert here. I was at RID – the specific organization isn’t the point of this example. My point is that I was at a conference presenting. I showed a videotaped text with poor ASL usage – full of errors. The errors were purposeful. Afterwards, I asked the participants if they thought this was something good to use on the web as an example of good ASL usage. Many hands raised up to indicate that yes, they thought it was. Taken aback, I shared that this video was not, in fact, a good model of ASL. That moment gave me some important information.

So, let’s return to my original question. When we consider proficiency levels, knowledge, experience, flexibility, the ability to navigate through varied situations and interactions, community involvement and culturally appropriate behavior, it is clear that our definition of bilingual does not fit the textbook definition. No, that’s wrong. I should say that the textbook definition does not fit our definition of bilingual.

Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

The question remains the same. I don’t have the answer for you today. I leave it to you to determine the answer to the question: Are sign language interpreters bilingual? Hopefully, I won’t have to pose the question again. Before we can comfortably answer this question, we must determine our definition of bilingual.

Thank you.

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Deaf-Parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education?

Amy Williamson presented Deaf-parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston/Newton. Amy will examine the experience of deaf-parented interpreters as child language brokers, heritage learners of sign language, and practitioners working among the community who raised them.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

“Do You Remember the First Time You Interpreted?”

For those of you without deaf family members, you remember. Clearly. This question probably evokes a visceral emotional reaction and a vivid mind’s eye image. For me, a white middle class hearing female who grew up with deaf parents and extended family members, I might as well be asked if I remember the first time I ate toast. Toast has always been a part of my world. So has interpreting. Well, at least the concept of interpreting.

What I grew up doing was what is commonly referred to as child language brokering. I don’t remember the FIRST time I interpreted but I do have memories of culturally brokering between my parents and non-signing people. When I was in middle school, I was assigned a submission to the dreaded science fair. Any of you with children may have some empathy for my mother as she had to deal with a daughter (me) that was, is, and shall always be the Queen of Procrastination. As per usual, just before the stores were closing the night before the project was due, I needed a run to the drug store to get some long forgotten but very important item to complete the project. Just as the store was closing, my mother was at the cash register purchasing the key item that would make or break my project. While I was not actually standing with my mother, I was close enough to witness the following:

Clerk: Hello, how are you?

My mother: looking down to retrieve money from her wallet does not see that the clerk has said something to her

Clerk: Well, you don’t have to be rude.

My mother: still looking down does not see that the clerk has said something else

In that moment, my 13-year-old self knew that I could do one of a few things in reaction. I was not ‘interpreting’ for my family members as I do now that I am a professional interpreter, but I had over time, trial, and error learned how to determine the goals of each of the people communicating and navigate between them. Each interaction, constellation of players, and context would result in a different decision on how to broker between them.

Some Days I Made Good Decisions. Other Days I Did Not.

On that late night I made a decision. I walked up to my mother and started signing to her. The act of signing made immediately clear to the clerk, who probably was exhausted after a long day of waiting on ungrateful customers and may not have intended for the comment to be said out loud, that my mother was deaf. Not rude. And more than anything, wanted to get in and out of the store with the must have for the science fair project item. Anyone that knows my mother can vouch for me when I say that ‘rude’ is the last adjective you would ever hear in a description of her.

To Broker or Not to Broker, Not a Choice.

This experience wasn’t a first. It wasn’t the last. This type of thing will always happen for children of deaf parents. No amount of Video Relay Service, Closed Captioning on TV, laws protecting the rights of Deaf people, or interpreters on every street corner will prevent children from witnessing and brokering in situations like this. Even if a parent chooses not to have their child broker, it is almost impossible to stand by and watch miscommunication happen. Children want to help their parents. How the situation is handled is unique to the relationship between child and parent and those decisions are highly personal. The dynamics around these interactions need to be understood and respected by the larger interpreting community.

What Defines a Native Signer? Is Auditory Status Part of the Criteria?

Signed language researchers have no consensus on a definition of who is a native sign language user. Such a small percentage of deaf people are born to signing deaf parents. By defining a native user as someone that uses the language from birth, the number of native users for their research purposes would be limited. Researchers manipulate the criteria to suit their research questions.

Among spoken language colleagues the criteria for native users of a language is straightforward. Anyone that uses a language from birth is considered a native user. For some reason, modality and auditory status become part of the criteria when we talk about native users of signed language. People seem loathe to admit that a majority of native signed language users are hearing because most deaf people have hearing children and those children acquire a signed language from birth.

What Makes a Heritage Language User? Fluency Will Vary.

If a person uses a minority language at home with their parents and is not educated in that same language, they are called a heritage language user. As a student of their home language, they are called a heritage language learner. Deaf-parented individuals are heritage language signers and potentially heritage language learners if they take a signed language class.

Heritage language fluency will vary wildly among users and may vary within the same family. Fluency in the heritage language will depend on several factors such as how often the child interacts in the heritage language or how diverse the language users are that they interact with. Family language policies and dynamics are unique and evolve for each family differently.

The Role of Family, Community & School.

For any language acquisition, whether it is a first or subsequent language, there are three areas of immersion that will ensure full and rich language acquisition. They are family, community, and school.  If we apply this model of language acquisition to each of four groups, we can develop a better understanding of the opportunities for signed language acquisition and fluency development for the communities we work with.

If you are deaf with deaf parents, you will have signed language immersion in all three areas. If you are deaf with hearing parents, there are no guarantees of immersion in all three areas. If you are hearing with hearing parents, the opportunities for immersion in any one of the three areas are difficult to experience. If you are, like me, hearing with deaf parents, you will experience immersion at home, possibly in the community but not in school. I conducted a survey of 751 deaf-parented interpreters and found that 74% of the respondents reported that they had interactions with signing deaf people that were not their own parents at least weekly. deaf-parented interpreters do have community opportunities for signed language acquisition.

In thinking about these three areas of language immersion, how does your experience shape up? How much signed language immersion have you had in your home life, community, or schooling?

Child Language Broker to Professional Interpreter

When I was 18, I needed a job. I was a poor college student that needed money for shoes. And beer (shhhh…don’t tell my mother).  I thought I had no marketable skills but then I found out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had just passed and the world was in desperate need of exactly what I had to offer.

I was a heritage language user of ASL and I had experience as a child language broker. These two experiences were valued and needed. Without setting out any intention of becoming an interpreter, doors opened that started me on a professional career path. A path that I am grateful for.

My own entry to interpreting is not unique. Almost 80% of the respondents to my survey fell into the ASL/English interpreting industry without intentionally pursuing it. Most of the interpreters that responded to my survey started interpreting before the age of 25. Just like me and some of you.

What does all of this have to do with interpreter education and why am I…someone with no formal interpreter education program background…even talking about it? Let me show you.

Only 28% of the deaf-parented interpreter survey respondents attended and completed a formal interpreter education program.

Deaf-parented interpreters want to get training. They are committed to getting structured training. Enough so that one survey respondent, a mother of young children, drove an hour and a half one-way to attend a structured interpreter training program. That same program required students to attend specific evening and weekend events in the deaf community to get more exposure and understanding of ASL and the community that uses it. The respondent’s deaf family members lived near her and she saw and interacted with them and the deaf community regularly. Her instructor insisted that she adhere to the requirement to attend the same events that her classmates were required to attend.

The hoops she was required to jump to get exposure to sign language and the deaf community were unnecessary for her but the system failed her by sticking to their rigid requirements.

Amy Williamson

She is one of the 28%.

25 Years of Progress?

In the 25 years since I entered the field, the bar has been raised on entry-level requirements for interpreters. In the grand scheme of things, this is a good thing but I challenge our industry to look at what we may be losing as we raise the bar.

If I were to graduate from high school today and need money for shoes and beer, I’d probably have to get a job at McDonald’s.  The community would not have access to my skillset. I would not be able to work in many states without licensure. Licensure would require certification. Certification would require sitting for RID’s NIC or CDI exam. To sit for that exam, I would need to have completed a BA or AA degree or demonstrated equivalent competency through the alternate pathways process.

Alternate pathway is a nice option for anyone that has not completed a degree but it still requires documentation of interpreting and education.

How would you propose I document all of the situations like the one in the drug store the night before my science fair project was due?

I would likely not become an interpreter in 2015. Maybe I’d be a police detective or a bookstore manager. All of those respondents that said they ‘fell into’ interpreting would be teachers or lawyers or waiters or accountants or stay at home moms.

Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe interpreter education is working for most people. What do I know?

Together We Can Ensure Adequate Training.

It recently dawned on me that I had never met an interpreter/student interpreter before they started to learn sign. I don’t know what it is like to decide to take an ASL class or to become an interpreter. I don’t know what it is like to see a person signing for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to interpret for the first time (let alone in a classroom from a video). I don’t know what it is like to sign in front of other people for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to go though a decision making tree that you learned in a class before making a decision while interpreting.

I do know that expecting deaf-parented interpreters, child language brokers who are native and heritage users of signed language, to fit into the current model of interpreter education does not work for most of us. We need professional education. We need acknowledgement that we bring a different skill set to our industry than interpreters who do not have deaf parents.

Let’s ensure that little girls with deaf parents, and their classmates, have options for interpreter education that take into account their native and heritage language use. Training opportunities that are designed to enhance and refine their child language brokering experiences. We need deaf-parented interpreters to have an integral part of shaping our industry as we provide services to our signing communities.

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Angelelli, C. (2010). A professional ideology in the making: Bilingual youngsters interpreting for the communities and the notion of (no) choice. Translation and Interpreting Studies, 5(1), 94-108.

Compton, S. (2014). American Sign Language as a Heritage Language. In T. G. Wiley, J. K. Peyton, D. Christian, S. C. Moore, & N. Liu (Eds.), Handbook of Heritage, Community, and Native American Languages in the United States: Research, Policy, and Educational Practice. New York: Routledge and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Napier, J. (in press). Not just child’s play: Exploring bilingualism and language brokering as a precursor to the development of expertise as a professional signed language interpreter. In R. Antonini (Ed.), Non-professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the Art and Future of an Emerging Field of Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Reynolds, W. & Palmer, J. (2014, June). Codas as heritage learners →signers. Presented at CODA International, Codazona, Tempe, AZ.

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Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension?

Carol Padden presented Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Carol’s talk  establishes that there are indeed accents in sign language and therefore interpreters need to consider “voice coaches” if they want to deliver clear interpretations on the public stage. 

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Carol’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Carol’s presentation directly.]

Through Observation

It’s nice to be here. I’ve been meeting lots of people, and I find this conference and its format to be quite interesting. It seems that the other speakers have presented on their material before. I haven’t presented on my topic publicly, so you will be the first to see it. I’ve been pondering this issue for a while, and I’d like to give you some background on how I came to it.

I’ve worked on the analysis of sign languages and sign language linguistics for over 30 years. I’m very familiar with the structures of ASL, though we’re still finding new elements. In the last 10-15 years, however, I’ve focused on sign languages from different parts of the world. While I’ve done some of this work in Europe, in the last 10-12 years I’ve begun studying an emerging sign language used by a small community of about 3000 people, 130 of whom are deaf. In their communication with one another they’re developing their own sign language. It’s interesting that, having worked for about 20 years on American and European sign languages, I thought I knew a lot about the facets of sign languages which are generally shared, such as the use of space, role shifting, and directionality. When I first went to this small, remote community, however, there seemed to be no influence from other sign languages. It seemed that within the last 70 years, they were forming their own, unique language.

Thus, when I arrived, their sign language was still new. I first assumed that this emerging language would share the common features of other sign languages I had studied, but it didn’t. That fact really changed my ideas about language. It caused me to rethink the work I’ve done on sign languages over the last 30 years. Through my observations, an idea started to take form. I realized that when we explicitly teach sign languages, we teach vocabulary, sentence structure, discourse, role shifting, and use of space. These are the discrete markers of language we can identify, such as the use of an incorrect sign in a certain position, the semantics of a sign, etc.

Defining Accent

Through this realization, I was struck by the fact that we never discuss something called accent, those features that are neither in the lexicon nor in the grammar. Rather, accent exists between and alongside the overt properties of language. It’s the rhythm, the prosody, a certain quality. That’s not the right term, but it’s something in the quality of the signing.

I’ve studied languages extensively, and I use interpreters every day. In my travels, often where we discuss very technical matters, we use many, different interpreters, some of whom I don’t know. While watching their work, I find that some produce language that’s easy to understand, while others produce a message that’s more difficult to parse. This happens regardless of their skill level, as some indeed may be highly skilled, or how many years they’ve worked in the field. Some may have been interpreting for 20 years, but in reading their ASL, there’s something amiss, and I realized that it can be attributed to accent. So, that’s what I want to talk about here.

I first want to make clear what accent is not. Accent is not style. Style is a personal feature. For example, people who grew up in another country using a different sign language bring with them certain language features. These features are identifiable as different, but the signer is still intelligible.

Accents in sign language?

What is accent in sign language? Is it good? Is it bad? If I grew up signing in ASL and go abroad and begin learning German Sign Language, I will have an ASL accent when I sign in German. It’s unavoidable. That’s simply my native language influencing how I sign.

Take a person who learns sign and later becomes an interpreter. We teach sign vocabulary, syntax, etc., but there’s not enough attention paid to those fine-grained details of the language. They’re little things that, if changed slightly, would improve comprehension. That’s what I’d like to try to get you to begin thinking about. One might say that an interpreter isn’t good, when in reality maybe she just needs a bit of practice with those little things that are often overlooked. I’ll give you some examples below.

Now, some accents are very difficult to understand. A person with such an accent might need only to make certain modifications to her production. For example, if I was a public speaker, an actor, or on stage in some capacity, I would be counseled to modulate my voice to make sure I was clear. Many people think that to sign more clearly, one must sign bigger, but that’s not the case. Being clear can have to do with what happens between the signs. When some very common mistakes are rectified, signing can become much clearer.

As part of my job, I’m always looking for interesting, different elements that people might not have noticed, so that’s what I want to bring to the fore. We have a room full of interpreters here. You can start this discussion, and I’m open to your ideas. Maybe you’re already doing this, and if so, I’d like to hear from you. I make heavy use of interpreters, through VRS, lectures, etc. Every day they stream in and out. Occasionally, I see one I’ve never met before, and I think their signing is wonderful. I think, “Wow, they have a really nice accent!” The interpreter may be new to the field, may not be a CODA, but they have a really nice accent. Other times, I’m met with people who are very difficult to understand. So, we have this contrast. As trainers, Deaf people, attendees at this conference talking about partnering, can we work together to identify those fine-grained elements, that which happens in between the signs? Can we address that certain quality?

The purpose here is firstly to improve understanding, and secondly, while we grapple with misunderstandings of the interpreted message, to examine the ease of comprehension and the comfort of the presentation. This is crucial in the platform setting, where we often counsel women to speak more slowly, or we tell speakers not to mumble. I think we can raise the same issues in the signing medium.

“Voice” Coaching?

Now we’ll move on to some examples, and I’ll demonstrate what I mean by that certain quality I mentioned before. I’ll begin with what I think are more straightforward examples and then work my way down to those examples I think are more difficult to capture. I encourage you to send me more examples of your own.

Accent and Sign Production

Infixes in ASL

Some of the features I think are not fully understood are what I call infixes, that wiggle of the fingers within a sign such as FAR-OUT. The misunderstanding is that all such signs will incorporate this finger wiggle, and that notion has spread. Interpreters don’t realize that this inflection is very rare and connotes emphasis. Signs such as LONG-AGO, COLLECT, and AMAZE should normally be uninflected, but we often see them articulated with this finger wiggle. These emphatic inflections have erroneously spread, such that they’re used when emphasis is not called for, which becomes quite distracting. That’s what I see as an accent appearing in the interpreter’s work.

Extraneous Movements

Another example is when one adds an extra, circular movement prior to the beginning of a sign, such as SPECIFIC or HIT or FOR. This added flourish becomes confusing, and one must decipher its function, and whether it’s connected to the previous sign or to the following sign. It’s an extraneous movement. Other examples include ACTING or FOR-FOR. These create a visual distraction, and I would like to see them addressed by a voice coach.

Sign Location – Too High, Too Low

I see that you’re all starting to recognize what I’m describing here. The next example occurs when the location of a sign is altered, where the level of the sign is pitched too low or too high in the signing space. Again, this is important in platform interpreting. Watching the interpretation, we often find ourselves having to alter our gaze to read the signs. The interpreter may not be aware of this and may need some coaching.

We also have to think about when the right time is to raise these issues. In encouraging someone’s sign practice, we coach on vocabulary and sign choices, but when is the right time to address the issue of signing too low or too high or perhaps off to the side? In the course of interpreter training, when do we address this before it’s so ingrained that it’s difficult to remedy?

Vocabulary Issues

Accent can sometimes mean choosing the wrong sign. Someone might use a sign I’m unfamiliar with. I work in a community that uses some signs that don’t have an exact translation in ASL, no real equivalent, and I often make mistakes as a new signer in that community. There’s a certain sign that means embarrassed, ashamed, scared, or that sense of being watched, and I often get feedback on my use of that sign. This is a vocabulary issue. There’s a lot of vocabulary that I would consider too young for certain situations, too “in-group”, so to speak, for use in the general population. Examples include FAR-OUT, WOW (var), KISS-FIST, EXPERT, and SKILL. Now, the signs SKILL and EXPERT or FAR-OUT and WOW (var) differ in nuanced ways. Some of these signs are more appropriate in conversational settings, while others work better in a platform setting, and still others are more suited to the classroom. Interpreters have to make these sign choices based on the setting. If someone has worked 20 years in a classroom and then suddenly finds himself interpreting on stage, he may look like a 12 year old signer. Am I right? He may be a skilled interpreter, but his sign choice is accented, if you will.

Rhythm of production

Within the vocabulary there’s the production of the sign or the rhythm of the signing. Different rhythms are appropriate in different settings. In a one-on-one setting, the rhythm is faster than it would be on stage. In a sense, it’s the speed. There are many things you can do in a conversational setting that you cannot do on stage. Ultimately, some signs are overused and should be replaced by others that are more appropriate for general audiences.

Unnecessary Repetition

This next category is a tough one, but it’s something that happens quite frequently. It’s the repetition of signs that should not be repeated, such as WILL-WILL, HAVE-HAVE, DON’T-KNOW-DON’T-KNOW, and MANY-MANY. There are times when WILL can be repeated in a specific way, but that alters its meaning. Interpreters may see this type of repetition and over-apply it. This production error is confusing and dramatically affects comprehension. The inaccurate repetition of single-movement signs is far more common than the failure to repeat dual-movement signs.

Inappropriate Mouth Movement

My last example has to do with erroneously mouthing the gloss of a sign, such as mouthing ME WANT or FOR-FOR. You all know this problem; it’s very common for interpreters to mouth what they’re signing. It’s these little things. Examples include WANT GO ME where ME is mouthed. HAVE can be mouthed, but never as the third person HAS. It’s incorrect to change the mouthing according to the English inflection.

Addressing Accent for Remediation

Carol Padden
Carol Padden

Hence, it is little things like these. When do we counsel learners on these features? No sign language book addresses which signs should be mouthed, when signs should or should not be repeated, or when signs should use infixes. Some of these errors spread and become commonplace. As my husband talked about yesterday, the body of the interpreter is never constant. It’s always in flux. Whether in person or on screen, interpreters are frequently replacing one another, and consistent comprehension across those changes becomes increasingly important. Given these frequent changes, there’s simply not enough time to correct each one’s errors. This is a challenge I submit to you as mentors and trainers. Sometimes I’ll offer feedback on these issues, but I’ve wondered for a long time about what makes some interpreters so hard to understand. They might be very skilled and have years of experience, but they have some entrenched bad habits, and if only they could work with someone to get rid of those habits, like a voice coach would for a presenter, their work would improve.

Comprehension is Critical

Finally, my intent is not to take away a person’s language history. Someone may come from a different country and use a different sign language, and in my view, their signing is absolutely clear. Also, I’m not talking about someone’s personal style. Some people I’ve seen have a wonderful, beautiful, different way of signing, and that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking more about the awkward features that impede understanding. As we progress in the field of interpreting and we see changes in how interpreters are used today, it becomes a matter of comprehension. Deaf individuals want to know. They need to understand the message. Whether it is a life and death situation or a professional matter, if there’s an important person talking, it is critical that the message is clearly understood. The nature of the interpreted interaction requires that we create a strong communicative bond between Deaf individuals and sign language interpreters.

So, I welcome your thoughts and ideas on the right time, the right place, and the right ways we can broach these issues. Also, if you have additional examples, send them to me. I’ve yet to try to address them myself, but I’ve always wondered about them, and maybe there’s something fun we could do with this. I welcome your thoughts. Thank you.


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Success Starts by Acknowledging Humanity: The StreetLeverage – Live Recap

StreetLeverage – Live 2015 brought Deaf Community members, interpreters and stakeholders from within the field of sign language interpreting together under the premise of generosity, collaboration and the spirit of inquiry.

It was here, at the intersection of idea-sharing, perspective gathering and genuine introspection, that a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting was further distilled—success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you.

Simple. Challenging. True.

A great weekend to be sure. What follows is the highlight reel from the event held April 17th-19th in Boston/Newton, MA.

Deaf Community & Sign Language Interpreters Give Big

Rosa Lee Timm

In recognition of our responsibility to support the communities in which we live, work and play, StreetLeverage – Live and Northeastern University ASL Festival attendees, Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters from around the country donated monies to The Learning Center for the Deaf. Together we were able to exceed our goal of raising $10,000.00 in support of the advancement of The Learning Center’s innovative ASL Curriculum Project.

You can watch the fundraising event and the check presentation here.

National Treasure – Patrick Graybill

Patrick Graybill - StreetLeverage National Treasure 2015

To formally acknowledge the contributions of those working for change within the Deaf Community and field of sign language interpreting, StreetLeverage announced the creation of a National Treasure Award. This award will be given annually in an effort to recognize those who have enriched the fundamental assets of Deaf Culture, ASL, and the field of sign language interpreting.

StreetLeverage was delighted to honor Patrick Aaron Graybill as the first recipient of the StreetLeverage National Treasure Award.

You can view the presentation of the award here.

Complimentary Live Stream Access

StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Streaming Options

In an effort to extend the reach of thought leadership within the field of sign language interpreting, StreetLeverage proudly extended complimentary access to a number of StreetLeverage – Live 2015 sessions via live stream.

If you were unable to attend or simply want to relive the experience, you can immediately view the following sessions:

Friday, April 15, 2015

Brandon Arthur & Dennis Cokely | Fundraising Event: ASL Curriculum Project

Saturday, April 16, 2015

Marvin Miller | Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter

Anna Witter-Merithew & Kellie Stewart | Increasing the Value of Deaf-Interpreter Community Solutions: An Appreciative Inquiry Process (starts at 9:35)

Sunday, April 17, 2015

Wing Butler | Status Transactions: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting

Connect With Us

Connect with StreetLeverage on Social Media

If you haven’t done so, we hope you will take this opportunity to subscribe to receive our weekly posts in your inbox and connect with us via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We are committed to continuing the dialogue that occurred during the Live event and hope you will connect with us regularly to share your insight, perspective, and experience in order to enhance the practice of sign language interpreting.

Presenter Fusion

StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Presenters Patrick Graybill, Marvin Miller and Mindy Hopper

We are grateful for the big thinkers who took to the stage to share their ideas and insight on how to responsibly challenge practice within the field of sign language interpreting in order to uncover the art beneath. Special thanks to:

Wing Butler

Patrick Graybill

Joseph Hill

Mindy Hopper

Marvin Miller

Sharon Neumann Solow

Amy Williamson

Kellie Stewart

Anna Witter-Merithew

We are giddy with the anticipation of releasing of the videos of their presentations. The short-form talks from the Main Sessions will be released via in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned. The first one will be released shortly.

You can view talks from past StreetLeverage – Live events by clicking here.

LiveCorps Volunteers

StreetLeverage Social Media Ninjas Sandra Maloney and Jason Smith

Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance where it was the kindness, dedication, and talent of others that made an outcome far greater than anything you could have expected? Enter: StreetLeverage – LiveCorps. This amazing and uber-talented group of volunteers consisted of the Core Staff and students. They worked from the wee hours to the wee hours in support of creating a moment in time where generosity, collaboration, and the spirit of inquiry could freely abound.

The contributions made by these good folks are the only reason StreetLeverage – Live 2015 was possible.

Tara Arthur, because cupcakes, beaches, and our two little crazy-beautiful sticks of dynamite are all we’ll ever need.

Jean Miller, Diane Lynch, Wing Butler, and Dennis Cokely, you enrich the lives of everyone you touch. The success of StreetLeverage – Live 2015 was a direct result of your dedication to the field and passion for change. #YouWalkYourTalk

John Lestina, Mike Cahill, and Dan Cook, you guys killed it! Tech never looked so sexy.

Amy Williamson, Jason Smith, Kristy Bradley, Sandra Maloney, Kate O’Regan, Jen Vold, and Erica West-Odeyele, StreetLeverage – Live Social Media Ninjas, your keen eyes, fast fingers, and quick wit launched a perfect set of social waves that carried the discussion far beyond the wall of the Boston Marriott Newton. Thanks for digging deep!

Lance Pickett, Bill Millios, Tara Arthur and Sean Benson, photogs and votogs unite! You prowess behind the lens is insane! Your work will be long remembered. Thanks for bending light and capturing the moment.

Diane Lynch, Kelly Kerr, and Hayley Baccaire, you did it! You made slaying the three-headed logistical beast that is registration look like child’s play. Thanks for doing another tour. Gold stars all around!

Dan Cook, Letitia Byone, Erica Kramer, Tom Lauterborn, Jenna Eckenrode, Austin Harriman, Bobbie Krimmer, Brianna Palardy, Britney Siereveld, Cara Goldman, Dani Rauch, Elise Melito, Emily Smith, Gillian Gipson, Jamie Knight, Katie Skara, Lina Garcia, Lindsey Schick, Madison Norton, Meghan McCombs, Miko Kajen, Nora Rodriguez, Olivia Mabrey, Samantha Norton, Krystal Chung, and Sarah Garcia, thank you for demonstrating that leaders come in many forms and that the next generation of practitioners are in fact interested contributing to the future of the field in meaningful ways. StreetLeverage – Live was better because each of you came. Thank you for standing with us.   

Event Partners

Gallaudet Interpreting Service - StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Event Partner

StreetLeverage – Live would not be possible except for the generous and progressive support of our Partners. We would like to thank each of them for demonstrating that responsible community citizenship comes in many forms. Thanks again to the following companies for their support of the StreetLeverage endeavor to foster idea-sharing within the field of sign language interpreting.

Sorenson Communications | Salt Lake City, UT

TCS Interpreting | Rockville, MD

Access Interpreting | Washington, DC

Gallaudet Interpreting Service | Washington, DC

Purple Communications | Rocklin, CA

Partners Interpreting | Plainville, MA

Conference of Interpreter Trainers

GoReact | Orem, UT

Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing | Boston, MA

Northeastern University ASL Program | Boston, MA

Texas Society of Interpreters for the Deaf | Austin, TX

Sign Language Interpreting Professionals | Glenshaw, PA

Professional Sign Language Interpreting | Denver, CO

It’s #OurTurn

This year’s event hashtag was intended as a call to action for all those engaging with us during StreetLeverage – Live 2015. It is indeed #OurTurn. It is #OurTurn to rub the blur of industry politics and self-promotion from our eyes and see our fellow community members, colleagues, and ourselves as we are and can be. It is only then when humanity can be truly recognized and appreciated. This is when meaningful change occurs in our lives and our work. It takes root and springs up to propel the field of sign language interpreting forward.

Thanks again to everyone who participated in StreetLeverage – Live 2015.

We have already begun preparing for next year. StreetLeverage – Live 2016 will be held in Fremont, CA April 15th-17th. Mark your calendars!

Who will we be working to support next year? Take a look.

Fremont, CA here we come!