Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do11 min read
From its root, language represents the essence of who we are–it embodies the very foundation of our culture. Our language, unique in expression, syntax, style of discourse and conceptualizations reflects our most unique personal and cultural differences. Our use of language illustrates how we view ourselves, and how we perceive every aspect of the world around us.
For that reason, it has been said that we should be careful what we think, because what we think, we express. We should be careful what we express, because what we express, we do.
Professor Dalton Kehoe of York University states,
“We should be careful in our use of words, but we aren’t. Thinking about our thinking is hard work, so instead we use abstract judgment words as part of our thinking process. Humans really like using abstract and judgmental language: It rewards our sense of competent self. We sound clear, definite, and sure of ourselves—and we get other people’s attention with these kinds of assertions. But when we talk like this, things can go very wrong, very quickly. Poor word choices, spoken in inappropriate contexts, can get us into trouble because we can’t know for sure how others will understand our judgments.”
The Term “Only”
Is this perspective one that we can utilize when analyzing our use of the word “only” in terms of the language provision policies for our organizational conferences? Based on my personal experience the word “only,” in the context of language and culture, has rarely reflected positive use. In fact, the term “only,” by definition and historical use, is strongly rooted in the concept of exclusion. In this case, “only” has always seemed tied to a form of oligarchy—a system where only a few are enabled and empowered over the whole.
This brings to mind a series of historical uses for the term “only.” For example:
– Only the rich
– Only those of a specific birthright
– Only those of a specific race
– Only men
– Only whites
– Only English
So, why did it come to me as a painful shock when, while walking through a mall, engaged in a private conversation with my mother that a perfect stranger, tall and white, should walk past, and looking down at me and exclaim sharply, “Speak English!”? Shouldn’t I have known? Hasn’t “English only” long been the cry of those powerful few?
I’ve witnessed many adults in tears as they express how as children, they were forbidden by their parents to speak anything but English, all so they might “fit in.” Their language and cultural expression restricted in such a way that they were denied of any sense of communication, heritage and community with their now deceased family members, such as grandparent, even when living in the same household! Family members who were immigrants from culturally rich and diverse places such as Italy, Germany, Poland or Russia, who would now find themselves unable to master this new complex and intricate language mix, of Greek and Latin roots, called “English.” A part of their fabric torn from them by the power of one simple word: only.
I should not have been surprised at the judgment related to my native use of Spanish, when historically, Navajo Indian children were beaten and punished by their teachers in schoolrooms in an effort to whip out of them their native Navajo tongue. Even so, I try to remember how history beautifully illustrates how the Navajo would yet hold onto their native language, as it became a historical factor in the cryptology that effectively confused the German Army during WII. This new Navajo “code” was found unbreakable, which subsequently aided in some of the most critical battles that served as a catalyst for the end of the second world war. 
And as my life took some unexpected turns, I found myself enveloped in a further love for language and culture. I came to learn that the same “only” mono-linguistic ethnocentric monster has reared its ugly head in the history of the Deaf community as well. Unfortunately, the Deaf community was also pushed to stop using their native American Sign Language. Young fingers of Deaf children were even smacked with rulers, all in the name of “only.”
– Only Oralism
– Only Signed English
We all know better about the use of “only.”
Or do we?
We now find ourselves at the crossroads where two very important issues meet, both rooted in love of language and culture. So we now arrive at a point where the “official” language of our conferences is ASL. At our professional conferences, where participants with varying skill-levels all come together: hearing and deaf, expert and novice, teacher and student, to learn and grow together, must it be exclusively in ASL?
Here is the crux of the problem: We all learn best in our first language.
Deaf people should never have been forced to learn English, or any other topic, in English.
So what now of hearing people? Should suddenly what is true for Deaf people, not be true of conference participants for whom ASL is not their first language?
This becomes particularly critical when we see an increased number of Deaf schools closing. As a result, an increasing number of Deaf students are being subjugated to having their only language model be a hearing interpreter. As noted by Debra Russell, currently WASLI president, “…the social, linguistic and academic development of Deaf children has been impeded by myths, assumptions, and general lack of knowledge of the multifaceted, complex nature of learning through an interpreter.”
I do not believe sign language interpreters in the classroom are the ONLY answer per se. Far from it. But they are there. And the need to provide as many opportunities for sign language interpreters to learn and gain mastery, cultural awareness, and depth of the language use is vital.
But if training is ONLY in ASL, then who will have the fullest access to learn?
Will it be only the select few, those who have reached the level of language that they can learn anything in their second language? Or will it be just for those where ASL is already their first language? Even sign language interpreters who have had an ASL competency skills assessment are still learning new skills as well. Many have said, “I still need to hear it”. Others have stated, “if I see it in ASL and hear it, then I gain a fuller understanding of the application”.
So do we deny hearing people whose first language is not ASL, the access and opportunity to learn in their first language, and mirror the mistakes of those who insisted that Deaf people must know English, forcing them to be taught in English, believing that was the way Deaf people would gain mastery of English.
…what about our Deaf community which deals with a hearing world, day in and day out, with too many days of struggle and fighting to be connected in their own language? How could they not naturally feel isolated, and feel all the more painful, when surrounded by a group of professionals proclaiming to be allies, and yet, creating exclusion by not being accessible linguistically when they speak their own language rather than sign?
All people feel out of place, isolated, when they don’t hear/see those of “their own”. We are creatures that tend toward “groupishness.” Additionally, that grouping can be a source of protection as noted by R. Edmonds:
“Humans are social animals, and most psychologically healthy individuals have an innate desire to be a part of something greater. Nationalism, religion, sports teams, corporations, social clubs, and political organizations are all manifestations of this innate behavior. For our ancient ancestors, being a part of close knit groups helped them to survive and pass on their genetic legacy. Groups offer greater protection against predators; cooperation leads to efficiency and synergy; division of labor allows for economies of scale and better quality work; and the sharing of resources ensures the survival of the group even when some of its members have a run of bad luck.”
As a profession, we must find a balance. Certainly, value can be found as we strive to be more inclusive at professional conferences through the use of ASL. However, we must also seek to provide linguistic access in a modality most suited for each participant.
I do not profess to have “the answer.” However, I can share what feels right to me.
The Price of Privilege
To be more accessible, all RID sanctioned learning opportunities should be offered in multiple languages and modalities: ASL, Spanish, spoken English, Tactile, low vision, and oral transliteration. As a profession, we must either be honest about diversity and what the price is for the privilege of being a diverse organization, or we don’t.
To be more accessible, we must accept the rich diversity and valued skills of our own profession! How can we say we cherish the profession and value professional sign language interpreters, yet deny using interpreters ourselves?
In my opinion, we should make learning sessions at our conferences linguistically accessible to all. At the same time, while at conferences, when we are not engaged in formal meetings or workshops, we should make every effort to use the most common language we share; ASL. However, this must be done with kindness, respect, and understanding. Given each participant’s various command of ASL, flexibility is needed if we are all truly going to connect.
We all tend to gravitate towards groups with which we find comfort. So though I may sign away, subconsciously, I know I will likely never have the level of skill, grace, and creativity I have witnessed in amazing members of the Deaf community.
And as group dynamics go, I understand very well, when native users of ASL are alone together, they may default to using ASL, in much the same way I may do when I am with my Spanish speaking with “mis compadres”. Consequently, there may be those that simply are not at linguistic level yet to keep up and consequently cannot join in, be it in ASL, Spanish, or any other language. This does not mean we love or respect each other less. We all have those times where we chill out with what is comfortable to us.
If a training opportunity is being set up and taught in exclusively in one language, then one must acknowledge there will be some individuals who will be excluded linguistically.
Communicate. Contact. Connect.
For the longest time the theory was that Deaf people would switch to English just to keep hearing people out of ASL and Deaf folk’s business. Clayton Valli debunked that. His studies on “contact signing” showed it was just the opposite. There was no “only”. He showed the linguistic adjustments were rooted in wanting to CONNECT, CONTACT. Deaf folks adjusted their signing, whether it be to a hearing person or another Deaf /HH person, in order to establish communication, make CONTACT, , CONNECT. It was about finding a way to bond. And from that point, grow.
In The End
Regardless of the path each participant at a conference has taken to get there, we each can find commonality in our passion for language, culture and creativity. We should accept the commonality of our human needs, and celebrate the fact that we have all arrived at this common place, which is rooted in deep respect for the language and culture of the Deaf community. For those of us who are not native users of ASL, our desire to learn is testament to the value we find in the Deaf community.
Let’s not allow any extreme “groupishness” to divide us from that common bond. May it be that it is truly the one situation, namely that “ONLY” is about ONLY mutual linguistic and cultural acceptance, and that expression of respect is the only option we allow when we come together.
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 Kehoe, D. (2011) The Great Courses: Effective Communication – Course Guidebook. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.
 For more information about the Navajo Code Talkers: http://navajocodetalkers.org/
 The Naval History & Heritage Command website provides information about the Navy’s role in various wars throughout U.S. history. http://www.history.navy.mil/.
 NAD Action Alert 2011. http://nad.org/news/2011/2/nad-action-alert-preserve-state-schools-deaf) [BA6]
 WASLI proceedings 2007. Edited by Cynthia Roy
 2013. Evolution of the Religious Mind: Groupishness – Humanists. http://humanistsofmn.org/218-evolution-of-the-religious-mind-groupishness.
 2002. Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language. http://gupress.gallaudet.edu/bookpage/SVASLbookpage.html.