Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters8 min read
Decoding language requires linguistic competence and flexibility. Jessica Carter discusses the importance of flexible bilingualism for sign language interpreters, especially those working in K-12 and educational settings.
As bilinguals, as in having proficiency in two languages, ASL interpreters code switch on a daily basis, at a moment’s notice. ASL-English interpreters typically do this by borrowing English lexicon or formats for specificity, to match the language considerations of consumers, and to derive equivalent messages from the source to target language. However, code switching goes deeper than that.
Code switching is defined in linguistics as the mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in production. This term is often used interchangeably in the various fields of linguistic study with the term code mixing. It is displayed throughout phases of language learning, both holistically and as new vocabulary is introduced in order to fill gaps in language skills. While in the past we may have thought of code mixing as a weakness in the target language, e.g. borrowing an English word by fingerspelling or not knowing the English term and choosing to display the concept in ASL, more recent sociolinguistic research is suggesting that code switching is a tool of bilinguals. This has been seen in bilingual education and TESOL settings worldwide. Discussions conclude that bilinguals (and multilinguals) use this tool repeatedly in various ways: unconsciously as a bilingual individual, to fit in with others, to develop skills and relationships, to tell a secret, and to help express a thought. On a personal and professional level, I believe that we can all derive at least one of our own stories of code switching for each of these five reasons. This is what is being called flexible bilingualism1,2. Some examples might include:
- matching a consumer’s language preference whether that means transliterating PSE, tactile signing (TASL), SEE-like signing, or ASL
- stealthy signing to a friend across a room of non-signers
- classifier-like iconic gesturing while speaking in English to describe an object
Flexible bilingualism is the thought that pragmatic language in the bilingual brain is adjustable, accommodating, and even pliable. ASL/English users are bilingual and multimodal; we are able to use the aspects and lexicon of two languages to achieve our goals rather than being constrained by one set of rules and expression. The Deaf/hard of hearing community exhibits this diglossic behavior and way of thinking instantaneously as a way of life and means for education and communication. Diglossia is explained as using two languages, or language varieties, under different circumstances. For the ASL using community this is seen in their need to have knowledge of two languages in order to socialize within their community and access interpreting, as well as in order to read, write, and access education, and/or to independently communicate with non-signers. This community exhibits code switching as diglossic people by using both ASL and English as a means for daily life by shifting between the two languages on a constant. Not to mention their abilities to switch between signing variations in the U.S. (SEE, PSE, etc.) in order to meet the needs of communication in their given circumstances while navigating the Deaf and Hearing worlds. This is a powerful tool and communication advantage – keep it close by and refine it.
The flexible bilingualism that native users of ASL have, and will develop throughout their lives and education, is an aspect of their variation and language power as a community. To notice this as interpreters is a descriptivist point of view. Descriptivists take a nonjudgmental point of view that accepts language as it is used and can be tweaked in use for a variety of reasons. A previously noted trend in sign language interpreter education to lean toward prescriptivism3, a predetermined notion of the rules that govern a language to create a pure or superior form of language, limits an interpreter’s opportunity for flexibility. Prescriptivism has its place in language. When writing an academic paper, I am a prescriptivist; when interpreting, I am largely descriptivist. Native English speakers exhibit flexibility in language (L1) use often with diverse speech patterns. For example, we may speak in an accent for affect, stress an atypical phoneme in a word, or toss in a word or phrase of a second language known. Capisce? Now, we can use the same techniques as a bilingual to create similar effects in our L2, ASL, production patterns – similar to the ways that we observe native ASL users.
In an educational setting, most particularly K-12 educational interpreting, flexible bilingualism is an advantage that can be elevated beyond matching students’ language needs. It can be used in a variety of settings that students may be in, i.e. speech and language pathology settings, reading programs, English lexicon decoding, English phonics/syllable learning, affect and intonation, academic vocabulary recognition, etc. Keep thinking and expanding this list.
I encountered a student who uses flexible bilingualism in order to display phonetic aspects of English by applying syllabic fingerspelling in a functional way at the decoding level. That is POWER. At the sight of this power, I adjusted and learned from the student to both meet the student’s needs and enhance my interpreting skills. This is how educational interpreting should be – flexible. The idea is for sign language interpreters in education to heighten flexibility skills to allow for further accommodation of language modeling and teaching in academic settings. Educational interpreters can supply students and educators not only with an interpretation, but a closure of the power imbalance by modeling language, including strategies of flexible bilingualism, and improving academic language in a parallel and equivalent manner between English and ASL.
As interpreters, we are guided to understand that “qualified educational interpreters/transliterators are a critical part of the educational day for children who are deaf or hard of hearing” (RID, 2010)4. Part of being qualified is knowing our students and using our tools appropriately. The ingenuity of our tools and our flexibility in using them can guide in facilitating learning in all settings. When a sign language interpreter fingerspells key words and academic language, he/she is providing access to academic English vocabulary and contributing to the students’ ability to decode English words and recognize them by signs and concepts5. Meanwhile, the students’ knowledge of ASL, a visual, conceptual language, provides them with an on-the-spot dictionary in their bilingual brain as they read in English. The leverage that an educational interpreter holds in providing a parallel between English and ASL has an effect on children’s language skills in both decoding and fluency. This is influential, especially in regards to their diglossic status. So as educational interpreters, let’s start thinking in terms of language education. We can do this by focusing on our status as bilinguals and the advantages that status offers us. It takes years for people to develop fluency in their native language and users have mastery at various levels dependent on education, ability, and efforts. Language development for bilinguals is similar, requiring continuous cultivation and expansion of the L2. Bilinguals are lifelong language learners.
Addressing the Linguistic Minority Dilemma
Whether we have experienced the subjugation of ASL ourselves or have only seen/heard stories of misunderstandings and the language oppression of ASL users, we know that it exists. Varying autocratic behaviors which portray Sign languages as inferior (e.g. “not a real language,” “a language of disability,” “a manual representation of English,” “universal language,” etc.) exist heavily in mainstream education. This may be one of the most difficult parts of an educational interpreter’s job, linguistic advocacy. Educational interpreters must possess the linguistic competency to explain the comparison of languages, bridge sociocultural gaps, and support deaf literacy and academia in order to ameliorate this issue. To expose mainstream educators to the diversity in language, the limitations of translation and assistive technology, the tools of a bilingual, and to what interpreters do is to lead the change in their knowledge and perspectives on educating the deaf/hard of hearing. Admittedly this is a heavy burden to carry, so as professionals we must humanistically approach each linguistic encounter to learn. It’s high time we raise the expectations and reputations of interpreted education. Keep cultivating your tools, be rooted in the Deaf community, and exhibit flexibility in educational interpreting.
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Questions to consider:
- Can you recall an experience when you adhered to a prescriptivist view of language?
- How familiar are you with the IEP/504 processes?
- On a personal note – what is your involvement with the Deaf community outside of your 9:00 am – 5:00 pm profession?
1An excellent study on identity and language prejudice in regards to flexible bilingualism, Preece, Sian. “An Identity Transformation? Social Class, Language Prejudice and the Erasure of Multilingual Capital in Higher Education.” The Routledge Handbook of Language and Identity.
2For flexible bilingualism in schools relating to bilingual education see, Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2011, April). Separate and Flexible Bilingualism in Complementary Schools: Multiple Language Practices in Interrelationship. Retrieved November, 2016, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251586617_Separate_and_Flexible_Bilingualism_in_Complementary_Schools_Multiple_Language_Practices_in_Interrelationship
3For thoughts on prescriptivism in sign language interpreter education see “Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists” by Steven Surrency, available at http://www.streetleverage.com/2015/11/respecting-language-sign-language-interpreters-as-linguistic-descriptivists/
4RID standard practice paper for K-12 interpreting, An overview of K-12 educational interpreting. (2010). Retrieved November, 2016, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3DKvZMflFLdcFE2N25NM1NkaGs/view
5Educational interpreting guidelines of the EIPA from www.ClassroomInterpreting.org
- Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists by Steven Surrency
- Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? By MJ Bienvenu
- The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter by Stacy Webb