Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do

July 15, 2014

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.

[Click to view post in ASL]

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.”[1]

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.[2] 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. [3]

A Crossroads

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.[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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[7],[8] , 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.



[1] Kehoe, D. (2011) The Great Courses: Effective Communication – Course Guidebook.  Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

[2] For more information about the Navajo Code Talkers:

 [3] The Naval History & Heritage Command website provides information about the Navy’s role in various wars throughout U.S. history.

[4] NAD Action Alert 2011. [BA6]

[5] WASLI proceedings 2007.  Edited by Cynthia Roy

[6] 2013. Evolution of the Religious Mind: Groupishness – Humanists.

[7] 2002. Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language.

[8] 2010. Interpreting Research.

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24 Comments on "Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do"

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Kevin Lowery
I was an “English only” person until I read the studies about linguistic adoption in early childhood and tried to learn a new language in my mid-forties (in an ITP). Then I got a glimpse of what most “ESL” students must experience…communication frustration. As we know, it is a huge hurdle for a non-native ASL user to become competent with ASL. (Some of us are not even fluid in our first language!!) Regardless, when the paradigm was reversed, that “AHA” moment made me understand why so few people are truly bilingual. It is difficult and when it comes to using… Read more »
Ramon Norrod

I don’t think it is about “groupism” as it is about making Deaf people feel welcome. I think Melvin said it beautifully at NAD-RID region 2 conference.


Wow, what a great article! This is so true. There is no “official language” in the United States, therefore we should really be embracing the layer of cultural diversity that we are afforded by a natively multilingual society. It is so true that not only do we tend to form “groups,” but we also tend to exclude other peoples communicative needs, just because they are different from the majority. How easy it is to forget that this very principal is why we are in business.

Angela Roth

Tammy..thanks for your post. It’s in a way unifying when we realize we all share the same needs and how our bonds can tighten when we are sensitive to that point and support each other in our humanness!


Hi, Angela, With this article, you have done a beautiful job of presenting several sides of this argument. I really appreciate your skill in presenting the the various strong and passionate perspectives involved in this discussion. I agree the danger is when we as an organization try to set down communication rules that are polarized, be it only English or only ASL. “Only” is an oppressive choice. I like the balance of simply offering communication access. I recently attended the Region IV conference. From the stage, the communication was ASL with ASL-English interpretation available through FM systems. In the workshops,… Read more »
Aaron Brace
Hi Angela, The difference I see when it comes to professional conferences for American Sign Language interpreters is that we hold ourselves out to the world as being fluent (or, at least, fully functional) in ASL, and we, by and large, charge a pretty penny for our services. Either we have to reconsider the truth of that image we project, or… no, wait, there is no “or”- we *do* have to reconsider the truth of that image. How can we justify charging for our ASL and interpreting skills on one hand, and on the other complain that it’s too taxing… Read more »

I have no problem conducting myself in ASL at a conference, but when I am in a particular workshop learning new and important information; I do not want to miss a thing. I am no less an interpreter or professional simply because it is either easier for me to retain information I am paying for or I prefer to learn in my first language. The attitude that one OUGHT TO PREFER ONLY ASL is discriminatory and judgmental.

Aaron Brace
Hi Josephine, I wouldn’t dream of impugning someone’s professionalism by virtue of it being easier to retain information in their first language. It’s easier for me, too. I do take exception, though, when they insist on retaining their privilege to do so at the expense of Deaf colleagues- who have also paid to get and retain the information from a particular workshop. What we, as competent L2 users of ASL *might* miss during a workshop presented in ASL (to which we have direct access) is a drop in the bucket compared to what our Deaf colleagues are *guaranteed* to miss… Read more »
Angela Roth
Hi Aaron. I appreciate your candor. And please note my article did address both sides of the issue. So there are points we do agree on. I think my point is that our conferences are dedicated to education for ALL. From highly qualified as yourself to those who are new or entering in the profession. And lots in between! Many of us attended conferences with full access for all for years and years. Did we never watch the interpreters and heard the message, watching how the best of the best handled the interpreting process as well as learning the context?… Read more »
Angela, Thank you for posting this article–especially at this time–as this issue of language use at conferences is currently being discussed in many arenas. I both read your article and watched the ASL translation because I wanted to understand your arguments and perspective. I am having difficulty understanding some of your points and line of reasoning. I share these with you here in hopes that it will stimulate discussion. It is time for us to engage in reflective dialogue so that we can form mutually beneficial alliances with Deaf interpreters and consumers. You effectively point out the use of “only”… Read more »
Angela Roth
Betty I very much appreciate your comments. On one hand I would find your perspective would hold more water *if* it was true that RID conferences were only for those who are totally proficient in ASL. But that has not been what it is about. The total access has been there since inception and the irony is 30, 40, 50 years ago virtually every one that attended were primarily the CODAS who, of any group, could have made it all ASL! Yet during all those formative years of access was provided for all Deaf and hearing attendees (transliteration, interpreting, DB,… Read more »
Elsie Stecker
Betty, thank you so much!! As a Deaf person and ASL instructor, I went to our local conference in Colorado and I was appalled to see many conversations in spoken English. Don’t get me started on SimCom. I searched for people who were moving their hands so I could feel less isolated at a conference that was “supposedly” to be accessible for everyone. I kept walking around in the hallway because I couldn’t carry a conservation with someone in ASL. It’s ironic that I’m unable to communicate with them for a brief period while they are getting paid to sign… Read more »
Ingrid Nevar Clark
Well said, Betty, thank you. It is ironic to me that people who can hear frequently frame the discussion of ASL vs English as a language issue and assert that their love of both languages means they would be able to speak English at their discretion even when Deaf people are present. This slant pits ASL against English and vice versa, leaving one the winner and one the loser instead of seeing it from a modality perspective. Both languages can be used and celebrated in one arena if English is made accessible via being in printed or written form, instead… Read more »
Angela Roth
Ingrid I appreciate you weighing in but please note the article *never* said nor advocated for consideration in any manner shape or form to speak vs sign when deaf folks are present. In fact the very opposite was stated. The issue in the article was never that. It was not about speaking in mixed deaf/hearing company. It was about considering the needs, potential impact and challenges of providing, (or not providing) multiple linguistic and modes/access for CONTEXTUAL LEARNING aka during WORKSHOPS. The fact that centric themes get drifted off as they tend to do (and has in this case) speaks… Read more »
Jenn Phillips
Your article fails on one significant point: while being bilingual or bicultural has SOME analogues to deaf culture, it is not comparable to deafness which is rightfully labelled as a disablity under the ADA. Sign language interpreting is also not exactly parallel to interpreting or translating any other language because deaf people cannot receive SPOKEN English at all and may not be aware they are even being addressed. They have limited power or feedback on the quality of the interpreting services provided to them, unlike many people using bilingual translators; they may have some understanding of English but need the… Read more »
Thank you Ingrid. Jenn, and Elsie for your perspectives. Unfortunately, the article and subsequent responses convey two additional points not addressed. One is the not-so-subtle message that bilingual interpreters are oppressing the vast majority of “interpreters” who are not sufficiently fluent to interpret effectively for many consumers. Perhaps our presence is a persistent reminder that ASL proficiency is sorely lacking in working interpreters. Deaf consumers have been telling us (especially since the proliferation of ITPs), that they have to work very hard to figure out what is being interpreted. They also report that it is difficult to find interpreters who… Read more »
Angela, I am mildly amused that you quote Seleskovitch to support your arguments. Danica Seleskovitch, who I have had the pleasure of interacting with a number of times, was the inspiration for me to develop what is now known as the Integrated Model of Interpreting (IMI). We invited her to give the keynote address when RID had its conference in Maryland and I had the honor of interpreting for her. To clarify her reference to A and B languages, it is important to be aware that spoken language conference interpreters define ‘A’ as the native/mother tongue and ‘B’ as a… Read more »
Angela Roth
Betty: Thanks for your follow up. Post ADA (and for a myriad of reasons) demand for qualified interpreting services far out stripped the supply. Programs have sprung up, and have been “functioning” long before any credentialing of these programs was set up. So yes, we have an influx of “interpreters” who would not fully meet the standard that should be. Deaf folks complain. As the owner of a major agency, I complain too. Its frustrating. Not just on skill level, but on integrity, professionalism, and I can go on and on. And I allot lots and lots and lots of… Read more »
I appreciate this article in the fact that it helped me identify something about myself I thought was ‘wrong’. As a SODA I can learn in ASL, I can learn very well. However there are times I felt inadequate in my comprehension of ASL because I preferred to use the spoken English to learn a concept, rather than ASL. The majority my day is spent using ASL, and when I couldn’t quite fully understand in that language I thought something was wrong with me. But no matter how much I try, I can never change the fact that Englisj is… Read more »
Angela Roth
Michelle: I can assure you are far from alone. So many folks are so afraid to speak up and express as you have, because sadly they fear some of the angry backlash they make evoke, or they will get pegged as ASL inadequate, or that they , in expressing their comprehension need, will squash out someone else’s access or need as if linguistic communication and comprehension was a pie with limited amount to divide up. Some folks are threatened by your kind of comment. Some folks don’t have those language vs comprehension differences so it is hard for them to… Read more »

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