Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists

November 10, 2015

Sign language interpreters are exposed to language variation on a daily basis. Interpreters and programs supporting interpreter education must cooperate with the Deaf community to adopt and adapt to the evolving stylings of native signers.

 

How We Look at Language

There are two widespread approaches to variation within languages: prescriptivism and descriptivism1. Prescriptivists approach language with a predetermined notion of what rules ought to govern a language. Often these rules are taken from some supposedly pure or superior form of language. Prescriptivists have looked at English, for instance, and insisted on the use of “whom” in object position rather than “who,” on distinguishing between uses of “fewer” and “less,” and on using “from,” and not “than,” as the preposition that accompanies the adjective, “different.”

[Click to view post in ASL]

Descriptivists, on the other hand, approach language variation as it occurs in actual discourse. Instead of seeking to impose rules on language use based on some predetermined agenda or formula, descriptivists simply observe without judgment how the language is used by native speakers. Rather than assuming that one dialect is superior to another, descriptivists note that all varieties of language operate based on a number of equally valid, complex rules.

Linguists generally approach linguistic variation as descriptivists. These scientists insist that there is no objective reason to regard one set of rules as superior to another. For instance, dialects of English that use the past participle “have saw” are not objectively inferior to dialects that use “have seen.” Many textbooks teach the form “have seen” for socio-political reasons. That is, the people who have power and wealth impose their language variety on others by publishing grammar books that espouse the rules of their variety and by discriminating against speakers whose dialects do not conform. As a result, people assume that one dialect is “correct” or more rule-governed than the dialects of less powerful groups who do not have the means to publish grammar books and represent their own dialects in media and other institutions of power. In this way, the language of the establishment becomes a norm that oppresses and suppresses legitimate dialect variation.

Interpreters as Linguists

Sign language interpreters should act as linguistic descriptivists. That is, interpreters should look at language as it is used by native signers in the Deaf community and attempt to emulate that language in their target language production. Unfortunately, there is a trend toward linguistic prescriptivism in interpreter education and in the sign language interpreting community. These prescriptivists focus on some notion of ASL “purity” and how they assume ASL should be signed. While, on the face of it, it seems that such a motivation would be praiseworthy, in reality this approach frames the Deaf community’s language as an object of judgment with the interpreter serving as judge. Prescriptivists lament the supposedly poor and degraded quality of ASL usage today and too often situate themselves as “better” signers than the Deaf clients they serve.

Complicating Factors

Three caveats are in order. First, I am not asserting that everything every Deaf person signs is consistent with ASL grammatical norms. For instance, there are many non-native Deaf signers who use ASL but who did not internalize its grammatical rules growing up. As a result, they cannot be said to adequately represent legitimate dialect varieties of ASL. Though their language use should be respected, they are not ideal linguistic models of native ASL use. Secondly, everyone has bits of language that are idiosyncratic and not representative of linguistic norms. Thus, simply because one native signer uses a particular expression, that expression should not be considered de facto normative and applied widely by sign language interpreters. Thirdly, sign language interpreters who work in educational settings must consider the unique situation of Deaf students whose language is still developing.  Educational interpreters should not limit their usage to that which is common in the particular mainstream setting in which they work. Instead, they should consider the wider Deaf community’s usage when choosing signs and grammatical options. Just as a hearing teacher introduces English structures and vocabulary that are more advanced than those commonly used by hearing students, so should an interpreter include ASL structures that are representative of Deaf adult populations.

Prescriptivism in Our Work

The native signing community serves as the normative standard for the language, and non-native interpreters should not impose our own judgments on the signs and syntactic structures used in the community. To do so is to impose a prescriptivism that is inappropriate to one’s role as a sign language interpreter. I see this prescriptivism in several areas:

  1. Formulaic Syntax. Many interpreters, in their zeal to learn and preserve ASL, often develop an unnuanced, formulaic idea of what ASL is. As a result, they apply overly simplistic “rules” about what constitutes “pure” ASL. For instance, such interpreters expect all ASL sentences to use topicalization or right-movement of wh-questions (wh- question words at the ends of sentences). Such an approach reveals an incomplete understanding of the wide range of syntactic variation available in ASL.
  2. Reluctance Toward English Borrowings. Sign language interpreters often frown on Deaf people’s use of English-derived syntax, signs, and expressions in their discourse. In reality, however, languages that exist side-by-side for many years—as English and ASL have—often experience linguistic borrowing. In particular, the less powerful language tends to frequently borrow from the more powerful language group2.  Thus, ASL’s use of English structures and expressions is not an aberration, but rather an indication that ASL is a normal language.
  3. Preference for Contrastive Structures. Related to the above two tendencies is the trend for interpreters to always search for linguistic forms that are as different from English as possible. This tendency results in the refusal to use a word order that happens to be similar to English word order even if that is the syntax preferred by the community in certain instances.
  4. Insistence on “Conceptual” Accuracy. Signs are not concepts. Signs are lexical items that can represent a wide range of ideas. Just as the English word “bear” can convey several senses, so too can signs convey a wide range of meanings. Rather than attempting to use signs that are “conceptually” accurate, we should ask ourselves which signs are used to convey a particular idea in the Deaf community and use those signs to convey that idea.  For instance, in the Deaf community in which I work, the sign BREAK is often used to indicate the idea of violating a law or rule. Though the sign BREAK did not traditionally extend to the concept of illicit behavior, the community now uses the term in that way and thus the term should be accepted by sign language interpreters in that community.
  5. Avoidance of Initialization. The Deaf community itself is grappling with the long history of linguistic oppression that has affected its language. In an effort to counteract these effects, some signers prefer to avoid all initializations. While it is certainly outside of my role to tell native users how to use their own language, I maintain that the interpreter ought to look to members of the Deaf community she works with as the norm for her own language use. That is, if an initialized sign is accepted in the community, it is not the interpreter’s place to purge that sign from the community’s language. Of course, if a consumer prefers non-initialized signs, then the interpreter ought to use those signs. In the end, the decision for what signs should and should not be used must rest with the Deaf community.

Descriptivism as a Route to Language Respect

Interpreters and interpreter education must remain rooted in the Deaf community. The ideas addressed by Eileen Forstal and Sherry Shaw in their CIT presentation, ”Breaking the Mold of Tokenism”, would aid in the formation of a respectful interpreter mindset regarding the ownership of ASL. The language we use is not an arbitrary entity to be preserved for ourselves according to the rules we prefer. Rather, ASL is a living language belonging to the community we serve. So I invite you to approach each linguistic encounter as an opportunity to observe and to learn from what you see. When we adopt descriptivism as our approach to language, we avoid the burdensome negativity of the judge and can live in the open, engaging world of the eternal language learner.

Questions to Consider

  1. How can interpreter education programs encourage descriptivist attitudes among student interpreters?
  2. Can you recall an instance in which you have expressed a prescriptivist attitude? What may have motivated that behavior?
  3. How can sign language interpreters who wish to emulate the language used in their community distinguish between idiosyncratic novelties and instances of genuine, widespread linguistic variation?
  4. How is linguistic descriptivism especially important for educational interpreters in mainstream settings?

 

Related Posts:

A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting by Trudy Suggs

Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? by MJ Bienvenu

The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter by Stacey Webb

 

References:

For excellent analyses of prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language, see  Joan C. Beal, Carmela Nocera, Massimo Sturiale eds. Perspectives on Prescriptivism. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.  

2 See Hock, Hans Henrich, and Brian D. Joseph. “Lexical Borrowing.” Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. 2nd ed. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. 241–278.

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28 Comments on "Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists"

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Member
Jonathan Webb
Steven- I really appreciate the content of this article. While I didn’t see it clearly stated, I believe this topic directly intersects with issues of social justice. As someone who has taught ASL, ASL Comparative Linguistics, and ASL/English Interpretation/Transliteration for many years, I have a follow-up question to the first question you stated. “How can interpreter education programs encourage descriptivist attitudes among student interpreters?” In my experience, this is where things get tricky with students. Working with students and helping them develop a lens towards descriptivism is highly beneficial, but I also see students who then become prone to producing… Read more »
ssurrency
Member
Steven Surrency
Your post raises several interesting points. 1) With student interpreters, there is a certain need to be prescriptive. After all, we are telling student how to sign and how not to sign. While we do need to teach the students “rules,” I think the rules that we enforce must come from our careful observations of the community, not from some predetermined agenda. 2) We need to make sure that students are aware that their own observations of the Deaf community are limited. This is one reason why it is important to have Deaf people heavily involved in the training process.… Read more »
ssurrency
Member

Jonathan, I have been thinking more about your comment, and I can’t help but come back to the point you make about the role that interpreter’s have played in negatively influencing the ASL production of many signers. I don’t have anything constructive to say about it, but I think it is a great point.

Member
Terri Hayes
Jonathan, thank you sooo much for bringing this very question to the topic. I encourage interpreters to learn ASL (the ASL used by Deaf people after they extricate themselves from the pressure to use English as a primary mode of communication) and I advocate among interpreters that is it their RESPONSIBILITY to learn ASL (as it WAS)… so that they are better equipt to use (the ASL that nobody knows anymore) with the non-bilingual Deaf population. Mono-lingual Deaf people are still out there but are very often are overlooked… until we need a Deaf Interpreter – because the hearing interpreters… Read more »
Member

Aaaaaaagreed.

ssurrency
Member

Thanks for reading.

Member
As a linguist, I agree with much of what you are saying. Respect for and recognition of dialectal differences is key. However, as a legal interpreter I take issue with the use of conceptually inaccurate signs as a general policy–even when in use by native Deaf signers. My sense is that many of these signs that I have seen used by many (not all) native signers of ASL like GUILTY, INNOCENT, CHARGE, RIGHTS, etc. are in many cases the legacy of interpreters using these sign inaccurately to the point that they are adopted into ASL or the result of reading… Read more »
ssurrency
Member
I think that an important point regarding the role of the interpreter is captured in what you say about following the lead of “savvy Deaf native signers.” I agree that we shouldn’t look to our least educated users as examples of how a particular system should be navigated. On the other hand, I have seen a legal interpreter correct a CDI for signing BREAK to mean “disobey.” The interpreter thought the idea would be skewed by the use of that sign. This hyper-concern with “conceptual accuracy” is an example of the problem that I am trying to get at in… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods

Steven,

It’s great to see a column on SL about linguistics, which too often languishes in the ivory tower. I’d like to see more opportunities than there have been historically for interpreters to delve deeply into discussions about linguistics, especially about how (as Jonathan Webb points out in another comment here) linguistics relates to social justice. It’s crucial to continue to unpack our related role and our impacts on deaf people and on hearing people’s perceptions of deaf people and signed languages.

ssurrency
Member

Thanks so much for your comment. I agree that the social justice piece is crucial. Another important piece that I would like to see explored is that of language ownership. I make claims that ASL “belongs” to the Deaf community. I think I know what I mean by that, but I am not sure. I think this issue too needs to be explored.

Member
While I agree that interpreters working in the field need to match to the client’s linguistic needs, and therefore cannot be linguistic prescriptivists, I do believe that the perspective of being “neutral descriptivists” only goes so far. I know of one interpreter/linguist who basically pooh-poohs Deaf efforts to revitalize ASL by condemning initialized signs and obvious signed English influences, among other things. I feel that it is all too easy for someone, who could very easily live using English the remainder of their lives, who is not a member of the linguistic community they are discussing (yet make a good… Read more »
ssurrency
Member
Don, I think you make very good points here. I especially think that you make a good point about there being some middle ground in supporting community efforts. There are times when interpreters have some discretion about which signs to use. While I, a hearing interpreter, would avoid becoming an activist for linguistic change in someone else’s community, I certainly see some wiggle room for supporting such causes. One the other hand, we who use English all use a language that was bastardized and stigmatized some 1000 years ago when the French invaded the tiny English-speaking island. Their subjection of… Read more »
Member
Paula Meyer
Here! Here! Great article. I have heard how nice it would be for Deaf people to code switch more often, “so I can understand him/her”. It is not for the Deaf person to adapt to us, and dumb down their language (slow down, sign more English word order, use a mode of some sign salad) in order for others who are non-native users of ASL to understand them. ASL is a beautiful language and it’s just that, a language. We interpreters are to model our ASL language use after those who are native ASL-users. My reply for “Questions to Consider”… Read more »
ssurrency
Member

Paula,

Thanks for the comments. I think your post emphasizes the importance of having continuous, meaning full interactions with native Deaf signers. I agree that this is key. This allows for the development of an intuition for what the community uses and how the community would express a certain idea. An important question is, how do we get there from where we are today?

Member
Terri Hayes
I’d be curious to know what your definition of “native signer” is?… From what I see out in the world, if a Deaf child is born to an educated Deaf family, while their first language (pre-communicative lingual) might begin as a nice structurally sound and sensical ASL… their language in development is often pushed toward something more English-like (whether it makes sense to the child or not)… out of either a desire to encourage the all pervasive “learn English = be smart” or just because the Deaf parents do not recognize that they are not technically using ASL. (the same… Read more »
ssurrency
Member
Thanks so much for your interest. I think it raises many important points. In particular, I think that this issue of what it means to be a “native signer” is particularly difficult in the Deaf community, because there are so few who meet the typical linguistic definitions of nativeness. On the other hand, situations of diaglossia are common. There are many situations in which people who use oppressed languages always do so on a continuum with the dominant, non-stigmatized language. So again, I think we need to be careful not to state that just because a native signer often codes… Read more »
Member
Terri Hayes
hmm. I’m was not talking about diaglossia. I was asking about your definition of “native signers” as the gatekeepers of ASL, when so few Deaf actually get the benefit of acquiring ASL as their first language. And then when they do begin to sign it is learned from a multitude of adult signers (both Deaf and hearing) who are not necessarily “native” signers – themselves. The question you raise is of prescriptive vs descriptive orientation to ASL, with the admonition being that interpreters need to just accept the language/s they see and do their job. I agree – we are… Read more »
ssurrency
Member
Steven Surrency
I think a native signer is one who learned the language natively: as humans most typically learn language, from their parents at starting at birth. While these native signers typically do grow up to be bilingual users of ASL, that doesn’t negate the fact that ASL exists. Many languages that exist on a continuuum with dominant languages experience this blurring of lines between powerful and less powerful forms. Consider Jamaican Patios. Patios speakers use patios in some context and Standard Caribbean English in others. Moreover, they use several variations in between. This is quite similar to what ASL users do.… Read more »
Member
Terri Hayes

Great topic btw
Thank you!

Member
Meagan Thorp

As an interpreter in training I really enjoyed reading this. Throughout our training we are taught that flexibility will go a long way in this field. I also strongly agree with using the signs that the individual you are serving is most comfortable with. This I feel also holds true to the grammar the Deaf individual you are working with prefers. Being flexible allows you to maybe change certain signs from day to day. It also will help with possibly changing from using what is considered the proper ASL grammar one day to using less than proper grammar the next.

ssurrency
Member
Steven Surrency

Thanks so much. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Member

This hopefully will bring awareness to the profession, and will help educate learners of ASL , that the language is not just about how exactly you sign that word, but what are the different ways you can interpret that word.

Member

1) The code of professional conduct requires us to match language preferences.
2) We get caught up in the various ways of signing and the difference between PURE ASL and pidgin or contact or English-based signing systems. It is not our place to judge. There is no such thing as Pure ASL. Get over it. Mainstreaming killed that.
3) Nothing matters EXCEPT that semantic equivalency is achieve. The form that is used to accomplidh understanding doesnt matter.

Member

Interesting discussion. I have to say though that the most steadfast prescriptivists I have come across in my short time in this community are Deaf native signers. And maybe their insistence on strict adherence to what they consider proper ASL only applies to those of us clearly in need of linguistic education I don’t know. Certainly a quality I see far more from native signers, no matter what their sign system appears to be to me, than from language villains such as myself. 🙂

bcolonomos
Member
Dear Steven, I read your article with interest as it is a major issue we deal with in our work and in educational contexts. As a native ASL signer, a Linguistics major in a doctoral program for several years, a working interpreter, and an educator of interpreters for 35+ years I offer the following observations and principles I impart to students and colleagues. No importance should be attributed to the order in which they appear here. 1. I think the term “matching” the Deaf consumer is confusing and misleading. The term implies that we should sign the way a consumer… Read more »
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[…] 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-d… […]

Member
Thanks, Steven, for kicking off this discussion. Part of the prescriptive/descriptive problem we face is a result of the process typically used to being people into the field. Not only are the vast majority of us non-native signers, there is relatively little time between first exposure to the language and the time a new-minted interpreter goes to their first assignment… somewhere between 2 and 4 years. There simply isn’t enough time for the student to be exposed to enough language in a sufficient variety of contexts to stray away from classroom formulations. And the pressure of interpreting is a suboptimal… Read more »
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[…] 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-d… […]

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