Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension?

May 13, 2015

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

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.

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.


Leave a Reply

19 Comments on "Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Carol Padden
Thanks Kimberly, for your comment. I would love to do another workshop on accent, so whenever we can organize one, let’s do it. I was worried initially about seeming to criticize people for how they “speak” or “sign,” and that’s never good. I’m not interested in style but more intelligibility. But now I think I have a way to do this, by taking two very good signers, and showing where to look for accent differences. Or a very new signer, and how to do a little coaching for accent. Also – I’ve been looking at different fingerspelling forms across second-language… Read more »
Tanisha Jame

Was just talking about this on Sunday.. Acknowleging an accent is present is key. Some don’t even realize they have one. I know I do! Hmm… but when and where, and how to address… I need to think about that. I am game any time really, but what should the “official”
protocol be…?

Carol Padden
Thanks for your postings. Very interesting discussion. You are all on the same track as I am – you’re noticing something beyond the translation, but more in the prosody and the “pronunciation” of the signed sentence. I would be happy to do a workshop on this maybe at the next Street Leverage? We should work with actual interpreters or it could be new signers who are willing to be critiqued. I’ve also been paying attention to fingerspelling, and I think I have a few tips I can give to make it more intelligible – how to do transitions between handshapes.… Read more »
Shelly Hansen
Hi Carol and all~ I absolutely love this! I am currently working as a mentor and it is not easy to identify, explain and approach conversations that involve this very personal area of style, mannerism, personality, quirkiness and standardization, comprehensibility and reduction of errors. What can or should be done to improve the quality of an interpreter’s work and what should be embraced as unique to that person. Interestingly, the actual voice interpreting (S-V) work of the individual may carry those same habits/quirks of production as part of the total self-presentation of the person both at work and off the… Read more »

“The other error can be a type of over delivery of minutia. Tiny detailing of items that do not need that much elaboration. Over elaborating when unnecessary.” What a great phrase! (and frequently observed)

Great perspective! On a related topic but with a very different impact, interpreters should also be self-aware of how their spoken accent/dialect could reflect poorly on the deaf consumer for whom they are voicing. Certain regional accents are viewed by hearing people from other parts of the country as sounding uneducated or harsh. This is why you RARELY hear any regional accents from people in mainstream media…they have worked hard to conform to a neutral accent. An interpreter with a thick regional accent could unintentionally make a well spoken deaf consumer sound uneducated/harsh, in spite of using appropriate register. Whether… Read more »
Linda Richards


Just had a look at this and thank you [and Street Leverage] very much for this. It’s a common problem in the UK. It’s spreading. But why? What are the influences? How do we eradicate this/stem its flow so that we’re not engaged in repair work, remedial instruction, reactive strategies, and the like?

Lynna Holland

Thank you! I remember occasionally asking my instructors “how is my accent?” while in my ITP way back when, but no one really knew what I was talking about. I myself did not think to separate an “accent” from “style” at the time either. I hope this new insight influences future ITP programs.

What a wonderful presentation. Thank you. It gives me food for thought and the opportunity to self-evaluate and see what my “accent” may be and what I can do to make my interpreting more clear for my consumer. I do have to wonder though, have you considered that some “accents” may be better with one Deaf consumer and not clear for another one? I find on occasion that an interpreter is just not the right “fit” for a consumer. I have previously thought that it was a lack of vocabulary in a specific area, but now I wonder if some… Read more »
Shelly Hansen
Hi Dwight! I’ve had a little time to think about her presentation, and what comes to mind is language development. When you are becoming bilingual or learning a second language, you go through “pronunciation” or “articulation/enunciation” phases as you learn a language. Like the info on ASLized about common errors children make acquiring sign language…you can spot them as being more novice and not yet fluent…that is what I think of. We all wander around making errors as we acquire a L2, but those should start to minimize or be dropped as our language use becomes more sophisticated and “native… Read more »
Jules Berner


Thank you for this. I was just talking with the IPP team where I teach about these very things! So happy be able to share your presentation with them!

cheers, Jules

Merrie Davidson

I worked at a school where the teacher was not native. All the students I met came out with a strange accent I’d never seen before. Very light and fluffy is the only way I could describe it. Besides how uncomfortable it was to watch, it was almost impossible for the students to sign certain inflections on verbs and adjectives. The teacher didn’t have this accent and I wondered how so many of the students acquired it.

Peggy Huber

Good stuff, Dr. Padden. It’s really helpful to have terms for this nuance of language production. Descriptive language is a vital tool for interpreter training, or even self-analysis. Thank you for sharing your research and for furthering the field!

Carol Padden
Thanks everyone – for your comments. I think we’re reaching agreement on what counts as an “accent.” What I’d like to do the next time I do something like this, is to put side by side two different interpreters with different, but competent, accents, and use this to demonstrate the idea. Interpreters (or speakers) don’t have to completely eliminate who they are or where they’re from, so this idea of having two good interpreters, but each with a different accent could be a way to demonstrate this. I’ve seen interpreters that have a style (not accent, I think) where they… Read more »
Kimberly King

Hello Dr. Padden. I was there at SL in Austin when you presented last year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this year. I have thought about “accents” quite a bit since seeing your presentation in Austin. It’s a fascinating topic to me. Are there any Deaf “voice” coaches that you can recommend who have had specific training in accents? I think we could all use some polishing of our ASL skills.

Amanda Spangler
Thank you for writing this article. I never thought with sign language you could have an accent. I always thought it was one way to sign a phrase or a word and that’s it. Now that I think about it it makes sense. Some native signers who are really good I still can’t understand and they seem annoyed with my signing. Sometimes i slow down and really focus on showing my signs when i get nervous. Can accents also transfer to the area you are living in? For example one sign is signed one was in New york, but differently… Read more »
Carol Padden
I know some people claim that there are regional sign language accents within the US, but I’m not convinced that there are any. But yes, there are differences in sign language accents because of age (younger vs. older), ethnicity, or dialects – I think African ASL (because ASL was used in some schools for deaf children in English-speaking countries of Africa) looks different from US ASL, also maybe Canadian ASL, but it’s not easy for me to identify New England ASL, or Southern ASL, or California ASL. I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that accents or dialects… Read more »

[…] Read More… […]


[…] grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the […]

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)