Language Shaming: Impacts and Implications for Sign Language Interpreters

September 26, 2017

Dawn Wessling presented Language Shaming: Impacts and Implications for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2017 | St. Paul. Her presentation examines the increasing disconnects among students and the Deaf community and explores the concept of language shaming, its impact on attitudes and attrition from the field.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Dawn’s StreetLeverage – Live 2017 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Dawn’s original presentation directly.]

Interested in attending StreetLeverage – Live 2018 being held in the Philadelphia, PA (metro area) April 13-15, 2018.

Language Shaming: Impacts and Implications for Sign Language Interpreters

Hello, everyone! I am Dawn Wessling and my partner is Suzanne Ehrlich. She and I have conducted research together, specifically regarding the concept of language shaming. I am a little surprised to be the first person at StreetLeverage – Live this year, but I am happy to roll with it!

Genesis

I would like to share some of the background for this area of study—I teach at the University of North Florida where I also serve as the staff interpreter for faculty. About two years ago, I was teaching an interpreting class when I signed something to playfully indicate it was time to continue to our next topic. I signed MOVE (as in moving an object from one location to another) and ON (the preposition to indicate an object located upon something). Of course, what I really meant was MOVE-ON (to continue or proceed). Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a student correct me and directly criticize my sign choice as being incorrect. I let the students know I was kidding, signed the correct sign, and ironically, tried to actually move on. However, the event stuck in the back of my mind. I began to notice other students engaging in this behavior, that is, language shaming their peers, during our interactions. I wanted to figure out why this was happening.

During my next class meeting with this same group of students, I created an online survey as a classroom activity that contained four questions about language shaming. I asked the students first whether they knew and had heard of the term language shaming. As an aside, not many of us in the interpreting field may have heard this term before. Most of my students said they had not heard of the term before. Second, I asked them to define language shaming and what they thought it might mean. Most of them provided an accurate description. Of course, the terms language and shaming are fairly common terms and so extrapolating a meaning would not be very difficult. The third question I asked them is whether or not they had ever language shamed another person. Most said, that they had engaged in this behavior themselves. The final question I asked them is why they had engaged in language shaming behaviors. Some of the responses included statements such as “I didn’t know any better,” “I saw other people shaming,” and “I didn’t intend to shame anyone.” The result was that this group of students became more aware of shaming behaviors in their interactions with one another in our classroom.

My initial classroom event gave birth to a formal research study. I am sure that you are aware that universities and colleges like to conduct academic research. My partner and I, Suzanne, received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval to begin a project investigating language shaming as experienced by sign language interpreting students. We collected responses from about 120 interpreting students. Guess what we found out? Half of the students had been language shamed and half of them had also language shamed others. The results of this study have not yet been published, but we are drafting our manuscript now. Perhaps the results of this study may change how we teach our interpreting students about language itself.

Common Ground

There are several important points to make as we move forward. Language shaming is not about the language, it is about the person who experiences it. It is also not linguicism. It also does not matter which language is used.: English, American Sign Language, Spanish, Russian—none of that matters. Another important consideration is where does this shaming behavior emanate from? In our study, we defined language shaming without regard to the language we were talking about. When we sent out our survey, responses came from the US, Europe and some from Canada. We never identify any particular language. Most of the student respondents understood what was meant by language shaming and had experienced shaming behaviors as well. Another important consideration for teachers is positive feedback versus negative feedback. At times, negative feedback can become language shaming. I am a teacher first. When I see that my students need my feedback in order to improve their fluency, obviously, I have to help them. How I convey this feedback is paramount.

Let’s take a moment to think about how we might have learned language. There are two camps I am thinking about—one is behaviorist and the other is cognitivist. Behaviorists tend to be more in the classroom setting with formal instruction taught by someone in that type of setting with certain governing rules. Cognitivist language learning tends to be more natural, more immersive and real-world experience. Consider how you learned sign language or even any other language such as Spanish or English. How did you learn this language? Were you sitting in the classroom or were you “sitting” in the world? Something that is also important is that behaviorist tends to force students to meet the teacher’s requirements while cognitive is more learner focused. Which of these styles would characterize the way we best learn? Is it better for students to adhere to strict rules of a classroom environment or is it better for the teacher to be flexible and meet the student where they are in their learning?

Let’s also consider how we mentor as interpreters whether it is with other interpreters or with students. Which of these models are we adopting: the behaviorist or the cognitivist? I would like for all of us to think about these perspectives. I might liken these categories to how we may discipline our children. Are we more authoritarian (behaviorists) or are we more authoritative (cognitivists). Authoritarian style tend to expect obedience, where children must follow the rules put forth while authoritative are more nurturing and positive. Where do we align in our profession within these styles? One of these styles grows that person, helps them, while the other chops down and uproots. Which of these are we?

Deaf Community Gardeners

The pictures I have shared of the sign for GROW are my own hands. I want to share my story briefly. I did not learn American Sign Language in the classroom. I learned from the Deaf community directly, but not as a Coda. However, that beginning and that start of my “encouraged” journey is strongly engrained in who I am as an interpreter. I have been fortunate to experience a lot of positive encouragement from the Deaf community during my life. When I find myself in my own classroom now, I really try to channel that energy and positive experience to my students. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

The Deaf community tends to be more natural teachers—more cognitivists—less behaviorists. Let’s consider how Deaf people have taught us about our language and our growth in the language. Do they tend to shame or are they more likely to encourage and nurture our growth? I believe they tend more towards growing us in positive ways. While this has been my experience, there are, of course, always exceptions. I have had negative experiences too, once or twice, but not often.

I think it is also important to give consideration to how we entered into the interpreting field. Were you invited or did you opt to join the field on your own? Being invited means someone from the community encouraged you to become an interpreter versus individuals who self-select the field. I mentioned earlier that my story included being taught by the community, I was invited and encouraged to become an interpreter. That is an important foundation for me as a professional. I cannot ignore my personal connection to the Deaf community, as it is part of who I am. What implications might this “beginning” have for our field?

Be Gentle

This event, StreetLeverage – Live 2017, has the theme of aligning intent with impact. This is my first time at StreetLeverage! The picture I have shown you was something I found on Facebook. The theme reminded me of a recent news story about RIT/NTID’s program to introduce new Deaf signers to the community. The program is for Deaf people to guide them into navigating the language, cultural norms and a host of important features of the Deaf community. I was thrilled when I saw this program – I was thrilled with this idea of welcoming, encouraging and growing Deaf people. This is cognitivist learning and authoritative. More importantly, is taking stock of the Deaf community’s perspective and how they do things—how can we emulate and honor those methods? Obviously, one of the ways is to include more Deaf people in Interpreter Education programs. I see that many of you agree with me.

Intention

The picture I have included shows someone gently pruning and another picture of an ax. I am sure many of you may be able to recall the ASL I story “TIMBER?” Which of these are we intending to be as practitioners? Our behavior needs to be more founded on mindfulness of our behaviors as interpreters, mentors, and teachers. To be honest, I know that I do shame people for their use of English. I’m an interpreter! I shame everyone for English, (said jokingly, of course). My intention is not to hurt anyone, but it happens nonetheless.

I believe our intention when we teach, when we mentor, or when we work is to improve access and to improve language fluency. Perhaps we do this to encourage others to become more expert signers. We have to figure out how to align that intention with the actual results. I believe that one of the first steps to better align intention with impact is simply to be mindful of that potential shaming behavior.

Alignment

You see this picture of a beautiful garden. I am unable to grow plants and I am sad to report that I kill them on a daily basis. You’ll notice in this picture that there are a variety of very different, but still beautiful plants growing in the garden. None of them grows in quite the same way or requires quite the same type of care. A gardener must care for each of them in different ways, matching the needs of the individual plants. The plants cannot follow the way the gardener knows how to garden.

All of you viewing this presentation in the audience are “learners.” I am also a learner just like you. I am also a teacher and so are all of you. We all grow in different ways. Each of our individual journeys has been different. How we all arrived here at StreetLeverage also differs. For example, I came here to St. Paul from Florida. Yesterday, it was 90 degrees! When I arrived here yesterday, it was 45 degrees and I had to don a coat and a scarf. My hands are still frozen from yesterday as I present to you today!  So, obviously, I grow different than you—I need the hot sun and warmth to thrive. Remembering that we all grow in different ways is important. Figuring out how to match those differing needs is also important.

Now that you are more aware of the idea of language shaming, what are you going to do with this knowledge? What can you do with that information? Can you carry it back home with you, wherever you may live? That very first step becomes the change that I mentioned earlier. Know that you know, you know that you can do better. My friend, our next presenter, Kierstin Muroski, and I were having dinner last night and she said something powerful to me. She said to me, “We, interpreters, we are the change.” It really doesn’t matter what the intention or impact might be whether it is shaming, understanding cultural capital, etc. WE are the ones to take the first step towards change.  By we, I mean you, me, all of us together can successfully make changes happen.  With that, welcome to StreetLeverage.

Suzanne Ehrlich

Workshop Co-Presenter and Research Partner: Suzanne Ehrlich, Ed.D, CI, NAD IV, an interpreter educator at the University of North Florida, has focused on e-learning in interpreter education, including her co-authored volume, Interpreter Education in the Digital Age.

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26 Comments on "Language Shaming: Impacts and Implications for Sign Language Interpreters"

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Member

This is one aspect of what is termed horizontal or lateral violence. It’s when you’re told you’re just not good enough and never will be. I had a Deaf teacher tell me “You’ll NEVER be an interpreter.” You can’t get more negative and shaming than that. I would love to see Lynne Weisman’s response to this!!!

Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Kevin–thank you for this. I was told the same thing many years ago and it did not dissuade me from trying anyway. I am glad you stuck with it and I look forward to hearing what others think as well.

Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Kevin–thank you for this. I was told the same thing many years ago and it did not dissuade me from trying anyway. I am glad you stuck with it and I look forward to hearing what others think as well.

Member
Kevin, How interesting, our Deaf instructor said the same thing to my whole class the last week of school before we graduated!! And it didn’t have anything to actually do with our skills…. But I agree about horizontal violence and the harm it inflicts. Even a simple rolling of the eyes by your team person or other interpreters, qualifies as Language Shaming / Horizontal Violence. (Sucking air, & other body language is just as impactful). The body language we present while we are “off” can be either encouraging or discouraging to the “on” interpreter… which can make or break the… Read more »
Member
Kevin, How interesting, our Deaf instructor said the same thing to my whole class the last week of school before we graduated!! And it didn’t have anything to actually do with our skills…. But I agree about horizontal violence and the harm it inflicts. Even a simple rolling of the eyes by your team person or other interpreters, qualifies as Language Shaming / Horizontal Violence. (Sucking air, & other body language is just as impactful). The body language we present while we are “off” can be either encouraging or discouraging to the “on” interpreter… which can make or break the… Read more »
Member

This is one aspect of what is termed horizontal or lateral violence. It’s when you’re told you’re just not good enough and never will be. I had a Deaf teacher tell me “You’ll NEVER be an interpreter.” You can’t get more negative and shaming than that. I would love to see Lynne Weisman’s response to this!!!

Member
Keith Gamache
This is a problematic area of study that needs to be addressed in today’s climate among ASL/English interpreters. Not just that, we also see the dynamics within the Deaf community, the attitudes of Deaf people towards interpreters and vice versa. I am glad that we are recognizing the issue and finding resolutions. I grew up as a Deaf of Deaf person with the appropriate education and experience, and yet I have frequently received language shaming from my childhood years to the present day. I sometimes feel I am being under the microscope for every utterance I make instead of paying… Read more »
Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Keith–thank you for your comment. Language use is a very personal experience and it seems the moment you express yourself in a setting–you are vulnerable. One of the attendees asked a question following this presentation about the Deaf community–many have likely experienced similar shaming behaviors. Suzanne and I intend to expand this examination of language shaming to discuss the experiences of Deaf people learning English, using American Sign Language (or any variation), learning American Sign Language later in life, and their history of witnessing these behaviors from others in the community (including interpreters).

Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Keith–thank you for your comment. Language use is a very personal experience and it seems the moment you express yourself in a setting–you are vulnerable. One of the attendees asked a question following this presentation about the Deaf community–many have likely experienced similar shaming behaviors. Suzanne and I intend to expand this examination of language shaming to discuss the experiences of Deaf people learning English, using American Sign Language (or any variation), learning American Sign Language later in life, and their history of witnessing these behaviors from others in the community (including interpreters).

Member
Keith Gamache
This is a problematic area of study that needs to be addressed in today’s climate among ASL/English interpreters. Not just that, we also see the dynamics within the Deaf community, the attitudes of Deaf people towards interpreters and vice versa. I am glad that we are recognizing the issue and finding resolutions. I grew up as a Deaf of Deaf person with the appropriate education and experience, and yet I have frequently received language shaming from my childhood years to the present day. I sometimes feel I am being under the microscope for every utterance I make instead of paying… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Hi, Thanks for your talk. I’d like to know how you define “language shaming” and how you identify it when it occurs. Is there intentionality? If so, how is that measured and quantified? I, too, am a second language learner. I recall many instances of both Deaf community members and interpreters feeding me appropriate signs when I produced something that was more hearing-based than conceptually or culturally appropriate. I never felt that was language shaming. I’ve always appreciated the suggestions. It’s how I learn:) I also try to replicate signs used by the people around me. So even if they… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Hi, Thanks for your talk. I’d like to know how you define “language shaming” and how you identify it when it occurs. Is there intentionality? If so, how is that measured and quantified? I, too, am a second language learner. I recall many instances of both Deaf community members and interpreters feeding me appropriate signs when I produced something that was more hearing-based than conceptually or culturally appropriate. I never felt that was language shaming. I’ve always appreciated the suggestions. It’s how I learn:) I also try to replicate signs used by the people around me. So even if they… Read more »
Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling
Hi Stephanie! Thank you for asking such a great question. In our study, we actually did not define the term at all. We simply asked students if they had ever language shamed anyone and what they thought it meant. This allowed them to define the term and the range of responses were very interesting. Some defined it as not being competent in a language and having it pointed out, others suggested it was more indirect and related to how the receivers responded nonverbally to how they used language. Some students suggested it related to their proper use of grammar in… Read more »
Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling
Hi Stephanie! Thank you for asking such a great question. In our study, we actually did not define the term at all. We simply asked students if they had ever language shamed anyone and what they thought it meant. This allowed them to define the term and the range of responses were very interesting. Some defined it as not being competent in a language and having it pointed out, others suggested it was more indirect and related to how the receivers responded nonverbally to how they used language. Some students suggested it related to their proper use of grammar in… Read more »
Member

Thank you for bringing this important topic to the table. I have longed for a way to explain the need for us to be more supportive of each other even as we expect each other to grow and improve You have given me a wonderful example in the behaviorist versus cognitivist perspective aligned with the authoritative and authoritarian views. I have never considered both pairings in the same conversation before.
I also appreciate your willingness to be first.
Best wishes and pleased to see you again!

Member

Thank you for bringing this important topic to the table. I have longed for a way to explain the need for us to be more supportive of each other even as we expect each other to grow and improve You have given me a wonderful example in the behaviorist versus cognitivist perspective aligned with the authoritative and authoritarian views. I have never considered both pairings in the same conversation before.
I also appreciate your willingness to be first.
Best wishes and pleased to see you again!

Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Maryanne! Thank you for your comment and it is great to see you as well.

Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Maryanne! Thank you for your comment and it is great to see you as well.

Member
Leave it to me to ask the dumb questions but… Really interesting article, I’ve seen my fair share of “language shaming” if you will, even before this name for it came around. What’s also interesting is she seems to base it off the idea that it is either hearing based or deaf based (though not directly mentioned in the article) my question is though, what goes for people who are later deafened? For those who chose to learn ASL for hearing loss or what have we, but where do the late deafened fall in because it seems to be in… Read more »
Member
Leave it to me to ask the dumb questions but… Really interesting article, I’ve seen my fair share of “language shaming” if you will, even before this name for it came around. What’s also interesting is she seems to base it off the idea that it is either hearing based or deaf based (though not directly mentioned in the article) my question is though, what goes for people who are later deafened? For those who chose to learn ASL for hearing loss or what have we, but where do the late deafened fall in because it seems to be in… Read more »
Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Lili,
Thank you for your comment. My research partner, Suzanne Ehrlich, and I are very interested in the Deaf community perspective and their experience with language shaming–both within and without. The language histories within the Deaf community are certainly varied and would include the experience of those who are late-deafened. I also wonder if their experience might be similar to others who are L2 learners rather than being about hearing status.

Dawn Wessling
Member
Dawn M. Wessling

Hi Lili,
Thank you for your comment. My research partner, Suzanne Ehrlich, and I are very interested in the Deaf community perspective and their experience with language shaming–both within and without. The language histories within the Deaf community are certainly varied and would include the experience of those who are late-deafened. I also wonder if their experience might be similar to others who are L2 learners rather than being about hearing status.

Member
Amy K Palethorpe
Thank you for being very direct and open about a subject that’s shameful, touchy at best. I can look back at how I learned ASK (not a classroom but members in the Deaf community). So many times, my friends would just repeat the sign or phrase correctly after I used incorrect context or simply the wrong sign. Our conversations would continue to flow with trust and respect. I’ve also shamefully been involved with Language Shaming and have felt the brunt of it, during an interpreting assignment or in social situations that quickly became awkward and ostrasizing to me. I want… Read more »
Member
Amy K Palethorpe
Thank you for being very direct and open about a subject that’s shameful, touchy at best. I can look back at how I learned ASK (not a classroom but members in the Deaf community). So many times, my friends would just repeat the sign or phrase correctly after I used incorrect context or simply the wrong sign. Our conversations would continue to flow with trust and respect. I’ve also shamefully been involved with Language Shaming and have felt the brunt of it, during an interpreting assignment or in social situations that quickly became awkward and ostrasizing to me. I want… Read more »
Member
Katie O'Brien

Language shaming is actually one of the reasons I stopped interpreting and simply focused on teaching ASL. I saw it happening too often, especially at workshops where someone was interpreting. A room full of interpreters and you would always here, “I wouldn’t have made that word choice”, “they are so sloppy”, “that’s too ASL”, “that’s too English”… it just turned me off. So I stopped interpreting and eventually let my certification lapse. I’m so glad to see the conversation happening and hope it will help influence positive changes!

Member
Katie O'Brien

Language shaming is actually one of the reasons I stopped interpreting and simply focused on teaching ASL. I saw it happening too often, especially at workshops where someone was interpreting. A room full of interpreters and you would always here, “I wouldn’t have made that word choice”, “they are so sloppy”, “that’s too ASL”, “that’s too English”… it just turned me off. So I stopped interpreting and eventually let my certification lapse. I’m so glad to see the conversation happening and hope it will help influence positive changes!

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