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!


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.


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.


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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