The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

July 20, 2016

Ben Bahan presented The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. His presentation examines the challenges in exposing sign language interpreters to academic ASL due to limited representation in journals and academic environments.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Ben’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Ben’s original presentation directly.]

The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

Why is exposure to academic ASL important for interpreters? Because when we talk about academic ASL, we’re talking about discourse, and discourse is your business. So, it has to be important. This talk will address how we can build a better understanding of ASL academic discourse.

What is Academic ASL?

Jim Gee is a sociolinguist, a linguist, and a literary theorist, among other things. He has examined academic discourse and what comprises academic language. So, what is academic ASL? It is a particular usage of the language. We can analyze discourse at two different levels: the primary level and the secondary level. There are other terms for these levels which are used in the Common Core State Standards: BICS and CALP. But for our purposes, we’ll call them primary and secondary levels.

Primary discourse is the way we use language in the home. It is conversational language. Secondary discourse is what we use in other settings such as school, court, hospitals, public media, and the like. In these settings we shift how we use language, tailoring it to the particular expectations of the setting. Secondary discourse is often used in places of power, which govern how we are to interact, so we have to abide by their expectations. If our primary discourse is very different from how we’re expected to communicate in these settings, we have to learn the secondary discourse like it’s a second language. If, on the other hand, our primary and secondary discourses are not so disparate, then it is easier to navigate between the two. Often, privilege is reflected in primary and secondary discourses which are similar to one another. People who have privilege can interact in domains of power more easily. They have greater fluency in the secondary discourse because it is closer to their primary discourse.

Rules of Engagement

When we analyze academic discourse, we look at its rules of engagement. We examine how we engage in discussion, argument, and disagreement. We examine how we build arguments and support them with data. One such rule is conducting an academic argument with disinterest, with an emotional removal from the discourse. One becomes more objective, setting aside personal opinion and emotion, and engages in a discourse of ideas, not feelings. The goal of removing the discourse from the heat of emotional, personal perceptions is to connect with others in the realm of ideas.

A particular choice of words is another rule of engagement. It’s imperative to choose words or signs which conform to the academic level of discourse rather than the commonplace, primary-level vocabulary. Back in 1996 I went to a conference on infant cochlear implantation with Harlan Lane. He began talking with an esteemed doctor who was an advocate for early implantation. I observed their conversation through an interpreter. They couldn’t have been at greater odds with one another in their discussion, yet their tone was cool and dispassionate. Harlan expertly cited evidence to make his points. Despite their radically opposing positions on the issue, they were able to maintain the discourse because they followed these rules of engagement. Otherwise, they might have had to take it outside. This particular etiquette enabled them to engage successfully in the discourse.

Academic Societies

People assume that the responsibility to develop and teach academic discourse lies with institutions of higher learning, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, the responsibility belongs to academic societies. Each discipline of study in the academy has its own approach to discourse. When you enter college, whether you go into history, science, interpreting, or psychology, you learn your field’s unique approach to citing sources and engaging in academic discourse. That knowledge is developed and embedded in each academic society. A society’s particular academic discourse evolves dependent upon three layers: the field itself, its ties to a professional organization, and the professional organization’s publishing of academic journals. The discourse learned in the course of study is then practiced at professional conferences — whether during formal talks or social discourse — which in turn leads to the ways academic writing is published in professional academic journals. All three of these layers contribute to the forming of a discipline’s academic discourse.

Academic Societies in the ASL field

One learns and develops academic discourse through these three layers. It doesn’t rest in the domain of schools alone. All three layers contribute to and create its meaning and form of expression in a given language. Now, we’ll turn our attention to ASL. ASL is our field. Within the field, we have the disciplines of ASL education, interpreting, linguistics, and we can include Deaf Studies, as well. Let’s examine the three layers as they pertain to the disciplines within our field.

Academic Societies: Interpreting and Linguistics

In interpreting, we confer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Conference of Interpreter Trainers function as our professional organizations. As for journals, we have the Journal of Interpretation, the International Journal of Interpreter Education, and there might be some other smaller journals in the field. In linguistics, we confer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Our organizations are limited to the Sign Language Linguistics Society and FEAST (Formal and Experimental Advances in Sign Language Theory), which is a European-based organization. The journals in this discipline are Sign Language Studies and Sign Language and Linguistics.

Academic Societies: ASL and Deaf Studies

Now, let’s look at ASL and Deaf Studies. We confer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ASL, but not the doctoral degree as of yet. For organizations, we have the ASLTA (American Sign Language Teachers Association), but we have no professional journal. In Deaf Studies we confer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but not the doctoral degree. We have no professional organizations, but we do have the Deaf Studies Digital Journal and the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. There are some interesting gaps here. Let’s look further.

Journal Languages in our Disciplines

The professional interpreting and linguistics journals are all published in English. Authors, therefore, submit work in written English. In the discipline of ASL Education, the ASLTA tends to submit work and get published in the Sign Language Studies Journal or in The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, both of which are published in English. The other journal in the discipline of Deaf Studies is the Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which we’ve tried to establish as an alternative to the English language journals, and which has some issues that I’ll discuss in a moment.

How to develop ASL academic discourse if it’s not represented in journals and conferences?

What do we do about academic ASL? It doesn’t exist in our journals, which means we have no opportunity to practice it, refine it, and build a common understanding of what it is. If English is the only language of publication, how can we develop ASL academic discourse? As for conferences, StreetLeverage is unique. Most conferences about sign languages are held in spoken English. Those about linguistics are held in spoken English. You may have someone co-presenting in sign, but where is the opportunity to practice and perfect ASL academic discourse at conferences? When working on my dissertation about ASL, everything I was learning, everything I engaged in discussion about, everything I was reading, was done through English. Conversations with my advisor were typed in English because she was not fluent in ASL. When it came time for me to defend my dissertation in ASL, it was really hard. I couldn’t convey my thoughts about conditional markers and feature spreading in ASL. It all came out in English structure. Because all of the discussion and development of my ideas had occurred in written English, it was nearly impossible to transfer those ideas into ASL. I hadn’t had the opportunity to practice it, discuss it, and cement it in ASL. So, how can we build academic discourse in ASL? We must link academic study, conferences, and journal publication in ASL and then bridge the gap between academic English and academic ASL.

The Deaf Studies Digital Journal

The Deaf Studies Digital Journal (DSDJ) was established in 2009, for the purpose of soliciting academic submissions in ASL. At first, it was hard to find people willing to contribute their work. They were willing to submit research in English, but when asked to submit in ASL too, they claimed that they were not proficient enough in academic ASL to do so. We encouraged them to find people to work with them on it, but it was hard to find people willing to produce the academic works in ASL. There was no system, no established formula for it. We didn’t have a ready-made format for them to follow, and to build one proved too daunting and time-consuming a task. Also, who then would review the works? Our professional peers in the larger academic societies can’t read works in ASL, so they dismiss them, and when the works go unreviewed, their academic worth automatically diminishes. So, how can we require submission in ASL? It’s been a struggle. DSDJ is still operating, but we only receive occasional submissions. In fact, it’s on hold now, because of a lack of funding.

ASLized

The goal of ASLized is to publish academic works in ASL, and the journal’s efforts are laudable, but with which professional organization is it affiliated? As I said earlier, professional organizations are responsible for ensuring that the research published is conducted by scientists in the field whose work is reliable, valid, and will contribute to the scholarship of the field as a whole. They oversee this aspect of the academic society. These are among the several issues I see with academic ASL in professional journals today.

ASL in Academia

We’ve examined the realm of journals, and have found that, effectively, ASL is not represented. Now, what about institutions of higher education? Here I’m not referring to colleges that accept ASL as a foreign language. I’m addressing the fact that the language of academia in institutions across the country is English. Gallaudet University finally announced in 2007 that it was a bilingual institution. Remember that DSDJ began in 2009, two years later. Upon the announcement we should have gotten into the weeds to determine what it meant to be a bilingual institution. We grappled somewhat with definitions, and we had discussions, but nothing was formally established. Then, in January of 2016, President Cordano stated that our priority was to analyze and address what it means for us to be a bilingual institution. So, after several years of talking around the issue at Gallaudet, we’re now being pushed to do something.

Gallaudet University’s role

Gallaudet is developing a website for students that teaches them how to engage in academic ASL discourse. There are some drop-down menus which show examples of different types of ASL academic discourse, but there aren’t many to choose from, and it seems the website is still a work in progress. For instance, do we know what constitutes an ASL essay? No, because we don’t have a professional literary organization that defines and publishes these works. Instead, we draw from quality student work to inform our academic society. In reality, we should be drawing from the professional echelon to inform our students, not the other way around. This isn’t to say that we have no exemplars of academic work in ASL. Of course, we have a good number of scholars who have done outstanding research in ASL. Raychelle Harris, Laurene Simms, MJ Bienvenu, Maribel Garaté, and Trudy Suggs all are engaged in stellar ASL academic discourse, and we pull various features from their work to create standards and definitions, but we need broader representation in our field.

Efforts toward a definition

So, efforts are underway. We’re examining which ASL features are entailed in academic discourse, such as amount of fingerspelling and degree of grammatical and affective facial markers. We’re having fruitful discussions and attempting to build some basic guidelines.

Working together, accountable together

The different levels I’ve discussed here — institutions, organizations, and journals — need to work together to set standards before we can fully define what is involved and expected in academic ASL discourse. Each level needs to take accountability, as well — something that MJ  and others have talked about — and put in the thought required to establish best practices in their respective domains.

Why does ASL academic discourse matter to interpreters?

You are in the business of discourse, and most interpreters work in an academic setting. If your student is using conversational ASL, and you interpret that into academic English discourse, are you doing a service or a disservice? The professor needs to know that the student isn’t using academic discourse appropriately. You have to know your boundaries around this. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t have an easy answer, but I know that we must work together to grapple with it.

What can we do?

This afternoon we will continue the discussion, look at some examples of ASL text, and analyze the features and functions of ASL academic discourse. We’ll view video samples and draw comparisons between formal and informal discourse. I hope that this entices you to join the afternoon session.

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11 Comments on "The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters"

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shansen
Member
Hi Ben! Thanks for the article! I just joined SLLS (Sign Language Linguistics Society) today! I am eager to discuss another aspect of this topic, which is a written form of ASL and signed languages. I have written a book (based on my work as an educational interpreter and community freelancer) that is an introductory proposition to explore combining a modified music staff of three tiers along with mathematical, conventional (alphabetical/numerical) and created symbols (such as symbols for movement and facial expression) providing a structural framework for the 5 parameters of signed languages in a written format. Music and mathematics… Read more »
shansen
Member
Hi Ben! One more additional thought…the reason this came up is the direct result of my work in classrooms as an educational interpreter. I have not, in my almost 30 years of interpreting experience in Pre-K thru Post secondary Ed, seen metalinguistic bilingual education occurring in the classroom. Deaf students with phenomenal language skills (often from homes with a range of ages of fluent ASL users ie: Deaf families) are acutely lacking in appreciation of the linguistic structure and complexity of ASL and how to utilize/leverage these aspects (many of which are cross-lingual) for bilingual purposes. Thanks for listening! I… Read more »
shansen
Member
Hi Ben! I just watched your entire presentation…I admit I was so excited about the topic I jumped the gun a bit…your presentation about academic discourse and the role of professional/field journals is spot on. My question is: Where does a written form of ASL support these endeavors and the development of academic discourse? This is exactly what I am talking about. There is a missing piece. We are able to effectively write down and thus share, analyze and develop these academic languages using the tool of a written format. ASL has video…which is the same as an audio for… Read more »
Member

Hi Shelly,
You could contact Jody Crips at Towson University, he is the assistant dean in the deaf studies program there and is deaf. I believe he has been involved with a written form of ASL.

Member
Terri Hayes
Trying to figure out how to say this… but… Interpreters are *taught* to “correct” the audible presentation of Deaf people while they are interpreting. This “skill”.. is confounding in several ways (but is also somewhat unavoidable). Confounding because -for example – If a Deaf student is presenting using ASL, in theory, they should be able to relax and just present, knowing that the interpreter is going to work hard to make sure that the presentation is using an appropriate register and fits the audience. (problem one – the Deaf student does not then learn what and how the interpreter did… Read more »
shansen
Member
Hi Terri! I am making a distinction in my mind between register and academic language. Register might account for some of those interpreting dilemmas…Our ability or inability or marginal ability to match the speaker’s register. Pushing professional boundaries/stereotypes can be a real challenge for us as interpreters to match the lexical level, language complexity, topic shifts, and dialogue progression for example between two colleagues having a heated professional debate in a content area that is very specific and full of field-specific jargon. However, this to me is different than the issue presented in how to develop a body of academic… Read more »
Member
Terri Hayes
Hi Shelly, I hear you, that you are hearing a difference between register and academic language, but I’m not sure I agree with you on that point. As per this article, academic language represents, if anything, its Own Register. And register, I dont think is the *cause* for some of our interpreting dilemmas, but rather the fact that we are trained and expected – to *produce* a correct register (often despite the fact that the Deaf person/presenter is not aware themselves of how to represent that register) and to my point, there is no really good way to teach them… Read more »
shansen
Member
Hi Terri! I want to argue just a bit more on the value of “on paper”. I resist the idea that it is just a “hearing imposition” onto ASL. I think on paper is actually a human expression for mental activity. Consider math, science, music, computers, and language. These are all higher level functions that we put to paper. Art is also on paper and film preserves stories. We can definitely get creative in how we preserve our mental activities. We build structures and create. ASL can be expressed on paper. But because ASL is complex, the task is not… Read more »
Member

So many great points being made as a response to this video. I wished STREET LEVERAGE would allow for “video replies.” I would love to see all those beautifully crafted responses signed in “academic ASL!”

Member

Hello, Ben!

Fantastic work, as always. Thank you!!

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