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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Language Competence

Sign Language Interpreter on a Quest

Developing fluency in ASL is a lifelong process. Marlene Elliot encourages sign language interpreters to remain observant, embrace linguistic diversity and practice incorporating what they see.

For interpreters, developing sign language fluency is work that is never done. This is true whether we are native signers or learned later in life. Some second language learners naively think that our Coda colleagues don’t have to work for their skills. My Coda friends have assured me, this is not true. As one friend said, “It’s not like my mother had a degree in engineering. I had to work for this!”

Potentially every situation we enter may have new content. We regularly encounter variations of region, race, gender, and age – as well as variations in residential school and community influence. How do we go about developing our fluency to work with all this variation? And once we have a modicum of comfort how do we sustain our efforts to continue to learn? It’s a process that never ends.


It starts with simply noticing. At least, that’s what I’ve found. The old adage that “the best way to learn sign language is to hang around with Deaf people” is still true today. That learning can be available to us every day. It merely requires us to engage and bring awareness to what is in front of us.

What you see may or may not match what you’ve been taught, especially if you’ve had formal education. This is an important point. Often we see what we’ve been taught to see, confirming what we’ve learned. If we want to grow it is most helpful to notice what we see that does not match what we’ve been taught. This is where the greatest potential to develop resides.

As a student many years ago I was taught to see Deaf people as belonging to one class or another –either English or ASL. It was the first thought in my mind when I met any Deaf person. Years of experience have taught me that this is not a helpful mindset.

I remember clearly an early experience where the concept failed me. A Deaf woman, whom I knew fairly well and judged as an ASL user, was in the middle of a long comment when she fingerspelled D-I-D. I thought it was the most English thing she could have done. I was completely thrown off! I was flustered and started signing straight English to her. In my either/or thinking I assumed that everything else I had concluded about her must have been wrong. Looking back on that day I am so embarrassed. I had so little language competence that I didn’t even know D-I-D is simply an emphatic in ASL. Yes, this was a student’s mistake but how many other similar mistakes have I made over the years without knowing it? I’m sure it’s too many to count.

Other things I noticed early on included the large number of sentences Deaf people sign in Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) word order. I was taught that ASL does not have S-V-0 word order so I saw every instance of this as an intrusion of English. How wrong that was! In the third edition of Clayton Valli’s book Linguistics of American Sign Language (2000) he states that ASL does have S-V-O sentences with transitive verbs (p. 134). That’s good to know! My noticing that S-V-O sentences were present in Deaf people’s language didn’t mean they weren’t signing ASL. It simply meant that I am less than competent in sign language myself and was depending on research to guide me. My noticing then shifted to learning when and where S-V-O sentences were present in ASL and how they are used. Since it is unlike English, where nearly every sentence follows that strict order, I had a lot of noticing to do.

Later on as I continued to work on my fluency I learned to shift my focus from sentences and began to study discourse. I learned to notice markers and social cues that I had previously overlooked completely. It was like a whole new world opened up. I call this the “new car effect.” As in, if you previously had a Ford but then buy a new Honda, suddenly you notice Hondas all over the place. You may ask yourself, “Where did all these Hondas come from?” In truth, they were there all along. You just didn’t notice them. So it is with language. So much is right in front of us and we don’t even see it unless we intentionally work to notice.

Beyond Labels

I once saw Carol Padden tell a wonderful story about an early research experience. She had passed out a survey to Deaf people asking them what kind of language they used. Among the options to check-off were, American Sign Language, Pidgin Sign English, and Manually Coded English. An elderly man approached Carol in a conundrum. He definitely wanted to participate in this research, elevating sign language and celebrating its status as a language, but he could not endorse any of the labels. American Sign Language seemed to represent the young radicals – that was not him. Pidgin Sign English was a foreign term to him; he couldn’t endorse that. He definitely didn’t want to endorse English. Also, the idea of not participating wasn’t an option either. He looked at Carol and signed, “I SIGN.” Just that, SIGN. In the past, all of these labels for types of sign language did not exist. This man came from a time where sign was just sign.

In some ways the modern labels help, but in some ways they hurt. I have found for myself that I am much better off if I simply accept that what Deaf people do is sign language. If I focus on that and the person in front of me I have a better chance of noticing and a better chance of using what I notice. I try to be with the person in front of me. When we move past thoughts of right or wrong, we are more able to see what is.

It complicates matters that today more hearing people have access to formal ASL instruction, and especially ASL Linguistics courses, than Deaf people do. Today it is not uncommon for sign language interpreters with not much fluency to judge Deaf people as “not ASL enough.” It sometimes seems things have not changed much from the old days when hearing people judged Deaf people by the clarity of their voice. This perpetuates the old dynamic – the hearing people with access to information, power and privilege judge Deaf people. This is another important reason to check our labels and our judgments and assumptions about those labels. Not only is this judging not helpful to the interpreters, it can be truly hurtful to the Deaf community.

If we can accept that each Deaf person is a legitimate variant of sign language just as each speaker of English is a legitimate variant of English then we are much more free to learn from the people we are with. I don’t have to speak English like anyone else; I speak like myself. So it is with the Deaf people. They sign the way they sign and we can learn from that. With each new person we encounter we increase the number of variations we are familiar with. If we notice well, we can constantly increase our repertoire.

Put it in Your File

Somehow I have to keep track of all that I’ve noticed. Once I’ve seen without judgment I need to know if this is just one person’s idiosyncratic language or something that Deaf people, in general or in specific sub-categories, do that I hadn’t noticed before. Your own archive can be either an actual physical file or simply a mental one. Mine is mostly mental. When I keep seeing the same thing repeatedly I can compare it to what’s in my file. Then I can fine-tune my noticing to when and where this new learning can be used.

Use It

Probably the trickiest part of developing greater fluency is using the things I’ve noticed. This requires becoming vulnerable because it naturally means over-using and using in the wrong places an aspect of the language that is new to me. Just as an English speaking child is likely to say “runned” when they mean to say ran, because they have over-generalized the rule of adding –ed to verbs to create past tense, so do I overuse what I’ve learned. It’s part of the process. I can’t get to fluency if I’m not willing to experiment with usage and make some mistakes.

Fortunately, sign language makes this easier on us since it is a natural feature of the language to share linguistic space. We all know that we have to “get on the same page” with other signers. What we often sign as MATCH, the two hands of the sign moving back and forth before coming together, is an important skill that cannot be learned from a book. It comes from experience. When we are on the same page with someone we can take what they give us – specific vocabulary, a style, spatial referents, etc. – and use it ourselves, adapting to the specific conversation. Taking specifics from another person in a signed conversation and building upon them is part of sharing the language. You may feel your signing is even changed by taking on characteristics of the other person. That’s good! This is the way we experiment, expand, and broaden our repertoire, by sharing language with Deaf people.

Understand the Limits

If we use academic resources to inform our growth it is crucial that we both keep up and understand their limited usefulness. The research process in any field means that people are developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, then reporting and interpreting their results. Some research affirms prior findings. Some advances prior findings. Some contradicts previous research and calls those former findings into question.

It is also helpful to understand the entire framework of the field of linguistics and the strong divisions within it. Robin Tolmach Lakoff wrote a brilliant summary of the framework and tensions within the field in the introduction to her book The Language War.

Understanding the framework of research and the academic world increases my competence because it frees me from trying to hold real live people to a hypothetical academic construct. Now when I have to choose between believing the research and believing my eyes, I trust what I see and the Deaf people who live the language every day.

Trust Your Eyes

In a previous article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence, I talked about using our eyes and our noticing skills to improve our cultural competence. So too improving our sign language competence is always available to us. We can learn by this process – bringing awareness, dropping our labels and instead being with people, making mental note of what we see, watching over time what else we notice, and experimenting with using our new understandings to fine tune our usage. Of course, this is not a linear process. We can engage any part of it at any time. It can be happening any time we spend with Deaf people as long as we stay aware. It is always available.

All we need to do is bring our awareness to begin.

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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is a never-ending journey, especially for those interpreters who are learning about a new culture later in life. Marlene Elliott uses her own observations of call and response patterns to explore Deaf and hearing cultural norms regarding the phrase “I’m sorry.”

I’ve been interpreting professionally for 25 years. I like to think I’m reasonably good at what I do but from time to time something will dawn on me about ASL or Deaf culture that I’ve never known or realized before. How embarrassing! After all this time there are fundamental things I don’t know about the language I use and the culture I participate in. At the same time, how exciting! My learning is never done.

For me, I know my best teachers are the Deaf people who tolerate me so patiently, despite my many miscues. Not only have I made many mistakes, I’ve had to learn “how to learn” the Deaf way – by trusting my own eyes, really see what is in front of me and make sense of it. Then, because I’m hearing, I have to check it out with Deaf people.


This past year I realized something else about Deaf culture that I completely missed before and it really made me blush. I did what I usually do in these moments – I went to Deaf people I know and trust and ran my observation by them to see if I was noticing correctly. So far, everyone has affirmed this observation.

What I noticed is simply this:

ASL has expected patterns of exchange that I was never formally taught.  One basic pattern, which is critically important to master, calls for signing SORRY at specific points in a conversation in order to affirm the relationship during a time of differences. After the SORRY the rest of the interaction can proceed; without it, the relationship feels awkward or can even be derailed completely. This SORRY in ASL has a different use and meaning than sorry in English.


As I approached writing about my observation I looked in journals for articles about the role and function of apology in a variety of cultures and about call and response structures in dialogic languages. I found plenty of articles on both. I’m keenly aware that in the hearing world credibility comes from science, research, and academics so it was natural for me to go there – I’m hearing. But I also know that in the Deaf world credibility comes from Deaf people and from Deaf experience. There is no higher authority. If I am to write credibly about trusting my own eyes, examining what I see and consulting Deaf people, what does it mean if I then turn around and cite hearing experts on other cultures or languages? Isn’t it enough that Deaf people say so? In the end, I have to believe it is. Every culture defines its own source and structure for credibility. If I’m going to be in the Deaf culture, then surely I can practice this tenet when I’m writing about it.

What’s the Word For That?

In the hearing world we know what is real and not real by what has a label. If there isn’t a label for something, it usually isn’t legitimate.  We love our labels! They explain so much. They give us a guide for how to think, feel, and act. It is part of our culture.

When I first began my interpreter training I was encouraged by my teachers to get involved with the Deaf World. They told me that “hanging out with Deaf people” was the best way to learn. They also admonished me to be careful because Deaf people had a way of expecting too much from others, of being dependent in an unhealthy way. “Be careful of your boundaries,” I was warned.

Around this time, researchers studying Deaf culture reported that RECIPROCITY was a primary feature of Deaf culture. Deaf people practicing RECIPROCITY support one another by contributing to the common good, not by only giving to those who have given to them or as a direct repayment to specific individuals. The same behaviors that I was warned to guard myself against were now explained and celebrated. Having a label allowed hearing people to re-frame them. Deaf people weren’t asking to be taken care of; they were inviting hearing people to participate in the common pool of mutual aid.

In my observations of difficult interactions between Deaf and hearing people I often see that when hearing people have a label for something, it is much easier to go along with what the Deaf people are doing. When we don’t have a label, we can have a tendency to stiffen up, to resist, and to end up in conflict.

I encourage all of us hearing people to recognize this tendency, know that it’s cultural, and realize that the Deaf World doesn’t feel the same need for labels to make their culture and their behavior legitimate so let’s take it easy on each other. Deaf people may not know what something is called but they sure know when it doesn’t feel right. We can trust them to guide us.

Culture Clash

Part One – be sure and take your turn!

We know that ASL is more interactive than English at most levels of register. This is well documented in linguistic research and confirmed by our own experience. The most formal ASL lecture will include interactive features that would be unthinkable in a formal English lecture. We also have plenty of proof that ASL is also more interactive in less formal settings. We know these required responses in casual conversation by their label – back channel feedback. If these features are absent in a conversation it is a noticeable absence, one that can have a serious meaning – refusing to engage, a certain kind of coldness or at best a show of cultural incompetence.

This need to engage in dialogue, this need to perform our part in any exchange is a hallmark of ASL. In dialogic languages the need for specific responses to specific kinds of stimulus is known as Call and Response. ASL, like any dialogic language, has standard Call and Response structures.

While these structures are relatively rare in American mainstream culture, a number of sub-cultures do have strong Call and Response patterns. Most people are familiar with at least a few. Black church has a strong Call and Response component where the responses come as individuals pepper the talk with affirmative encouragement. Catholic Mass has a highly scripted Call and Response component. 12-step meetings have short bursts of Call and Response exchanges during readings and introductions. Also, the military also has highly scripted Call and Response structures.

One thing we probably all know about Call and Response patterns is that we are keenly aware if there is a failure in the response. Anyone who has been to a workshop, meeting or seminar has had this experience. The person opening the session gives the call, “Good morning!” The required response from the participants is “good morning.” If the response is too weak, the call will be issued again with more emphasis. Normally more people will help with the second response, it meets expectations, and the event can begin. On the rare occasion that the second response is also too weak, instructions may follow and an emphatic call will be given for the third try. I have only rarely seen the third call fail because everyone is aware that the properly enthusiastic “good morning,” has to be delivered by the participants for the event to proceed. To refuse a third time would be more than awkward.

In spoken English I always know when I’m supposed to respond. I may not be able to explain why, but I recognize a call when I hear it. Having the label Call and Response has helped me also tune in to this aspect in ASL because I may not always recognize a call. At times when Deaf people repeat the same thing they’ve just said, but with more emphasis, I now ask myself, “is there something they’ve called for that I’ve failed to provide?”           

Part Two – How sorry is SORRY?

Every culture has it’s own role and function for apologies. In mainstream America there are generally two uses for the phrase, “I’m sorry.” The most common is an admission of guilt. It is an expression of a personal failing and fault. It means I admit I did something wrong and I will personally take responsibility for it. The second is an expression of sympathy, usually reserved for a serious loss or trauma.

Of course, other cultures have very different meanings for the phrase “I’m sorry,” and different understandings of apology. In Great Britain, when one person bumps into another the person who is bumped says sorry. In Japan there are many uses for apology and Japanese people tend to apologize frequently as ways saving face and reinforcing social status or hierarchy.

So what does SORRY mean in ASL? My observation is that it affirms my relationship with you over whatever else is happening. It means that somehow we will solve this problem together. It does not mean I did something wrong, it just means I acknowledge that this doesn’t feel good and I will work it out with you.

When is an apology called for in the Deaf World? This part is tricky for me. I know it when I see it now but I’m not sure my description will satisfy anyone. Probably the best way to understand it is to use your own eyes, notice where it occurs and check it out with Deaf people. I know it is unscripted. As far as I can tell, it is based more on a feeling, a kind of discord, or a type of interaction, than on a specific set of words or signs. There is something between us that feels bad – a conflict, a misunderstanding, or a difference of perspective. It can even be as simple as disappointing someone, even though their expectations might not have been my responsibility.

What happens when SORRY isn’t delivered at the expected point in a Call and Response exchange in the Deaf World? As in any other culture, the call is offered again with greater emphasis. The story, or “complaint” is repeated with more emotion. And if the apology is still not delivered, then what? In this case an explanation of what is wrong here is usually amped up. The problem in the relationship is now stated explicitly, in detail, often slowly, and with emphasis. If the apology is still not delivered this is a worst-case scenario. As a final attempt to save the relationship someone will probably be instructed to apologize. If the apology still isn’t delivered the relationship may be beyond repair. The connection would then be broken in a fundamental way.

Now What?

I can use this observation to continue my noticing and checking with Deaf people.

I’m may overuse my SORRY, like a child discovering a new word, until I know exactly where it fits. This is a natural part of incorporating a new skill. It’s ok.

I can continue to ask questions. I can look at where we, the sign language interpreting profession, have a need to use our SORRY in our collaborating with Deaf people. Have there been times when we have not said SORRY when we needed to? How has it affected our relationships?

Of course, my big question is what else don’t I know? What other mistakes have I been making without ever realizing it? Are there ways for me to improve my noticing, or inviting Deaf friends to tell me when I’m off? Can I be humble and know that corrections are an act of friendship and love, not a criticism of who I am? Can I be thankful that there is always more to learn even when I’m really embarrassed?