If I Can Read It, Why Is She Signing?

29 Mar

Here’s a question you probably haven’t asked yourself: If the speech is closed-captioned, why is there a sign language interpreter standing there? It’s not just a work program, the interpreter is actually signing something different than what the speaker and the closed captioning is saying.

The interpreter is taking English and translating it into American Sign Language (ASL). “Wait, Marcus, isn’t that the same thing?” No, it’s not; ASL is actually a different language, with different syntax than standard American English. The individual signs are directly translated into English words, but you put them together differently. As the Linguistics Society will tell you:

To change an English declarative sentence to a question, one changes the word order, sometimes adding a form of the verb “do”… In ASL, a declarative and the corresponding yes-no question consist of the same signs in the same order. The difference between a statement and a question is indicated on the face: when a yes-no question is signed, the eyebrows are raised. In an ASL conversation… Grammatical information, such as the difference between statements and questions, is conveyed on the face. Signers get all the information conveyed by the hands through their peripheral vision.

So as an example, if the speaker is saying, “What did she buy yesterday?” The interpreter can sign, “She buy yesterday what?” This seems unusual, but not if you understand deaf culture. Kids learn English by hearing it. So what if you can’t hear? You have to learn each individual word, sign by sign, and it takes longer. Deaf students take longer to learn because they had a two or three year delay in learning the language. In deaf schools, you learn Sign Exact English (SEE), which takes every word and spells it out as it is said. The students are taught to talk in SEE as well as sign it, but once you leave the classroom, when deaf kids are talking to each other, they used shorthand. They didn’t use every exact word and ASL was born.

In 1982, I was one of the first kids in the US to have closed captioning on my TV. We bought a special TV at Sears that had a little turn knob that you could switch to pick up the captioning. My mom was deaf; she lost her hearing when she was nine due to German measles (Rubella). So she learned English and could speak it perfectly, without slur in a Midwestern accent. Since she did not go to deaf school, she had to learn to read lips. Which meant you couldn’t figure out she was deaf… until you turned your head.

So if the deaf learn English, why not depend on the captioning? After all, they use text messaging all the time! Remember that deaf kids have a two-to-three year deficit on learning English. That means in the fifth grade, they’re reading at the third-grade level, and new concepts take longer. So if they complete high school, they might still be reading at the middle school level. I still have my mom’s “Holy Bible for the Hearing Impaired,” mostly because she wrote in it as she read it, but it’s interesting because they translated the Bible into simplified English so that Deaf Christians could understand it better.

So that’s the reason! The interpreters are actually translating the words into another language. Of course, I didn’t become familiar with deaf culture until I was 12, and after my mom died, haven’t really kept with it. So it’s entirely possible I’m missing something. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below! My writing isn’t that complicated, but it’s not 8th grade level, but why don’t pick up one of my books and find out! But if you have difficulty with long books, download one of my stories for free! You’ll be glad you did.

One Response to “If I Can Read It, Why Is She Signing?”

  1. Silk Cords March 31, 2021 at 7:58 am #

    This was a really informative article. I had a vague knowledge that ASL was essentially a sort of “shorthand” but not to that extent. I’d also assumed that the sign language interpreter was present for people physically in the audience or at home without closed caption (which is super rare anymore, but still happens). Being from California, I admit to assuming some virtue signaling also factored into their presence at press conferences along with their legitimate purpose.

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