Sunday, April 25, 2010

Identity and Communication in the Deaf Community

My name is Bailey Bankston. I am a student in the Interpreter Training Program at Troy University. Right now I am taking an Introduction to Interpreting course, for the final project each student is required to present a research project that they have been working on outside of class work. My topic is “Identity and Communication in Deaf Culture”. I will spend a few minutes on defining Identity and then move on to communication. My focus will be contact language involving American sign language and English.

Identity and Labeling

Identity is how we see ourselves. It is what we express ourselves to be and the importance we put on ourselves and our place in this world. An example of this is that of college students. College students do not want to be called ‘kids’, they prefer to be referred to as ‘adults’. Why is that? After entering college, a student takes on a lot of adult responsibilities. Over the four plus years that they spend in college they mature. ‘Kids’ are immature, whereas ‘adults’ are responsible. It makes sense then that they would prefer a more professional title. A label is the tag that is put on a person or group of people. A lot of labels are based on race and other immediate visual clues as to who a person is.

As I mentioned earlier, the way a person is referred to and the way they refer to themselves can tell a lot about how they are viewed. In hearing culture the politically correct way to refer to someone with less hearing than yourself is to call them ‘hearing impaired’. What is wrong with this label? First take a look at the Deaf view. The majority of Deaf people do not see themselves as ‘impaired’. They do not believe that they need to be fixed. Since that is the case then the word ‘impaired’ should not be used as a label. What is the correct term to use? Hard of Hearing or Deaf/deaf. In the book, “So You Want to be an Interpreter” there is a short discussion on the differences between Deaf, with a capital ‘d’ and deaf, with a lowercase ‘d’. The following quote comes from that discussion:

From a Deaf perspective, an individual can refer to himself or herself as Deaf while having enough residual hearing to converse on the telephone. Conversely, someone who has a profound hearing loss may refer to himself or herself as hard of hearing. How, you might ask, is that possible?

When people refer to themselves as Deaf, they are usually indicating the presence of a hearing loss (ranging from mild to profound), a preference to socialize with members of the Deaf community, and a desire to adhere to Deaf cultural values and norms. When people refer to themselves as hard of hearing, they are usually indicating a hearing loss (ranging from mild to profound), and a preference to identify with hearing cultural norms and values.[1]

As can be seen, the way a person identifies themselves is important to knowing how those on the outside should view them. The way a person identifies themselves will also determine their mode of communication. A deaf individual may identify more with hearing culture or with Deaf culture; the culture they identify with will determine their mode of communication. Those who identify to hearing culture may use a more English based sign language, whereas those who relate to Deaf culture will use ASL. When the two cultures and their languages overlap, contact language is created.

Contact Language

Contact language is the result of two languages colliding. The result of this collision can be heard or seen at anytime in any setting. Those who live in the international dorm on campus will see this happen time and time again. Most of the students who live there speak in broken English, even with those who speak their native tongue. In the book Language Contact in the American Deaf Community, the authors, Ceil Lucas and Clayton Vali, discussed a survey of done in 1990 of students in an undergraduate linguistic course. The students were asked what they thought contact language was as it relates to ASL and English. One student had this to say, “Contact Signing is mixed ASL and English at the same time…ASL is a language and has structure while contact sign has a mixed structure and system. It is a mixed language.”[2] When contact between languages occurs the vocabulary, grammar, and structure of one language merges with the vocabulary, grammar, and structure of the other language. I will try and answer two questions: 1. How does contact language occur in ASL? and 2. What are the results called?

First, how does it happen? There are 10 ways that Lucas and Vali came up with. A couple of them are Deaf bilinguals with hearing bilinguals, Hearing bilinguals with deaf English signers.

Hearing children of Deaf adults will possibly learn ASL in the home and English outside the home, while Deaf children of hearing parents will learn English in the home and eventually learn ASL, PSE, SE, etc. in the school system. It all depends on how they are raised, but at some point in time the spoken language will come in contact with the visual language. Marilyn Daniels, in her book Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy, explains how this happens in schools.

“When Deaf people begin their formal education they need to learn written languages. The first written language they are usually taught in school is the predominant language in their own country. In the United States they would learn English. Sign language would be the currency for teaching English. To teach English with sign language you must put the ASL words in English word order, losing the ASL structure and syntax. When this is done the language you have created is an artificial language. Although it serves its function as a teaching tool, it is not a true language.”[3]

When contact happens aspects of both languages will change. ASL has its own syntax and grammar and when it comes in contact with English the structure is changed and the result is contact sign.

Second, what is the result of the contact? The overall term is SSS (Sign Supported Speech). Underneath this there are several different kinds: Rochester Method, Seeing Essential English (SEE1), Signing Exact English (SEE2), Signed English (SE), and lastly Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE). I do not want to focus the individual aspects of each, but their overall differences from their mother language ASL and English, for now I am going to only discuss SE (Signed English).

Signed English was first created in the 1980’s. It was thought that young students should not use ASL for several reasons. “So You Want to be an Interpreter”[4] lists four reasons:

1. ASL is not used in over 90% of homes of Deaf children in programs for the Deaf;

2. It is not possible to simultaneously speak English and sign ASL;

3. ASL has no written form; and

4. People in the United States do not readily learn second languages

In Signed English every English word has a corresponding sign and the conversation is signed using English grammar/word order. It is easily seen how Signed English is a contact language, it takes ASL and changes it to match another language, English.

It is easy to see how contact sign occurs when a person identifies themselves with hearing culture and English yet are deaf and have to use a signed language. They use signs put to English syntax and grammar. How a person identifies themselves will determine their mode of communication; how a person communicates will tell others how they identify themselves.

If you have any more questions about this topic I would be more than happy to try and answer them. Also, my resources are listed in the box to the side.


Daniels, M. (2001). Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Humphrey, J. H., & Alcorn, B. J. (2007). So You Want to be An Interpreter: An intorduction to Sign Language Interpreting (Fourth ed.). Renton, Washington: H & H Publishing.

Lucas, C., & Valli, C. (1992). Language Contact in the American Deaf Community. New York: Academic Press.

[1] (Humphrey & Alcorn, 2007, p. 85)

[2] (Lucas & Valli, 1992, p. xiii)

[3] (Daniels, 2001, p. 13)

[4] (Humphrey & Alcorn, 2007, p. 95)