Language vs Communication

I have been working in the disability sector for a long time. My expertise is working with deafness, obviously.  Mostly I have worked with people from the Deaf community. Usually these people have been born deaf or lost their hearing early in life before they had started to learn language. Many of these people struggle with English. It is not that they could not use English, rather it is that their deafness has made it difficult to learn English as it is spoken. Often they can make themselves understood in English, and very well at that, but they make significant grammatical errors.

But hearing people who are not knowledgeable about the issues of early deafened individuals often pass judgement on these deaf people. They see them as slow and incapable. They see them as uneducated. Some of these deaf people are native Auslan users. Even though they are strong with Auslan they still make grammatical errors in English. Because of this they are often over looked for jobs and promotions. Often they stay at base jobs for many years never achieving promotions. Meanwhile hearing colleagues who might have been there a lot less longer pass them by.

It is really unfair. I have always been very angry that the hearing world cannot overlook grammatical errors when meaning is obviously clear. To me it has always been important that a person is able to communicate what they need or want and be understood. If that can be done any grammatical errors, even spelling errors, are really unimportant. Unfortunately I am in the minority.

Consider these two examples which I have taken from a web page that is discussing what we shall call Deaf English:

“Good one, and I DO have good reason here… Almost all deafies who learn English through English instead of ASL. That’s the MAJOR problem!!! Deafies’ natural language happened to be ASL. Problem is that they were never educated about ASL in the first place so that they can better understand English! There was so much opposition in hearing world on ASL from pre school to even in college! Hearing thinks its BAD IDEA or WRONG to teach deafies English with ASL… “

Why do I think this way. About 10 years ago, I learned what ASL really is, I dropped my jaw and realize that it is a LANGUAGE PERIOD. ASL has its own rules, syntacs, structures, etc. Same with English language. Unfortunately Deafies just happen to use these rules naturally and not even know it. If they had knew there is such thing in ASL, they can better compare English and ASL and will always say ohhh got it… It rarely happened.

What you have just read is entirely comprehensible. It is clearly written by a person who is intelligent. It is written by someone who has a good grasp of why many people who are deaf struggle with the English Language. I have highlighted in red some of the more glaring grammatical mistakes. My question is – Do they really matter? What the individuals has written is fully comprehensible. In my view that should be the only thing that we judge.

In reply to this another deaf person wrote:

I don’t know ASL well…
and still my grammar is messed up.

It is just that I didn’t hear much of what people said,
and all of my life… I didn’t have closed caption tv.
And the schools I went to… they didn’t taught me well…
I always made C’s and D’s

Some of the more pedantic people who are experts in English might find other areas of this paragraph with errors. They might even say that the language use in the paragraph is immature. BUT – Does it matter? In my view NO! What matters is this person has communicated a complex concept effectively. They have done it in a way that is readily understood. We are in no doubt of their message. YET, they will be judged for this and even overlooked when it comes to applying for jobs and promotions.

I well recall a friend of mine who got a job quite high up in an organisation. She was deaf and made minor grammatical errors such as you see above. I had a Board member of the woman’s organisation contact me. They were concerned about her writing because it made them look unprofessional. I asked if  there was anything that the deaf woman wrote that could not be understood. The Board member admitted that this was not the case. They admitted that everything that my friend wrote made sense, despite the minor errors.  All she could say was – “… but its not professional!”

Sadly, the hearing world is not only ignorant of the struggles many deaf people have with English grammar but they are also unforgiving. Rather than look at the skills and the talents of the deaf person they judge them on their English grammar. Don’t get me wrong. I get that grammar is important and is often crucial to meaning but this is not always the case. What is important in the end is that communication happens and everyone is understood. That is my view anyway.

But it is not just hearing people that are language snobs. There are people in the Deaf community who are too. Often times I have seen members of the Deaf community mock people over their use of Auslan. Like it or not the MAJORITY of people who are members of the Deaf community learn Auslan as their second language. There are very few PURE users of Auslan in the Deaf community. As it is with English there are language elitist in the Deaf community who will mock, ridicule and even exclude people who are Deaf who they feel do not meet their lofty standards.

Most people that I know who are Deaf who sign use a combination of Auslan, English and what is known as Sim Com. Sim Com is where people speak and use sign language at the same time. Often you will see Deaf people use a sign in the wrong context. For example you have the sign for affair. Affair in English can have two meanings. One can have meaning for when a person cheats on their romantic partner, as in having an affair. The  second can mean a persons or an organisations business or personal matters such as – I am putting my affairs in order or the Department of Consumer Affairs. Yet English, being the daft language it is, uses one word to mean both of these things. It all depends on context.

In Auslan there are two separate signs to represent the the different contexts of the English word affair – One will be the sign to signify one is cheating on their partner and the other will be the sign for business. Yet users of Auslan quite often just use the one sign for affair. Which is the sign for cheating on your partner.

So one might say Office of Consumer Affairs and use the sign where the tips of the fingers of the right hand tap the closed fist of the left hand twice. Contextually one might visualise a department where consumers are all having affairs. The point is that for many Auslan users for whom Auslan is their second language, English is never far from the surface.

I have many deaf friends who use Auslan. I have to be honest, very few of them are absolutely proficient. And if I am totally honest many use Sim Com to a degree. They may not actually speak, but they mouth the words in English order. They might sign – Me – Last Saturday – went football – See Essendon vs Crows – But mouth a perfectly grammatical English sentence .. “I went to The football on Saturday to see Essendon and the Crows.” 

If I am really honest, most of my Auslan interpreters also use Sim Com to a degree as well. They do this because they know that English is my first language and by providing me with English cues it enhances my understanding. They probably adjust their interpreting to meet my requirements. Whereas if they were to interpret for a native signer they may actually use close to native Auslan. It all depends on the customer I guess.

The point I make is that even with this hybrid of Auslan, English, mis-signs, broken English or broken Auslan we all manage to communicate and swimmingly at that. That is all that matters in my mind. I have worked with too many people who have been so language deprived that expressing themselves is a daily challenge.

Life is too short to be worried  about fickle rules that are often pointless when communication is obviously clear. I understand there is a need to preserve native Auslan in all its beauty and English as well for that matter. It would be a tragedy if the best of these languages were lost. That said, it is not an excuse for language snobbery and exclusion. Communication is the key and we all need to come down from our high horse and remember that.

And on that note I leave you with this quote. Replace English with Auslan and speak with write and the meaning is just as valid:

Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?

Clarence Darrow

 

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There’s Something About Andy

English is my first language. I bastardise the language everyday. I misspell, misplace and misgrammar virtually every aspect of it. English is simply the most absurd and ridiculous language to learn and use. It has a myriad of pedantic and unnecessary rules. It has words that sound the same  but mean different things. I am having a sale/sail today is one simple example. We have to be in context to know what someone means. Otherwise we are left to guess whether I am likely to drown or proffer a number of bargains to buyers.  And that is the crux of English, it often just makes no sense. Consider these examples taken from https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/learning-english-hard.html

One of the reasons why English is known for being difficult is because it’s full of contradictions. There are innumerable examples of conundrums such as:

  • There is no ham in hamburger.
  • Neither is there any apple nor pine in pineapple.
  • If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • “Overlook” and “oversee” have opposite meanings, while “look” and “see” mean the same thing.

So anyway English is open to be made fun of and I make fun of it – All the time!

The thing is that when I take the piss out of the English language the whole of England does not come down on me. I don’t get crucified for daring to challenge or bastardise the language. People just chortle or roll their eyes and carry on with their lives. BUT if I were to make fun of Auslan, which is my second language, you could bet that a large slice of the Deaf community would come down on me. Why is this so?

The Deaf community is sensitive and extremely protective of Auslan. Indeed Deaf people the world over are as equally protective of their sign languages. This is understandable because for many years hearing people have sought to oppress sign languages through suppression.

The HEARING world typically  wants Deaf people to assimilate. To do that Deaf people had to communicate just like everyone else. It couldn’t be done if they were using that damn fangled hand talk could it? By golly they would only be able to understand themselves and what good would that be? And sign language is so graphic it’s akin to sin. We cant have that can we? The Deaf, they’re dumb you know? – So let’s  make them as much like hearing people as we can so that they will be less dumbsome. Believe it or not these are all historical reasons that you will find as to why sign language had to be suppressed.

Attempt of the hearing world to suppress sign languages has caused much damage to Deaf people. It has often led to language deprivation. Language deprivation impacts on learning, development, relationships, mental health and so on. We in the Deaf community are all very aware of the damage the suppression of sign language has caused. More importantly, the suppression of sign language impinges on basic human rights.

This is why  Deaf people are so fiercely protective of their language and community. It is also why they are so extremely cynical and defensive towards the motives of many hearing people. Especially when it comes to hearing people using and abusing sign language. This is what Andy Dexterity has found recently.

But who is Andy Dexterity? Dexterity is an artist, and a damn fine one at that. His art is unique because it fuses contemporary art, particularly music, with a combination of mime gesture and sign language. He is really creative and great to watch if you like his style of art. He is also much acclaimed and has won numerous awards. He apparently advises the Wiggles on what is known as sign dance. He  clearly loves sign language and seems to have an aim to fuse sign language as much as possible with mainstream art. To learn more about Dexterity click on this link – https://andydexterity.com/about/

Below is an example of his art:

 

 

 

Recently Dexterity gave a Ted Talk. His talk was a combination of English and samples of sign language. He has put the Deaf community offside with this talk because he appears to have made himself a spokesperson of the language.  Above all his Ted Talk was not accessible.

I have watched his Ted talk. He uses signs mainly to make a point. He often breaks rules. For example at the start he signs “My name is A N D Y ..” He finger spells his name. As he finger spells he pronounces each letter separately.  The Deaf community would not do that. Rather they would finger spell their name then mouth/say their name once they had completed spelling it. They would not mouth/say each letter of their name separately.

I fancy that Dexterity has chosen to pronounce each letter of his name, not to break rules, but rather to show his audience that each letter that he is forming with his hands represents the letter he pronounces. He has done this, in my view, because he knows there are people in his audience who do not know sign language and it is his way of showing them that sign language can represent each letter of the alphabet on the hands. It makes sense to me but members of the Deaf community have become annoyed about this as they feel he is misappropriating Auslan.

He also seems to have upset the Deaf community in how he portrays sign language. In his Ted Talk he signs in a way that is almost childlike. He has done so to engage with his audience and pique their interest. In doing so he has come across to many in the Deaf community as infantilising their language. It is a little bit cringe-worthy. Especially as the Deaf community have fought so hard to have Auslan taken seriously. He started by talking and signing the dialogue below:

“Hello hello …

Welcome to the Tedx Sydney show

My name is A N D Y (finger spells and says each letter)

You’re name is what?

(Cups ear) Pleased to meet you

How are you? How are you?

Thank you I’m good too

Let’s start, come on dance and sing

Let’s all sign

And have a really good time.

It really was a bit Play Schoolish.  This probably is not surprising given that Dexterity advises and choreographs sign songs for the Wiggles.  But seriously this is probably the first introduction to sign language that many in the audience have had and what must they have thought? Many would have been thinking it was a cute and sweet way to communicate.  It was not the best way to start something as serious as a Ted Talk that had a heavy focus on sign language. It is understandable that many in the Deaf community felt patronised and mocked by Dexterity’s introduction. I am sure that was far from his intent.

In his talk Dexterity explains his art is made up of  mime, gesture and sign language that are forms of physical communication. Then I pretty much get lost because he speaks and just adds a sign here or there. There was no interpreter and no captioning so it is very frustrating.

It galls me that he is representing Deaf people and I cannot  understand all he is saying. It leaves me flat and more than a little angry. A bit of lipreading and I understand some of what he says, “… 5% of the worlds population have a disability ,  360 million  have something or other, oh my goodness, oh my goodness, … thumbs up you are best …. ” I am sure the rest of his speech was thrilling but that was all I could get so about there I gave up.

Can I just say Andy .. Please make sure everything you do is accessible .. especially if its about Deaf people and especially so because you are the Ambassador of  Deaf Australia.

I have been following the outrage against Andy. Some people were really angry. Said one, “.. the more I see of him the more angry I get.”  Many are frustrated with him and the reasons are quite extensive. They include:

  • He makes glaring Auslan grammatical errors.
  • He speaks and signs
  • Sign dance doesn’t fully interpret a song
  • He misappropriates Auslan
  • He doesn’t use Deaf people as part of his message
  • He mocks the language by making it seem infantile

And the big one HE ISN’T DEAF and has no right to use Auslan for his own personal gain. This last one maybe so, but when the Deaf community and it’s stakeholders started using Auslan for commercial gain those people who invested in it, Andy being one, gained a stake in it. It is an unfortunate spin-off of commercialisation.

I will be honest. I am not quite sure why people are as angry as they are. I see a lot of benefits from having someone like Dexterity on board. As Deaf Australia alluded in their media statement about the outrage towards Dexterity, he is a bridge to the mainstream in away that many of us cannot be. His style, his talent, his networks and the fact that his work brings so much attention to sign language can potentially mean many more people will go out there and learn Auslan. Some will become interpreters. Others will simply learn it and spread the word. Dexterity with his talent and networks can benefit the Deaf community in many ways.

It is equally true that we have many Deaf people that can have a huge impact if  Deaf Australia were to appoint them as Ambassadors. Actor Sofya Gollan, for example, arguably could have just as much impact as Dexterity. Being Deaf she would be an excellent representative too. We have Colin Allen and Dean Barton Smith – Both who have enormous reach and impact. And what about our very own Alastair McEwin of Disability Commissioner fame, although he maybe conflicted.

There are many that could fill the role alongside Dexterity. Let’s hope that Deaf Australia will consider the breadth of talent among Deaf people that exists within Australia who could be brilliant ambassadors. They certainly would be great role models for Dexterity and lead him down the right path.

If Dexterity is going to be an Ambassador for the Deaf community he has to spread a message that is relevant and accepted by the people that he is representing. It’s important that he consults and takes on board the feedback that they are providing.

I feel the degree of anger towards him is not all warranted. He certainly has made mistakes, that Ted Talk being among the worst. That said, in my view, he has much to offer. I hope the Deaf community can find a way to accept him, work closely with him and help him spread a message that will promote Auslan and bring more people into the Auslan fold. Hopefully people will not cut off their nose to spite their face.