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December 11, 2013 7:06 AM   Subscribe

The sign language interpreter at the funeral of Nelson Mandela apparently... wasn't. If you thought the strangest thing out of the Nelson Mandela funeral was the byplay between President Obama, the first lady, and the Danish Prime Minister, think again. Deaf advocacy groups, led by the Deaf Federation of South Africa are expressing anger today over the appearance onstage of a supposed sign language interpreter who apparently knew nothing of sign language and was just making nonsense gestures.
posted by Naberius (302 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why on earth would anyone knowingly do that? How awful.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:10 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Even better was that he appeared before at the ANC electoral congress last year and DeafSA complained about him back then as well.
posted by PenDevil at 7:10 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


What I find interesting is that apparently some of his gestures actually do make sense. For all we know he could be signing a spectacular dish or the plot of the next Dan Brown novel in all that gobbledegook.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:11 AM on December 11, 2013


Someone posted this to facebook, and the comments were all lol, hilarious. I know the person didn't intend to be horribly discriminatory, but making fun of deaf people, hahaha made my blood boil. How about a fake wheelchair ramp at the funeral, or braille that's a bunch of meaningless dots, or some balsa wood crutches? Man, that video would be totally hot on youtube.
posted by theora55 at 7:12 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


Is is possible that he was just signing a different sign language? There are many different sign languages, and they vary significantly by country.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:12 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


"That's some fine Secret Service work there, Lou".
posted by Optamystic at 7:13 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'd like to think that the Deaf Federation of South Africa would be familiar with all the languages that a South African sign language interpreter might be using.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:13 AM on December 11, 2013 [67 favorites]


I don't think there are any sign languages that do not use facial expressions.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:14 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


This might be the most insane thing I've ever heard.

Like, honestly. You have headlines like "gymnastics coach accused of tattooing teenage girl" and you have wars and people killing each other day, but there's something about this that's just so...unnecessary and terrible with absolutely no upside, like, none at all, it's just completely beyond comprehension. What on earth. It's rare that news stories leave me completely flabbergasted, but "dude fakes sign language during Nelson Mandela's memorial" is...wow. I don't even have words.
posted by phunniemee at 7:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [36 favorites]


This video has a comparison with the faker and a real SL interpreter who the SABC used.
posted by PenDevil at 7:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Interesting that the real interpreter essentially never stops moving, while the fake is constantly refolding his arms... which is obviously a terrible rest position for a person using their hands.
posted by smackfu at 7:21 AM on December 11, 2013


The signer has apparently taken to his twitter account to defend himself.
posted by ominous_paws at 7:21 AM on December 11, 2013 [55 favorites]


Someone posted this to facebook, and the comments were all lol, hilarious. I know the person didn't intend to be horribly discriminatory, but making fun of deaf people, hahaha made my blood boil. How about a fake wheelchair ramp at the funeral, or braille that's a bunch of meaningless dots, or some balsa wood crutches? Man, that video would be totally hot on youtube.

I wouldn't jump to conclusions here. Of course it isn't funny that deaf people had to watch this guy, but the sheer insanity required for a person to scam their way into a sign language interpretation job with no idea what they're doing, knowing that they will be seen by MILLIONS of people, and just shrugging and saying "yeah, sure, I can do that, no problem!"? That is so outrageous that I can't help but find it funny, just because... what was he THINKING?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:21 AM on December 11, 2013 [58 favorites]


Reality is lapping Saturday Night Live. Mind, blown.
posted by Etrigan at 7:23 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


My thought is that he was signing a different sign language, but only did the hand gestures, not the facial expressions. When they say "he didn't make sense with his signs, even" they specifically reference "South African Sign Language" each time.
posted by symbioid at 7:23 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, it's Catherine Tate levels of insanity.

It is 100% outrageous.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:23 AM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


This is just absurd; where's Garrett Morris when you need him?

"OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT ..."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:23 AM on December 11, 2013 [20 favorites]


The signer has apparently taken to his twitter account to defend himself.

I actually took this as real and part of an elaborate troll until I realized it's just a parody account. I was impressed for a moment that someone would double-down on that level of weirdness.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:25 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Is it strange that we even have live signing anymore, when, presumably, you could have a real-time captioning system through mobile devices, TV, etc., in the user's language?
posted by Mid at 7:27 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


AH - it also brought this to mind.

I mean we've all bullshitted a little on our CV at some point, but this guy really took it to the next level.
posted by ominous_paws at 7:27 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


(I mean live signing at events, not live signing between people having a conversation.)
posted by Mid at 7:28 AM on December 11, 2013


My understanding is that a lot of deaf people consider sign language to be their main language, and could understand it more easily that reading captioning.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:29 AM on December 11, 2013 [26 favorites]


Is it strange that we even have live signing anymore, when, presumably, you could have a real-time captioning system through mobile devices, TV, etc., in the user's language?

Signed languages are languages. For an audience of deaf South Africans, SASL is "the user's language."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [72 favorites]


you could have a real-time captioning system through mobile devices, TV, etc., in the user's language?

I'm not an expert, but I think Signing is the user's language.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


Also, most captioning systems are atrocious.
posted by ominous_paws at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [17 favorites]


Now there are three. There are three answers of Mid's question.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2013 [26 favorites]


PenDevil: "Even better was that he appeared before at the ANC electoral congress last year and DeafSA complained about him back then as well."

That makes this doubly strange. Maybe the guy has political or family connections? How else would he keep getting these gigs.
posted by aerotive at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


By "user's language" I only mean a written language that the user can read (i.e., in the context of international events), not that signing is not itself a language or the primary language.
posted by Mid at 7:33 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have they tried turning him off and turning him back on again?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:34 AM on December 11, 2013 [31 favorites]


Regarding the whole "maybe it's another language" thing -- He is a South African, hired by South African officials, to translate at an offical South African event, but he is not using any language know to South African Deaf people. Even if he is using Estonian Sign Language or some legitimate language, it is not appropriate and he should not have been given the job. Moreover, no one has come up to say that they recognize what he is using. I have seen people saying it definately isn't American Sign Language or British Sign Language.
posted by pbrim at 7:34 AM on December 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


I don't know sign language myself but have a friend who's very into it, and I don't know how you'd get far enough to actually learn it without knowing that there are very big differences between languages and that you should not agree to be the sign interpreter in South Africa if what you sign is French or something. "It's just the wrong kind of sign" is like saying "oh well the guy they hired to do the Spanish interpretation is just speaking Swahili". It is just as WTF.
posted by Sequence at 7:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


I can't help but be impressed at the sheer level of Master Ruseman on display here. It's the equivalent of the English-language interpreter just saying, "gribble grabble truckity-wrench ee globbity blobbity glue."

Twice.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:36 AM on December 11, 2013 [18 favorites]


If one can put aside for a moment the entirely understandable outrage of the deaf community it is pretty funny.

It's the stuff of sitcoms for someone cornered by the internal logic of a situation to have to bullshit their way through a technical test in a sensitive or important setting. This is comedy gold. It's the funeral of the most important statesman since Gandhi. 100+ heads of state. And some guy's effectively pulling dance moves next to the speaker.

Fair play to the guy. He keeps a straight face throughout. I'd love to know if he had any self doubts. Was this a jobs for the boys affair cooked up by two people that fundamentally misunderstand sign language? Brilliant.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:38 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


Bogus sign language interpreters are a problem in South Africa, because people who know a few signs try to pass themselves off as interpreters, said Parkin, the principal of the school for the deaf. And those hiring them usually don't sign, so they have no idea that the people they are hiring cannot do the job, she said.

"They advertise themselves as interpreters because they know 10 signs and they can make some quick money," said Parkin. "It is plain and simple abuse of the deaf community, they are taking advantage of the deaf community to make money."

YahooNews
posted by rosswald at 7:39 AM on December 11, 2013 [43 favorites]


By "user's language" I only mean a written language that the user can read (i.e., in the context of international events), not that signing is not itself a language or the primary language.

The spoken language (of course, by "spoken" I mean sign as well) is more intimate than the written language. It's why interpreters in non-sign languages speak into earpieces rather than typing their interpretation out for people to read in real time.
posted by Etrigan at 7:41 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


Thanks rosswald - I wrote a big ol' comment but the bottom line was that I'd love to see more reporting on this. The fact that this guy has been complained about before yet is still getting hired is troubling.

SL can be highly mutable and different dialects can develop, and after reading the original PR I wondered if maybe this was a combination of a different dialect and an inexperienced translator, but it doesn't seem like that's the case. The fact that people are willing to make a quick buck on the back of the Deaf community is shameful.
posted by muddgirl at 7:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


So the church organist gets sick, and is not going to be able to play for several sundays. The minister asks if anyone can play. No one can, so he asks if any one can play any instrument and finally one guy says that he can play the piccolo. The minister says "Well, it's not traditional, but we just need some sort of accompaniment for a few weeks".
So next sunday, the guy shows up with his piccolo and he sucks, just awful. Finally, right in the middle of one of the hymns, a voice is heard shouting "The piccolo player is an asshole!". The minister stops the hymn and asks "Who said that?". No one admits to it, so he says "if the person sitting next to you said that, please point him out". Again, no one says anything. So now he says "If you're the person sitting next to the person sitting next to him, please point him out". No one says anything for a long time, then finally a guy stands up and says "I'm not the person who called the piccolo player an asshole. I'm not the guy sitting next to the guy who called the piccolo player an asshole. In fact, I'm not the person sitting next the person who is next to the person who called the piccolo player an asshole. But I have a question of my own, I want to know who called that asshole a piccolo player!"
posted by 445supermag at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [51 favorites]


For those thinking this was just some kind of misinterpretation:
Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman to be elected to the South African parliament tweeted: "ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off."
posted by adamvasco at 7:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


The fact that people are willing to make a quick buck on the back of the Deaf community is shameful.

Well, sure. But willing to do it at the memorial of one of the greatest statesmen ever ?

That's... Those are brass balls, man.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:48 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


If you imagine this was done on purpose it's ugly & tragic, but look at this dude's face. It's every job interview I've ever had. Idk how he ended up there, but it's probably on a spectrum with me putting Visual Basic on my resume. Imagining how he came to be up there, desperately trying to appear to be doing something--well, that's just comedy in its purest form.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:49 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Maybe...he is a twin.
posted by Gungho at 7:50 AM on December 11, 2013


I have a hard time accepting that he's in over his head - he's done it before! And been complained about! Dude knows what he's doing.
posted by muddgirl at 7:51 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you imagine this was done on purpose it's ugly & tragic, but look at this dude's face. It's every job interview I've ever had. Idk how he ended up there, but it's probably on a spectrum with me putting Visual Basic on my resume. Imagining how he came to be up there, desperately trying to appear to be doing something--well, that's just comedy in its purest form.

I think that explains the first time he got up and waved his hands around pretending to sign, but not the second time.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:51 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


Bogus sign language interpreters are a problem in South Africa, because people who know a few signs try to pass themselves off as interpreters

It's odd because the most common use of sign language interpreters is to interpret for a single deaf person in a room full of hearing folks, usually in an official context. A fake is only going to last a few seconds in that situation.
posted by smackfu at 7:52 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


How about a fake wheelchair ramp at the funeral, or braille that's a bunch of meaningless dots, or some balsa wood crutches? Man, that video would be totally hot on youtube.

In a cafe, Johnny Knoxville picks up a pen and writes like a man possessed.
posted by zippy at 7:53 AM on December 11, 2013 [26 favorites]


From rosswald's link:

"South African sign language covers all of the country's 11 official languages, according to the federation."

Ugh.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:53 AM on December 11, 2013


By "user's language" I only mean a written language that the user can read (i.e., in the context of international events), not that signing is not itself a language or the primary language.

Yeah, so this is possible, and you definitely see it happen in some contexts. Mainly, in my experience, it happens when someone has to throw something together on short notice and there aren't any sign interpreters available, or when something is already getting captioned for video anyway.

As I understand it, most Deaf people prefer an interpreter to captioning given the choice. A good sign interpreter can convey a lot of emphasis and emotional nuance that gets lost in plain text. Deaf people also vary in how easily they can read the local oral language — my understanding is that most Deaf people in the U.S. can get by reading and writing English at least at a basic level, but many aren't really fluent in it. I imagine in countries with a less well-established Deaf education system, the rate of bilingual fluency and literacy is even lower.

And on the other hand, captioning still requires a real live human being to listen and type. The closed-captioning you see on television isn't automatic. (Speech recognition technology is getting better, but it's still nowhere near good enough for that application.) So if you're hiring someone anyway — either an interpreter or a captioner — then opting for an interpreter is friendlier and more inclusive.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:54 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


My first thought about this guy --- especially because he's done this before, and been complained about before --- is, who is he related to? Run through his family, and I'll bet there's a connection to whoever hired him.
posted by easily confused at 7:55 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Surely if your goal is to continue scamming your way through a job, you'd come down with some kind of horrible sickness on the day of the most watched event in decades.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:56 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Or perhaps he's tired of pretending and figured he'd go out with a bang.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"South African sign language covers all of the country's 11 official languages, according to the federation."

Yeah, that's super weird. I wonder if the reporter was like "But but but so how do you know he wasn't just signing in Zulu or Xhosa or Afrikaans, huh?" and the person from the Deaf Federation was like "Well actually...." and then the reporter got confused or garbled their explanation.

posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:59 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


...it's probably on a spectrum with me putting Visual Basic on my resume.

I think it's more on a spectrum that has Chevy Chase in Fletch and Mr. Bean on one end, and…..I Just Don't Know on the other end.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe he feels that upsetting a few deaf people is not a big enough deal in his social climate to lose him his job/contract. And since this is the second time, I worry he may be right.
posted by gilrain at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2013 [11 favorites]


No one's stated the obvious here: it's offensive because to a lot of hearing people, Sign is just a bunch of meaningless gestures. I could totally imagine some ignorant official saying "he's waving his arms around, good enough". Sign languages are real languages that deserve just as much linguistic respect as spoken languages. It seems really bizarre they'd use a known huckster in such a high profile international event.

I didn't know anything about South African Sign so I took to Wikipedia. The main article isn't very good, but it does note that Sign is given some affordance in the famously inclusive South African constitution. Both it and the list of Sign Languages article say that SASL is primarily based on British sign. And according to this article about 0.5% of the population have SASL as a first language.

I'd forgotten how linguistically diverse South Africa is. How did they handle translation into the various common spoken languages like Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans? Do events like this have simultaneous translation in the event hall, or do they just assume the television stations will take care of it for them?
posted by Nelson at 8:07 AM on December 11, 2013 [15 favorites]


....translating the spoken words into gestures for four hours

Four hours of faking it in front of thousands at one of your countries most important events? Maybe some sort of viral ad for a new antiperspirant, because wow it would be hard to not be sweating like mad....
posted by inflatablekiwi at 8:11 AM on December 11, 2013


Dunning Kugler. Perhaps he believed he was The Best At It.
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 8:16 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Four hours? For many lengthy events with sign interpretation (for instance, I have seen this at LGBT pride events) there is more than one interpreter and they switch off. Also, in the US, there is such a thing as certified interpreters (of non-English languages as well as ASL), particularly in areas such as law and medicine.
posted by larrybob at 8:33 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Incredible levels of corruption and nepotism reasonably describe the situation. The really interesting thing to observe is whether he continues to get paid for these jobs going forward but that will unfortunately not be reported.
posted by rr at 8:33 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not to stray too far off-topic, but I'm amazed to learn how many different sign languages there are. Even countries that all speak mostly the same verbal language (e.g. Britain, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, etc.) all have different sign languages. As someone who wishes a universal spoken language like Esperanto had actually caught on, it's too bad even languages that only originated a few hundred years ago have diverged so much.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 8:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


for anyone who thinks we should do away with sign interpreters and that captioning should be enough - put your tv on mute for a week and just read captions, especially for live events. it might be illuminating for you.
posted by nadawi at 8:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [32 favorites]


I think we're being a bit harsh on this guy. If he was deaf how was he supposed to know what the speakers were saying?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:40 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


This is horrible, yet also awesome. I vote that the next state of the union address be delivered in gibberish, with the real address delivered simultaneously in ASL. Or maybe the Queen's Christmas message?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Is it strange that we even have live signing anymore, when, presumably, you could have a real-time captioning system through mobile devices, TV, etc., in the user's language?

Signed languages are languages. Deaf folks have a very strong culture, and (from what I understand) can be very protective of their culture, so I can imagine this... person... driving them up the wall.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


If Esperanto had actually caught on and children started learning it as their primary or early secondary language, it too would evolve differently in different communities.
posted by muddgirl at 8:53 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Even countries that all speak mostly the same verbal language [..] all have different sign languages"

There is a flaw in your assumptions.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:55 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


As someone with a grasp of American Sign Language that doesn't go much further than "I love you", I must say that guy is pretty convincing.

As someone with a reasonable grasp of British Sign Language, that guy is not at all convincing.
posted by alby at 8:56 AM on December 11, 2013 [15 favorites]


making fun of deaf people, hahaha made my blood boil

I don't really see this as making fun of anyone. The interpreter is a fraud, probably just trying to make a quick buck, not have a laugh at anyone's expense. The audacity of it is kind of hilarious. Like, did you think no one would notice you making up signs at an internationally broadcast event? Look at this asshole!
posted by Hoopo at 9:01 AM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


No one's stated the obvious here: it's offensive because to a lot of hearing people, Sign is just a bunch of meaningless gestures.

Um, all languages you don't understand are just a bunch of meaningless gestures/noises/signs. If someone told you that they speak fluent Swahili and strung together a series of reasonably fluent sounding gobbledegook you'd have no way of knowing if they were really speaking Swahili or not unless you happened to have some familiarity with that language. The fact that people who don't sign can't spot a fake isn't proof of some deep prejudice against those who sign--it's proof that you need to know a language before you can tell if someone else knows that language.
posted by yoink at 9:01 AM on December 11, 2013 [38 favorites]


Thoughtcrime, sign languages emerged when schools for the deaf brought deaf youth together for the first time. They brought with them idiosyncratic signs developed within families--"home sign"--and pidgins developed, which eventually grew, as pidgins do, into full languages. It's not so much that sign languages have diverged as that they emerged separately. This has been an extremely simplified version of a complex process with a fascinating history.
posted by not that girl at 9:04 AM on December 11, 2013 [23 favorites]


I'd like to hear the event organizer's side of this story, but I'm sure they'll just come up with some hand-wavy explanation.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:04 AM on December 11, 2013 [19 favorites]


it's too bad even languages that only originated a few hundred years ago have diverged so much.

They haven't actually diverged, they were never together to begin with. American Sign Language and British Sign Language are from completely different language families, developed entirely independently. ASL is actually fairly similar to French Sign Language because of a French man being heavily involved in setting up the first Deaf school in the US and thus helping to regularize the language.

But since a country's sign language has no inherent connection with its spoken language (though elements of that country's language often get incorporated later), there's no inherent reason that ASL and BSL would necessarily be similar languages on their own.
posted by brainmouse at 9:05 AM on December 11, 2013 [26 favorites]


yoink - but the fact that it's a given with hearing languages and not always a given with signing languages does show a prejudice. no one would hire a swahili interpreter for an event this big without verifying that they spoke swahili.
posted by nadawi at 9:05 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I didn't say that very well. What I meant to say is that to many hearing people, Sign isn't anything more than gestures. I know a lot of well meaning folks who think ASL, for instance, is just a slightly more complicated version of the way we wave hello or beckon someone over. Maybe with a bit of finger spelling to round out the vocabulary you can't communicate via onomatopoetic gesture.

The spoken analogy to this Sign huckster would be someone hiring a Swahili interpreter whose only skill was to babble "Mimi mimi nina mimi yeye nini nini." I'd like to think even I could pretty quickly realize that wasn't real language (I don't know any Swahili), or at least would have the good sense to verify this guy I hired actually knew the language he claimed he did.

People used to talk about foreign spoken languages with contempt, "it just sounds like babble, it can't be a real intelligent language". We're past that now in polite society for spoken language, less so for Sign. I don't attribute any particular malice to that position, btw, the Sign community is small and somewhat insular and many hearing people have no exposure to it.

Mostly I just think Sign is a really fascinating kind of human language. The modality is so different, spatial gestures and visual systems and finger movements. But the linguistics, the language structure, is mostly like spoken languages. (With some interesting differences!) The similarities between signed and spoken languages despite says something deep about language in the human brain.
posted by Nelson at 9:13 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


yoink - but the fact that it's a given with hearing languages and not always a given with signing languages does show a prejudice. no one would hire a swahili interpreter for an event this big without verifying that they spoke swahili.

Maybe. Although if some guy was hired to provide the audio feed for some really tiny minority language who, in fact, was just a chancer who was making it up as he went along, none of us would have heard about it. The only reason this gets to be world news is because the sign language interpreter ends up on camera all over the world. The chancer who is making up small-regional-tribal-language as he goes along is an issue solely amongst that small, powerless group.

I'd be willing to bet that there have been plenty of occasions around the world in countries with numerous minority languages of people being hired to translate into the more minor ones who have woefully inadequate mastery of the language.
posted by yoink at 9:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm amazed to learn how many different sign languages there are. Even countries that all speak mostly the same verbal language (e.g. Britain, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, etc.) all have different sign languages... it's too bad even languages that only originated a few hundred years ago have diverged so much.

The history of sign languages is fascinating, linguistically. British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) did not evolve in parallel to American/British English; BSL and ASL are languages, not dialects -- they're not 'English-done-with-hand-motions.' They haven't diverged because they're not starting from the same point.

ASL actually has far, far more in common with French Sign Language (FSL) than BSL, largely by historical quirk. In the early 19th century, there was no ASL; there were only regional sign languages. The current thinking (if I recall correctly) is that much of ASL's origins can be traced to one institution, the American School for the Deaf (although it wasn't called that at the time) founded in 1817 by Thomas Gallaudet (whose son later founded what would become Gallaudet University, the first American college for the Deaf) and Laurent Clerc. Both Clerc and Gallaudet were trained in the French style of signing (my understanding is that it isn't quite equivalent to modern FSL, but did lead to it -- not entirely confident on that though) and they in turn taught it to American students, who blended those teachings with their own regional languages to (eventually) give us ASL.

That's the simplified story, at least, which glosses over a bunch of stuff, not least the actual differences between BSL/ASL/FSL, or the dialects within them, which, though fascinating, I'm not sufficiently familiar with to detail.
posted by cjelli at 9:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [15 favorites]


So if you're hiring someone anyway — either an interpreter or a captioner — then opting for an interpreter is friendlier and more inclusive.

Wouldn't it be more inclusive to hire the captioner because that way you get a transcript for free and you make the content more accessible for those with hearing problems who don't know sign language?
posted by sparklemotion at 9:15 AM on December 11, 2013


for anyone who thinks we should do away with sign interpreters and that captioning should be enough - put your tv on mute for a week and just read captions, especially for live events. it might be illuminating for you.

So everyone who watches foreign films with subtitles is just totally losing the plot then, I guess.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:16 AM on December 11, 2013


films often have far better captions than tv, especially live events (hence why i specified that). also, i'd wager that people who read subtitles and don't understand the language are missing out on some of what people who do understand the language get in those films - at least that was my experience watching subtitled french films and then watching them again once i learned french.
posted by nadawi at 9:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


Put on CNN or ESPN with the sound muted and the captions on, and see how long you last.
posted by zjacreman at 9:21 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Providing closed captioning in a spoken language is NOT equivalent to providing a sign language translation, any more than providing a translation in French would be the same thing as providing a translation in Spanish! Whether or not closed captioning is better or worse than verbal translation is beside the point. A sign language interpreter is functionally equivalent to both, since there's no good written form of SL.
posted by muddgirl at 9:21 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


So everyone who watching foreign films with subtitles is just totally losing the plot then, I guess.

No. Subtitles and closed captioning are absolutely not the same thing. The former are made in advance and edited for clarity and continuity before being attached to the film. The latter is done on the fly and there aren't really chances to fix it if the transcriber mishears what's being said or just plain fucks up. Also, quality control is much less tight.

And, since you mention it, subtitles do often fail to convey a lot of nuance and context. Specifically I'm thinking of a scene in Battle Royale in which the subtitles completely fail to convey the way that the characters are addressing each other in increasingly informal forms of address as their argument becomes more heated, reflecting the way social conventions are breaking down.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:22 AM on December 11, 2013 [27 favorites]


So everyone who watches foreign films with subtitles is just totally losing the plot then, I guess.

Subtitles != captions. Captioning is done live, subtitles aren't. And that being said, if you've ever turned subtitles on for a language you know, you'll probably notice that even subtitles aren't perfect: they tend to lose nuance and often don't match, word-for-word, spoken dialogue. Ideally, sure, you'd hire a captioner too, but captioning does not replace interpretation; it only complements it.
posted by cjelli at 9:22 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Put on CNN or ESPN with the sound muted and the captions on, and see how long you last.

I can't last with the sound on, so how can it be any worse?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:22 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Good to know that Jen from IT Crowd has moved on from Italian.
posted by dr_dank at 9:22 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Put on CNN or ESPN with the sound muted and the captions on, and see how long you last.

Why would you assume that sign interpreters are doing any better of a job than text captioners at translating the auditory language into a visual one?
posted by sparklemotion at 9:23 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The live feed from SABC had two signers on screen which was confusing. And the more I watched the more distracted I got by the fact that none of their gestures matched, until that was all I could watch. Assumed they were signing in different African languages or something. Is this is a reflection of corruption in the ANC?
posted by gallois at 9:24 AM on December 11, 2013


Why would you assume that sign interpreters are doing any better of a job than text captioners at translating the auditory language into a visual one?

by discussing the issue with people who are deaf and who have been teaching deaf children for most of their adult lives. many interpreters are the children of deaf parents (or have spent their professional life in hearing and deaf communities both) so they are far better able to communicate between the two worlds.
posted by nadawi at 9:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also - while it may line up with our assumptions to think that a translator in a verbal language (like Swahili) would be vetted in the way that we believe this person wasn't, it may be helpful to keep in mind that at this moment, almost nobody seems to know who this guy is, and it sounds like no one's really certain exactly how he wound up on the podium at the memorial.

It's true that you wouldn't hire someone without vetting them first, but if you're at that level of decision-making, it's likely you wouldn't be the person who vets the guy beyond looking at his credentials. And if this dude had the brass balls to just get up on stage and flap his hands during the highest-profile funeral of the year, I'm prepared to imagine he also didn't have a problem faking bona fides, either, or pretending to be a colleague who attested to his expertise.

But that's just speculation. In the end, it may come out that the issue here was an organizer going, "Eh, fuck it, he says he can do it and that's good enough for me because who gives a shit about deaf people," but I'm gonna wait for more information before reaching that conclusion. I'm not saying I'd be surprised or that it's super unlikely, but there are a lot of unknowns here.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:38 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


You can't bind me with your heavy sign language rules, man: I'm a free spirit. I let it flow, I express myself. People see me, they know what I mean. You squares with your rules, you don't understand nothing, man.
posted by Segundus at 9:39 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you are a hearing person and you watch a movie in a language you don't know with subtitles, or even a live event in a language you do not understand with captions, you can still hear the emotion in the voices of the people speaking; you can hear pauses; you can hear volume. That is not true if you are a deaf person and you are reading captions.

Also, seriously, to everybody: if you are not a deaf person, why are you in this thread making assertions about what you personally think deaf people should like vis a vis accommodations? If a majority of deaf people have said that they prefer signing to captioning, maybe you should, I dunno, listen to them. Metaphorically speaking.
posted by BlueJae at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2013 [43 favorites]


I can't last with the sound on, so how can it be any worse?

You'd be surprised. The mental struggle to reconcile images with broken, gibberish text adds a whole new layer of torment. Hell is an oil change shop waiting room with the seating arranged such that you can't not see the TV out of the corner of your eye.
posted by zjacreman at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm really hoping there's an after-school special kind of story behind all of this, about how this young man, all he ever wanted to do was be at Nelson Mandela's funeral, and with his mother sick and his brothers starving and his father down at the coalmine the only thing he could think of to do was to get on that stage as the sign language man, and knowing that all he had to do was do his really truest best and be faithful to his dream it would all be all right, and then there he was, on that stage next to all those world leaders, living his dream!
posted by chavenet at 9:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Now, I've been to two official baby sign language evening classes so far and last night we learned some "F" words like "family". In that real vs fake interpreter video, the fake guy *did* do a pretty good version of "family". At least in baby ASL.

Maybe that is one of the ten words he knows.
posted by jillithd at 9:47 AM on December 11, 2013


Maybe we should cut him a break. Sometimes life is demanding without understanding.
posted by ericbop at 9:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


Why would you assume that sign interpreters are doing any better of a job than text captioners at translating the auditory language into a visual one?

It's not a question of who's doing a better job. Someone captioning an speech in English with English words isn't literally translating. A sign interpreter is. Sign language is an actual language, not a visual analogue of speech. The two things you're comparing aren't equivalent.

The whole subtitle thing is misleading too. A more accurate analogy would be watching a movie subtitled in a language that isn't your primary one--and also, let's say, you're not allowed to see any of the actors faces.

(Not Deaf myself, but know a bunch of interpreters.)
posted by neroli at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sign language is very expressive, and good interpreters convey a lot of emotion and nuance through sign.

I know very little sign language, and none of South African sign language, but I could tell this guy was bullshit because he has NO expression.

And yes, usually at long events, interpreters work in shifts. I have no idea how this guy was allowed to do that for four hours, especially with furious people pointing out that he wasn't really signing. It's really, really weird.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:49 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yes, as a Deaf person, I do find it hilarious how people find it funny that an event of national significance was rendered completely inaccessible to a population facing significant marginalization in the first place.

And speaking of this said marginalization, it's important to recognize that sign languages are preferred over captioning because even in highly literate North American cultures Deaf people just don't have the same level of exposure to spoken and written language as a population. It's easy to take reading captioning/subtitles for granted when you've grown up as a hearing person exposed to the language and learned the language without any difficulty. Meanwhile, Deaf people, who often have a significant gap in their early language development, can frequently lag behind in their reading scores and struggle with spoken and written language. So not only is keeping up with the typed language harder because of reduced literacy, but it invokes experiences of struggling with having to learn a clumsy language where they can't even express themselves fully - and then having this language used to shackle them over a language where they can express their thoughts beautifully and in full meaning.

And we even have a historical precedence for this as well. From the Milan Conference which delegitimatized the validity of signed language worldwide that has a lasting impact to today, to residential schools where kids were actively punished for signing and forced to spend hours a day learning how to make vibrations with their vocal cords that meant nothing to them, to eugenic practices that prevented Deaf people from marrying or even socializing, signed languages have been systematically stripped of legitimacy by a hearing hegemony.

So really, remember that these events - and the choice to interpret these events - is not just about disability. It's just as much about accommodating social marginalization in the light of historical and continuing discriminatory practices.
posted by Conspire at 9:49 AM on December 11, 2013 [109 favorites]


If a majority of deaf people have said that they prefer signing to captioning, maybe you should, I dunno, listen to them. Metaphorically speaking.

I have no doubt that most deaf people prefer signing, I'm just trying to understand why signing would be considered the more accessible choice given that not all people with hearing problems know sign language.

It's like saying that because people on crutches prefer escalators, buildings should only use those instead of elevators (which have additional benefits like being useful for freight and also accessible to people in wheelchairs -- to spell it out, the analogy to captions v. signing is that captions allow for transcripts and are also accessible to non *SL speakers).
posted by sparklemotion at 9:51 AM on December 11, 2013


I hope the backstory of this comes out because right now this just doesn't make sense to me. Maybe it is as simple as incompetence by both the supposed interpreter and the person who selected him, but I am reminded of art vandals and others who are compelled to get publicity by ruining public things.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:51 AM on December 11, 2013


And yes, I would consider the constant parade of "why can't you just replace sign language with an equivalent spoken language" despite the repeated statements that sign language isn't even attached to or equivalent to a spoken language, a lingering impact of the delegitimization of signed language as formal languages with their own culture attached to them. To repeat: the two are not interchangeable.

I don't prefer signing to captioning. ASL, not English, is my language.
posted by Conspire at 9:52 AM on December 11, 2013 [57 favorites]


I have no doubt that most deaf people prefer signing, I'm just trying to understand why signing would be considered the more accessible choice given that not all people with hearing problems know sign language.

This is an argument for providing both a SL translation and captioning, not for replacing one with the other.
posted by muddgirl at 9:54 AM on December 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


"Why would you assume that sign interpreters are doing any better of a job than text captioners at translating the auditory language into a visual one?"

They are no better or worse than professional translators are when translating live between spoken languages. The qualitative difference you think there is between signed languages and spoken language doesn't exist, signed languages are human languages and share the essential features of human languages.

And your other implicit assumption — contained in your implicit comparison of a signed language to written language — is also very mistaken. A written language is not the language. The language is the spoken (or signed) language. Written language is constrained and limited in ways that spoken/signed languages are not. Transcription, especially live transcription, is by its nature very incomplete relative to spoken (or signed) language. Spoken and signed language has all sorts of nuance that text lacks. Which is one of the reasons why signed languages include facial expressions.

A signing interpreter translates like a translator between spoken languages translates. As someone mentioned, there's good reasons why interpreters at the UN use spoken language rather than text on a display.

"If you are a hearing person and you watch a movie in a language you don't know with subtitles, or even a live event in a language you do not understand with captions, you can still hear the emotion in the voices of the people speaking; you can hear pauses; you can hear volume. That is not true if you are a deaf person and you are reading captions."

Yeah, I was going to mention that, too. Obviously we miss a lot of things when we read subtitles. But we get a lot by hearing the actors voices. That's why many people, including myself, vastly prefer subtitles over dubbing because even when you don't understand a language, the acting skill present in their use of their spoken language is almost always superior to the voice actors doing dubbing. Well, and of course the translation used for the dubbing isn't usually any better than the subtitles so, all in all, you're getting even less information than with subtitles.

I think people vary in how well they can read subtitles and pay attention to the actors. I suspect I'm pretty above average in this respect and so I pay a lot of attention to what the actors are saying and I learn new words this way.

Finally, subtitles aren't the same as closed-captioning, anyway. Closed captioning includes various non-speech audio features in addition to the speech, as well as indications of which character is speaking when there is ambiguity. With hearing folk reading subtitles, you don't need those things. Not that this is relevant for a live even with only individual speakers. But it's relevant when there are multiple speakers, for example.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Mod note: Comments removed. Seriously, cool it at this point with the Defend The Validity Of ASL As A Language To My Satisfaction stuff or go do something else.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


Obviously a body guard posing as an interpreter. The current president isn't too well loved and security was overstretched so they made a choice: help the deaf or protect the president.
posted by stbalbach at 10:02 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


it's too bad even languages that only originated a few hundred years ago have diverged so much.

Actually, a feature and not a bug of language as a general human faculty.
posted by spitbull at 10:07 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


And as various folks above mention, they haven't diverged. They arose independently and belong to different families.
posted by spitbull at 10:08 AM on December 11, 2013


yoink: I'd be willing to bet that there have been plenty of occasions around the world in countries with numerous minority languages of people being hired to translate into the more minor ones who have woefully inadequate mastery of the language.

There have totally been major diplomatic incidents because inadequate translators were hired.

The problem is, the only certain way to assess whether someone speaks a language is to to have another trusted individual who speaks the same language (and yours, at least enough to communicate) to the same or higher proficiency. So, if you don't have someone suitable as part of your organization or another associated organization already, you may not be able to check without hiring another translator. Even then, you have to assume that guy isn't a buddy of the guy he's checking up on, and that he didn't lie about his credentials too.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:09 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The current president isn't too well loved and security was overstretched so they made a choice: help offend the deaf or protect the president.

Seeing this really reveals what a sad and unbelievably dysfunctional situation South Africa must be in politically.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:10 AM on December 11, 2013


Obviously a body guard posing as an interpreter.

why not have security and a real interpreter up there then? that doesn't really make sense as a choice...


I'd be willing to bet that there have been plenty of occasions around the world in countries with numerous minority languages of people being hired to translate into the more minor ones who have woefully inadequate mastery of the language.

i'd argue that's prejudice too.
posted by nadawi at 10:11 AM on December 11, 2013


despite the repeated statements that sign language isn't even attached to or equivalent to a spoken language

The thing is, there have been two things that have been very passionately and repeatedly stated in this conversation - that sign is a totally different language and that it would be much better to translate a speech written in some language this other, totally different language than to just read the speech as it was written but not performed, which carries the suggestion that this other language, unlike every other language on Earth, is somehow insulated from things being lost in the translation.

What isn't being as clearly stated, but once I realized what was being danced around I was like, "Oh! Well duh!" was that deaf people don't necessarily "think" in "spoken English" (or whatever). Arguing the linguistics of English and Sawhili and ASL and ESL or what have you is arguing past the point.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:11 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Reading is a different experience for a person who can hear than a person who cannot. When I read, I imagine the sounds that the words make in my head - part of learning to read for many people is "sounding" out written words.

If I am listening to someone speak, I can also hear nuances of emotion in their voice, some of which might not read on the speaker's face.

A sign interpreter, a good one, is a able to convey all of that. Sign languages are visually expressive in a way that clumsy live captioning, would not be.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:12 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Deaf people also vary in how easily they can read the local oral language — my understanding is that most Deaf people in the U.S. can get by reading and writing English at least at a basic level, but many aren't really fluent in it. I imagine in countries with a less well-established Deaf education system, the rate of bilingual fluency and literacy is even lower.

Um. Nobody reacted to this, but I find this extremely surprising. How do deaf people struggle to read? Surely teaching someone to associate a sign with a meaning is no harder than associating a written word with a meaning? Or do people/teachers just not bother because it's too hard (in the given education system) to get past the hearing hurdle?
posted by Brockles at 10:14 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Again, think about how you learn to read,or even what is happening in your head when you read silently. The letters represent sounds. We sound out words as we learn to read. For someone who does not hear, that can be a significant obstacle.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:19 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


"...to residential schools where kids were actively punished for signing and forced to spend hours a day learning how to make vibrations with their vocal cords that meant nothing to them.."

...and beaten when caught signing.

My aunt spent two hellish years at such a school until my grandmother stood up against the advice of doctors and other trusted advisors and brought my aunt home (and then later sent her to a signing residential school that also happened to be only a hour away). This was the 40s.

Some of us who aren't deaf also have strong feelings about this stuff because we have family and friends who are deaf. And, hell, everyone should have strong feelings about this for the reasons Conspire mentions, and many others besides. The deaf are marginalized and discriminated against badly, even now, even by people who should know better. You only have to read a cochlear implant thread here on MeFi to see that proven.

As others have said, this isn't a laughing matter, it deeply offensive and infuriating, because while it's true that if you don't speak Mandarin you won't personally know if the Mandarin translator you hired is competent or a fraud, but a government wouldn't hire a Mandarin translator for a live event watched by people around the world without verifying that the Mandarin translator actually spoke Mandarin. Or, alternately, the practices and institutions that can be counted on to provide competent foreign language translators for diplomatic functions clearly were not involved and/or don't exist in South Africa when the government decided to hire an SASL interpreter. And that says something. And that difference is almost certainly not unique to South Africa.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:19 AM on December 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


Nobody reacted to this, but I find this extremely surprising. How do deaf people struggle to read? Surely teaching someone to associate a sign with a meaning is no harder than associating a written word with a meaning? Or do people/teachers just not bother because it's too hard (in the given education system) to get past the hearing hurdle?

Sign language has its own unique grammatical structure; so even if you were to associate signs with written meanings, the written English would be jumbled up in syntax, lack conjugated tenses, lack connotation in vocabulary (since connotation is attached differently to words in ASL than English), and so forth. Many visual metaphors or classifiers and so forth don't even translate very well to English anyway, and require elaborate construction that would be effortless in ASL. So you can technically write ASL in English, for instance, but it would not remotely resemble English in any way, and would not even be intelligible to the average English speaker. Early language delays essentially mean that native ASL speakers have to learn a second language that they aren't even in a good place to learn due to the disability and are awkward at expressing themselves, or in many cases, granted the accessibility provisions to even learn English. Meanwhile, this has a cascading impact on their education because all resources are in English and they're expected to know English to participate.
posted by Conspire at 10:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [37 favorites]


Um. Nobody reacted to this, but I find this extremely surprising. How do deaf people struggle to read? Surely teaching someone to associate a sign with a meaning is no harder than associating a written word with a meaning? Or do people/teachers just not bother because it's too hard (in the given education system) to get past the hearing hurdle?

As said above, ASL and English are not related languages. As a really simple example, ASL doesn't have the verb "to be" at all. They have completely different grammatical structures. There is not anywhere near a one-to-one correspondence between ASL words and English words -- including many things that are communicated solely through facial or spatial grammar. Written English is a transcription of Spoken English, not an entirely different language the way it is for ASL.
posted by brainmouse at 10:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


How do deaf people struggle to read?

It's not that deaf people aren't good at reading, it's that many countries have inadequate education systems in general and do a particularly poor job of educating "special needs" students (eg deaf, blind, etc), who will often have much lower literacy rates. That's even more complex in countries with multiple official languages, obviously.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Brockles, American Sign Language is a totally different language than English. It has a completely different grammar. Just like an English-only person can't read an Arabic text using a word substitution dictionary, an American Sign only person can't read an English text with just word translations. Complicating factors: there's no common written form of American Sign Language. Also there is a thing called Signed English that really is a visual form of English, but it's fallen out of favor and ASL is preferred by many.

Has anyone seen a study of how Deaf American kids use texting, Facebook, and instant messaging? I bet even for signers who also know written English, they're using ASL forms and interesting slang in written casual media.
posted by Nelson at 10:22 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Surely teaching someone to associate a sign with a meaning is no harder than associating a written word with a meaning.

ASL and English have entirely different systems of grammars. Hearing children start learning to read after having had several years of experience with the corresponding spoken language; their job is to learn to decode a new way of representing a language that they already speak.

I don't know anything about the specific strategies used for teaching Deaf children to read, but I imagine it would be comparable to me trying to learn to write fluent Korean (new alphabet, new grammar, etc.) from text alone.
posted by heyforfour at 10:22 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


How do deaf people struggle to read? Surely teaching someone to associate a sign with a meaning is no harder than associating a written word with a meaning?

But you can't 'sound out' an unfamiliar word in sign, the way you can with English (or other spoken/written languages), and you can't really guess how to spell a sign based on the way it looks the way you can guess at spelling a new word you hear. Deaf people basically have to learn two entirely separate languages- one for writing and one for visual interactions.
posted by insufficient data at 10:24 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Has anyone seen a study of how Deaf American kids use texting, Facebook, and instant messaging? I bet even for signers who also know written English, they're using ASL forms and interesting slang in written casual media.

I don't have a study, but we do! If you were to read it in a purely English perspective, it's not even understandable as English. I also sit on a Deaf board in Vancouver, and we often do a lot of our discussions by email - several of the members prefer to use ASL construction, and type all their emails in written ASL.
posted by Conspire at 10:24 AM on December 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


Also there is a thing called Signed English that really is a visual form of English, but it's fallen out of favor and ASL is preferred by many.

In the UK this is called Sign Supported English and simply replaces each word in English with its equivalent British Sign Language sign. It does away entirely with BSL grammar, facial expressions, positioning, use of sign space, etc.
posted by alby at 10:25 AM on December 11, 2013


Maybe this is a better question for an AskMe, but I guess what blows my mind a little is that it seems like a pure ASL speaker would essentially be illiterate. How do ASL folks communicate across generations or the internet? How do they share recipes? Is it always via translation into a "foreign" language?
posted by sparklemotion at 10:26 AM on December 11, 2013


... several of the members prefer to use ASL construction, and type all their emails in written ASL.

I've never heard of "written ASL" before. I would love to see some examples of this, or even a whole post about it.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:29 AM on December 11, 2013 [28 favorites]


"Surely teaching someone to associate a sign with a meaning is no harder than associating a written word with a meaning? Or do people/teachers just not bother because it's too hard (in the given education system) to get past the hearing hurdle?"

You do understand that when you teach someone to read in their native language, they're learning a version of their native language, but when you teach whose native language is a signed language to read, they're learning a whole new language?

The written language is probably not going to be their native language. You mostly acquire your native language before you begin to read, native competency in a written language is closely tied to native competency in the spoken language. There's a bunch of mostly unknown or speculated about neurolinguists involved in this, but basically I think it's the case that it's really hard for a deaf person to become truly native in a written language because it's not directly hooked into their native understanding of their signed language — which there's a lot of evidence that the brain's plasticity allows the language-using parts of the brain to appropriate a bunch of spatial and motor cognition in place of the auditory and speaking stuff. So I'm of the opinion that it's really difficult for a deaf person to truly become native in a written language. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but that it's pretty distinct from how a speaking person becomes literate in their native language.

And the other thing that Conspire alluded to is that because there's this language acquisition window in very early childhood, many deaf children who are born to speaking parents or deaf parents who aren't signers don't end up acquiring language during that early window and they're at a disadvantage in catching up with the kids who had access to Sign in their home from the beginning. And so learning another language, a written language, concurrently in addition is a pretty big challenge for those kids, and many of them never become that fluent in their written language.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not only are English and ASL different languages entirely with different structural properties, a learned written/spoken language is a second language for most Deaf signers. There is some research suggesting that Dutch children who use Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN) as their primary language make mistakes in their Dutch writing that are influenced by their knowledge of the properties of SLN. So any captioning is captioning in a second language. And second language reading is difficult for most people.
posted by joan cusack the second at 10:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you were to read it in a purely English perspective, it's not even understandable as English. I also sit on a Deaf board in Vancouver, and we often do a lot of our discussions by email - several of the members prefer to use ASL construction, and type all their emails in written ASL.

As a 100% not doubting or critiquing individual I would love to see some of these communiques. My wife's father teaches at a state level school for the Deaf and Blind and, despite the fact that his work is mostly, completely I think, with the blind population, I look forward to speaking to him more about this because it's quite interesting.

Conspire thanks for your input here, it's enlightening.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:32 AM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Whoa.

Sample gloss: YESTERDAY PRO-1 INDEX-[at] WORK HAPPEN SOMEONE! MAN CL:1-"walked_past_quickly" I NEVER SEE PRO-3 BEFORE. That sentence would be generally mean: "Yesterday at work a stranger (some guy I've never seen before) rushed past me.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [18 favorites]


Maybe this is a better question for an AskMe, but I guess what blows my mind a little is that it seems like a pure ASL speaker would essentially be illiterate. How do ASL folks communicate across generations or the internet? How do they share recipes? Is it always via translation into a "foreign" language?

Well, for one, most Deaf people who sign ASL as their primary language in modern North American culture wouldn't be illiterate because by necessity of a hearing hegemony that places emphasis on English written language by barring access to services and education, they have to learn a second language as a means of survival.

But it's not difficult to envision a culture that doesn't place as much emphasis on written English as a necessary linguistic mode at all. For instance, for my Deaf organization, we release video blogs for all of our event promotions. Much of our communication goes on in written ASL with our own grammatical structure - because signed languages have been marginalized and considered inferior to spoken languages, we have no equivalent widespread written language of our own, but we can repurpose English into a form that uses our own grammar, metaphors, and flow - that in itself demonstrates that signed language CAN have its own written form. But even going beyond that, it's important to emphasis that Deafness, as a language minority, is a culture in itself. So we just simply don't share a lot of the values that hearing people have. We put a lot of emphasis on face-to-face contact, to sharing time and moments, to touch. You might comment on how it's sad that we can't have the conveniences of hearing life, but from my cultural perspective, I find it sad how distanced you hearing people have become from each other in a generational, cultural and social sense.
posted by Conspire at 10:37 AM on December 11, 2013 [33 favorites]


It is, for some reason, really hard for a lot of hearing people to fully wrap their head around the idea that sign is a real language, that ASL is as different from English as Chinese is. (Imagine living in a word where you spoke Chinese but had to write in English.)

The moment when things fully clicked for me was when this interpreter I knew told me that a lot of long-time interpreters would automatically start incorporating bits of ASL grammar into English.

Like, for example, ASL uses "mouth morphemes" to modify some words. Mouthing the syllable "CHA" indicates that something is particularly massive. So interpreters, without thinking, would say things like, "I'm skipping dinner because I had a cha burrito for lunch."
posted by neroli at 10:40 AM on December 11, 2013 [32 favorites]


Has anyone seen a study of how Deaf American kids use texting, Facebook, and instant messaging?

I have a cousin who is deaf, and the way she communicates on FB with her deaf friends is very, very different than the way she communicates with her hearing friends and relatives. Most of the words are the same, but for all that they really are two different languages.
posted by KathrynT at 10:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


For an example of what a voiced English gloss of ASL might sound like, I really like this video from CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) Brothers.
posted by joan cusack the second at 10:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Now I want to see examples of deaf culture Facebook messages. This thread has turned out amazing.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 10:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I did a quick google of "written ASL" and came up with this page that has a couple of examples of a written "gloss" of ASL.

Can those of you in the know tell me how accurate this would be in terms of how ASL gets written down?
posted by sparklemotion at 10:46 AM on December 11, 2013


Great minds and all that, eh sparklemotion?
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd also like to add my thanks to Conspire for their patience in explaining all of this. I had no idea how different ASL grammar was from written English, even having taken a class in it many (many!) years ago. I suspect I never got far enough to move from vocabulary to grammar.

I am pretty outraged by the original topic as well. I look forward to seeing how it turns out after such an uproar from the community.
posted by blurker at 10:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


RolandOfEld: What is the english gloss for the sign that means: d'oh!?
posted by sparklemotion at 10:50 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Gloss" is more like formal encoded ASL, it's not what we use in casual writing and communications.

While we reference a grammatical structure in ASL, it's also important to know that said grammatical structure isn't really that rigid at all. Technically, there's a "correct, formal" way of signing ASL grammar, but because the majority of ASL speakers within North America are also fluent in English, a lot of ASL ends up occasionally resembling a code-switch version between ASL and English. So while it'll vary from person to person and their personal preferences (and also shows their cultural background and personality), most people fall somewhere on a spectrum from strict pure ASL to signed English. And for most signers, it's pretty easy to understand anything on this spectrum, as well as move freely up and down this spectrum to match yourself to various signing styles if you're a strong enough signer.

So it's hard to really give a really concrete example of written ASL because it also works off this understanding of grammar and code-switching as well. All I have on hand right now are my board emails, but even those are a little bit on the side of English rather than ASL because they're considered more formal written discourse, so writers will adjust their language so it resembles English (more formal and constrained) than ASL (casual and freeflowing.)

And a quick note is that we use deaf to reference the disability, and Deaf to reference the language minority and community built around signed languages. So keep in mind I'm not capitalizing Deaf for no reason.
posted by Conspire at 10:51 AM on December 11, 2013 [39 favorites]


ASL is as different from English as Chinese is (...)

Like, for example, ASL uses "mouth morphemes" to modify some words. Mouthing the syllable "CHA" indicates that something is particularly massive. So interpreters, without thinking, would say things like, "I'm skipping dinner because I had a cha burrito for lunch."
But, at least as presented, that's not nearly as different from English as Chinese is. That's just a temporarily unfamiliar word - the English listener would say "Huh? What's a cha burrito?", the interpreter would say, "Oh, sorry, 'cha' means like 'really big'", and everything would be totally understandable from there on out with essentially zero effort.

To be clear, I'm not contradicting the claim that ASL/English is on a similar level to Chinese/English. I just am trying to understand the claim, and that particular piece of evidence doesn't do it for me. So, how about something like this:

Let's say a native English speaker spoke the word "I'm skipping dinner because I had a big burrito for lunch." A skilled ASL interpreter translates that into natively idiomatic ASL. Then another skilled ASL interpreter interprets that back into English words literally or minimally idiomatically, instead of trying to "really" translate it. What's the result?

What would the similar result be for Chinese instead of ASL?
posted by Flunkie at 10:55 AM on December 11, 2013


Flunkie, part of the problem is that gestural languages have a spatial and dimensional component that is literally impossible to translate into a linear language. It's like trying to write music in English, or choreography.
posted by KathrynT at 10:57 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


A skilled ASL interpreter translates that into natively idiomatic ASL.

I don't know ASL, but I do know Arabic and how to translate two really different languages into each other, and I don't know what this means at all.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:59 AM on December 11, 2013


Flunkie - I think what you're looking for is the first post of this forum thread - gloss ASL is the academic word for it, but idiomatically it's "written ASL".
posted by muddgirl at 11:00 AM on December 11, 2013


I'm having a hard time grasping what you mean by "literally impossible", though. Isn't the "cha" thing an example? Or at least it was presented as an example, it seems to me. But it sure doesn't seem literally impossible to me. It seems pretty easy to me, in fact, at least if it's as it has been described. "Simultaneous 'hat' sign plus 'cha' mouthing" means "massive hat".

Am I misunderstanding the 'cha' example? Or is it not actually an example? If it's not actually an example, what is an example?
posted by Flunkie at 11:01 AM on December 11, 2013


Fish haas parkeerterrein.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 11:01 AM on December 11, 2013


Yeah, I'm not claiming this is "evidence" of anything, just the moment that made things click for me. The example I gave is clearly coming from the perspective of a native English speaker, turning a very specific kind of ASL modifier into a conventional English adjective. I really really don't know enough to say whether mouth morphemes are equivalent to adjectives, but I suspect the answer is: sort of, not exactly.
posted by neroli at 11:03 AM on December 11, 2013


I'm skipping dinner because I had a big burrito for lunch.

The way I would sign that in ASL would be:

dinner (leaning back, eyes wide open, puffing cheeks out widely), me skip (quick jab to the chest that transforms into skip sign as an abbreviation rather than two formal signs, eye roll slightly, slightly apologetic expression)

reason-why (conjugated sign, r-hand shape transforms into downwards y-handshape in a single motion) (leaning forward, eyebrows tilted in)

lunch-time (pause, eyebrows slightly raised) me eat burrito (emphasized morpheme for burrito, exaggerated size of burrito spatially, amused/absurd expression) finished

And that's not even factoring in all of the subtle facial expressions and body language nuances that I'd be using to convey tone that I'm probably not even aware that I'd be doing. A strict translation word-for-word isn't appropriate because it's incredibly slow since you aren't using conjugated signs that flow into each other, confusing because it has a weird grammatical structure, and is pretty much flat, monotone and misses all of the spatial cues in ASL anyway. So you can see how much is missed?
posted by Conspire at 11:04 AM on December 11, 2013 [84 favorites]


The cha example is a mouth morpheme, not an example of how space is used in a gestural language. I don't know ASL, I'm just going by what I've observed and what I have learned from my cousin -- I asked her once to provide me a gloss for a song interpretation in ASL and she said she just simply couldn't, that the way the language was packed in space, time, and transition made it impossible to write in English.
posted by KathrynT at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know ASL, but I do know Arabic and how to translate two really different languages into each other, and I don't know what this means at all.
I meant "translates it well, for consumption of a native ASL speaker", as opposed to just a literal word-for-word translation that ignores things like idiomatic peculiarities of the two languages.

Like if I were to translate "I need a potato" into French and then into English, but "into French" I did it into natively idiomatic French, and "into English" I did a literal word-for-word translation without caring about peculiarities of the two languages, the result would be "I have need of an apple of the earth", not "I need a potato".
posted by Flunkie at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


If it's not actually an example, what is an example?

Classifiers ..? Ways of indicating space, speed, shape and measurement that don't have any verbal equivalent.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2013


Yes, Conspire, thanks, that's exactly the sort of explanation I was looking for.
posted by Flunkie at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2013


Those confused by people being unable to understand that sign::english as french::english (e.g., a separate language) should consider three factors that cause this confusion.

1. the iconic nature of many signs is very misleading; all human beings use gestures but tend to use them without a grammar (and ASL has a grammar - being free with ordering is not unique among languages); this distinction is often lost on people

2. it is generally not understood that the deaf often have quite poor literacy in the dominant languages of their locales - this is ***almost unheard of*** in non-deaf language speakers. It would be remarkable and probably speak to a sort of weird social dynamic or child abuse to have a native-born, fully immersed child grow up unable to speak the dominant language fluently; the point is people have difficulty getting their heads around the idea that you can grow up in and attend a university in the capital city of a country that speaks English but have marginal literacy in English.

3. most people don't even grasp the idea of what writing is vs "spoken" language. So people look at sign and thing it's a transliteration of English into gesture. This is a very common confusion; almost every L2 learner of Chinese I've ever met would make weird claims about the characters; it is not uncommon for native speakers who are in characters defense mode to claim that without them no one could ever learn the language (due to homophones, do to inability to "reason out" the meaning, etc.) - apparently not realizing that illiterates can speak Chinese quite fluently). Chinese is my favorite example because even somewhat well educated people believe that the characters are ideographs and no amount of actual research on how the brain appears to process them will change their minds.

By the way, live translation usually sucks. This guy is a fraud (or a Borat) but in this case, subtitles would be preferred. These are prepared speeches and the partial translation would have been prepared in advance.
posted by rr at 11:08 AM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think also with the "cha" example, you'd do that at the same time you were signng "burrito", yes? And in spoken English you can't do that because you're already using your mouth to say the word.
posted by insufficient data at 11:09 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"For an example of what a voiced English gloss of ASL sounds like, I really like this video yt from CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) Brothers."

Thanks for that link. I just had a lot of fun watching several of their videos!
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2013


English you can't do that because you're already using your mouth to say the word.

Modifiers like this are redundant and an affectation. English speakers use volume, stress, emphasis, delivery speed, pitch, and adjustments to pronunciation to convey an enormous amount of information.
posted by rr at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmm. But you could say "burrito" in an exaggerated "oh wow" tone of voice and gesture with your hands far apart indicating that it was very large, though.
posted by elizardbits at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


ASL actually has far, far more in common with French Sign Language (FSL) than BSL, largely by historical quirk. In the early 19th century, there was no ASL; there were only regional sign languages. The current thinking (if I recall correctly) is that much of ASL's origins can be traced to one institution, the American School for the Deaf (although it wasn't called that at the time) founded in 1817 by Thomas Gallaudet (whose son later founded what would become Gallaudet University, the first American college for the Deaf) and Laurent Clerc. Both Clerc and Gallaudet were trained in the French style of signing (my understanding is that it isn't quite equivalent to modern FSL, but did lead to it -- not entirely confident on that though) and they in turn taught it to American students, who blended those teachings with their own regional languages to (eventually) give us ASL.

I've always read that one of the regional languages that was particularly important was Martha's Vineyard Sign Language because a large number of the initial student body came from Martha's Vineyard. That island had a particularly high proportion of Deaf people and a unique culture in which many non-Deaf folk knew sign language. (Oliver Sacks reported seeing a group of elderly islanders briefly switch from English to sign language and then back into English when he visited in the 1980s.) I spent a while trying to put together a good FPP on some of this history but gave up due my inability to find enough good resources online.
posted by Area Man at 11:14 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


most people don't even grasp the idea of what writing is vs "spoken" language.

Yeah, one thing that clarified the difference for me was reading transcripts of the Nixon tapes (here's a random one). It's really, really hard to read and follow, but if we had been in the room we'd automatically filter out the filler words, the repeated sentences, the pauses, etc. etc.

When I write this comment, I'm thinking in a totally different way than if I was trying to verbally convey this idea to someone. But so much of the time when we talk about language the two modes are confused.
posted by muddgirl at 11:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think also with the "cha" example, you'd do that at the same time you were signng "burrito", yes? And in spoken English you can't do that because you're already using your mouth to say the word.
Sure, but that doesn't really seem all that important to me (with respect to saying ASL is as different to English as is Chinese). You can still easily translate it literally to "massive burrito"; it doesn't really matter that "massive" and "burrito" are not simultaneous. I mean, even verbal English has things like this vis a vis written English; you can say "big" in "big burrito" in different ways to connote either "big" or "immense". And in the other direction too: The written "I had a big burrito" is different than the written "I had a big burrito."

That sort of thing seems to me to be fundamentally different than the sort of thing that Conspire described above ("I'm skipping dinner because I had a big burrito for lunch" becoming something along the lines of "Dinner me skip reason why lunch time me eat burrito finished"). That is much more sensible to me as an example of "ASL:English::Chinese:English" than is a mere triviality like "you can say 'big' at the same time that you say the name of the thing that is big".
posted by Flunkie at 11:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's a really good interview about sign language interpreters at music festivals. It goes into the "performance" aspect and explains how they translate non-literal and NSFW lyrics.
posted by desjardins at 11:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I just want to say thanks to the people who've illuminated the gulf between sign languages and written languages, particularly the way Conspire broke down the huge gulf between American English and ASL. I had no idea and it was fascinating to learn.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:24 AM on December 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


That is much more sensible to me as an example of "ASL:English::Chinese:English" than is a mere triviality like "you can say 'big' at the same time that you say the name of the thing that is big".

No, it's not quite so trivial: the use of morphemes, spatial cues and other variations in signs (intensity, repetition, etc) isn't just to compact or conjugate pretenses to nouns/verbs/etc - it's necessary to grant the word with its appropriate connotation and meaning. So you bring up words with different weights and connotations like "big" or "massive" or "immense" - we don't have that. ASL vocabulary only has about 100,000 words compared to English's 500,000 or so, so only the word "big" would exist. So to distinguish between "big" and "big-burrito" or "massive" and "massive-burrito", we use these cues. (On that note, the word count is actually pretty inaccurate - because of the thousands of variations you can attach to any sign, our vocabulary is actually much less limited than English in conveying nuance.)

Also, that's was a crude attempt at trying to convey what ASL is actually like, when you transcribe it as "Dinner me skip reason why lunch time me eat burrito finished", signers might understand the literal meaning, but not the actual intended meaning of the phrase without the appropriate cues and indeed, pauses. The reason why I broke it down into three separate lines and also included body language is because those cues are grammatically and structurally necessary for one to communicate in ASL - you can't strip it out and expect it to be still understood as ASL.
posted by Conspire at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2013 [22 favorites]


here's a young, adorable coda with a bit of signing and singing and christmas cheer.
posted by nadawi at 11:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


And before you ask why I can't just translate "big signed really intensely as massive" in English, it's just because the English translation just isn't nuanced enough to capture the actual meaning. You would need pretty much thousands of different synonymous words for "big" all with various shades and connotations to actually translate the ASL accurately. In some respects, when you're working with a signed to spoken language equivalent, that's covered by the tone you lend to the word "big", but if you're going to signed to written language, it's not - the translation only roughly approximates the meaning.
posted by Conspire at 11:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's a really good interview about sign language interpreters at music festivals.

Yeah, there was a short but good mefi thread about that earlier this year.
posted by elizardbits at 11:29 AM on December 11, 2013


Illustrating Conspire's point, here is a video demonstrating 11 signs for SMART, each using different types of variation to create slightly different meanings that don't all have single word translations in English. (The first sign for SMART starts around 1:00.)
posted by joan cusack the second at 11:33 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Could he be ... Andy Kaufman?
posted by Wet Spot at 11:37 AM on December 11, 2013


"...literal word-for-word translation..."

I don't know what that is. Or, rather, there is no such thing. You can do something that's transliteration from one language to another, but it's still just a bad approximation.

I think there's some confusion about the nature of language embedded in your question.

Translation is weird and difficult. That's not to assert some strong relativistic, whorfian claim about language, but that languages aren't formal systems that can be perfectly converted between each other.

Signed languages aren't special in this respect; you always lose things and find approximations when you translate one language into another, no matter how fluent or native you are in both.

I'm not a linguist, but when you listen or read what linguists have to say about how to quantify how much alike or different two languages are, you find that this is a very difficult thing to do. ASL shares some vocabulary with English and, as mentioned, ASL signers who are fluent in English tend to import grammatical features of English into ASL, too. On the other hand, the grammar of ASL is really quite different from the grammar of English and the other germanic languages, as well as the romance languages, to give two examples, so you don't want to say that it's quite similar, either. And that's not accounting for some of the other notable features of signed languages.

Is ASL as different from English as Mandarin is? I can't really imagine how any non-linguist could make such a claim and I'd be very interested in exactly how a linguist would support such a claim, too.

The important point is that ASL isn't English. It's not a dialect of English. It's not "really like" English. Whatever your intuition is that tells you that surely it must be pretty easy to map ASL onto English is false. It's not.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:38 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


On that note, the word count is actually pretty inaccurate - because of the thousands of variations you can attach to any sign, our vocabulary is actually much less limited than English in conveying nuance

This is basically false. You are making the same mistake that other people are in confusing written english with english as used in reality.

You know, there are languages that are much less rich than English in terms of vocabulary (for example, Japanese is downright deficient in what you would consider an adjective) but that doesn't actually mean that Japanese is limited in conveying nuances (for example, of beauty).
posted by rr at 11:38 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"This is basically false. You are making the same mistake that other people are in confusing written english with english as used in reality."

Yeah. Any and all claims about how X language is more expressive or whatever than Y language should be extremely critically examined, with some hostility, if not outright dismissed.

In the case of signed languages, though, it's perfectly understandable that someone would err in that direction given that it's only within living memory that even linguists were willing to accept that signed languages were actually languages, much less the general public, who still thinks that they are just fancy gestures. Given that, I can excuse a little Deaf cultural language chauvinism.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:43 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is ASL as different from English as Mandarin is?

My understanding as a non-linguist hearing person with some ASL knowledge and zero proficiency in Mandarin is that ASL and Mandarin both have classifier systems. So there's that.
posted by joan cusack the second at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2013


This is basically false. You are making the same mistake that other people are in confusing written english with english as used in reality.

To clarify, as a person who is fluent in both ASL and spoken English, I'm talking about both spoken AND written English - this should be clear in my original language where I said that it's covered in some degree by the tone and variation you can lend to spoken English. But when you get down to it, there's absolutely no way spoken English can match up to ASL's ability to convey nuance. In joan's video, the signer comes up with 11 ways of signing the word "smart" with just ONE non-manual marker. But we have dozens upon dozens of non-manual markers, as well as variations we can impose upon signs, that can then be used in permutation and combination. English has some flexibility in slang, tone and richness, but just because of the number of permutations going on with ASL, I can't possibly think of how the flexibility and nuance in English matches up to the flexibility and nuance in ASL.
posted by Conspire at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I want to see a study whereby X groups, where X is the number of languages in existence, of pairs of native speakers of said language have one or the other eat a not insubstantial burrito for lunch then tell the other that they "ate a big burrito for lunch". Then the listener has to write down the measurements of their partner's burrito based only upon their partner's statement.

The only thing I'd put money on coming out of such a study would be evidence that language speakers that utilize the metric system somehow have more accurate languages. *shrug*

Then we can use the results to tell us which language speaking populations make the best burritos because burritos are awesome. Yay, [pseudo-]science.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:52 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


All this navel gazing and nobody's pointed out the difference between a signed language and a spoken/written one is often very similar to the difference between a movie and a book.

Further, translating from any language to another is always open to interpretation. Here's an example of it being done without that human interpretation.

It's not that great, is it?
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:53 AM on December 11, 2013


Then the listener has to write down the measurements of their partner's burrito based only upon their partner's statement.

There are only two sizes of burrito: "As big as my head" and "pointless."
posted by Etrigan at 11:55 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


which language speaking populations make the best burritos

Just thought that one bit of the statement required repeating. With or without science.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:56 AM on December 11, 2013


A youtube mashup of native speakers from all the languages in the world saying "Big Burrito". Somebody get on that.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:03 PM on December 11, 2013


But when you get down to it, there's absolutely no way spoken English can match up to ASL's ability to convey nuance.

Except that speakers of any language in addition to the afore mentioned tone, richness, and other variables also throw in manual and non-manual markers.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:08 PM on December 11, 2013




You know, I have dreams like this. "jokeefe, you now have to go onstage and be the Sign Language interpreter for a huge event in front of a crown of many thousands and another million or so watching on TV. You don't know Sign Language? Ha ha, then just go out there and fake it. Also, you are naked."

The thought that somebody would willingly put themselves in that position is mind-boggling.
posted by jokeefe at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Except that speakers of any language in addition to the afore mentioned tone, richness, and other variables also throw in manual and non-manual markers.

Yes, but they aren't encoded into the language as formal grammatical cues, which is why you can listen to spoken English language on an audio recording and still have it considered "spoken English"; because they aren't formalized and necessary for proper grammatical construction of the language, interpretation and execution is vague and subjective. I mean, if you were to argue that body language and hand gestures were a necessary part of English such that you couldn't record spoken English on audio without losing the grammatical structure, I would agree that they possibly have similar toolkits for nuance. But I feel that's a bit of a stretch to ask of English.
posted by Conspire at 12:15 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]




Conspire, can you give an example of a nuance you can put on the word "smart" in signing that you cannot do in English?
posted by Justinian at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2013


(I realize the irony of asking you to do so in English but, well, you can use as many words as you need so it should be possible.)
posted by Justinian at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2013


Just to add a dash of peat to the fire, there is a reasonable hypothesis concerning the origins of language that broadly asserts that the first human languages that were recognizably such may have been gestural and not vocal.
posted by spitbull at 12:20 PM on December 11, 2013


(By the way this has turned into a great thread, mad props to MeFi on this one.)
posted by spitbull at 12:20 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, but they aren't encoded into the language as formal grammatical cues

Then how is it people understand them when speaking with one another?

I mean, if you were to argue that body language and hand gestures were a necessary part of English such that you couldn't record spoken English on audio without losing the grammatical structure

Yes, you're right, when you remove a language from the visual world, it does make it harder for the visual clues to work, just as how if you were to remove the auditory part of a language you would be left with just the visual clues and perhaps a set of codified gestures in order to impart meaning and nuance.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:27 PM on December 11, 2013


Yes, but they aren't encoded into the language as formal grammatical cues

Really. Rising tone at the end of a question is not a formal part of English grammar? What does "formal" mean to you? What does "grammatical cue" mean to you?

You are confusing written, prescriptive [quote]English[/quote] with the language that human beings actually speak.
posted by rr at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2013


"I think there is actually some evidence from psychological research that signers (Deaf and hearing) would be more accurate in describing the size of a burrito as big as your head than non-signers, or at least have a better memory of its size."

Yes, but that doesn't demonstrate that the language is generally more expressive. It doesn't even necessarily demonstrate that the language is more expressive with regard to size, as the results, as you say, are linked to the some cognitive advantages that Deaf native Signers likely have with regard to some things.

But even if the language itself is spatially more expressive than English — a claim that I'm quite prepared to accept — that's not that the claim that Conspire is making. Conspire is claiming that ASL is generally more expressive than English due to its spatial nature. And these are the sorts of claims made about various languages all the time, and using the same kind of reasoning. For example, that a tonal language must be necessarily inherently more capable than a non-tonal language.

All such claims are very dubious.

"Rising tone at the end of a question is not a formal part of English grammar?"

No, actually, it's not. Since I just mentioned tone and you mentioned tone, you might want to look up the Wikipedia entry on tonal languages and the distinction between the existence of tone in an example of spoken language and tone as part of a language's grammar.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:31 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Getting back on topic:

Is this guy gonna get prosecuted, or what?

'Cause seriously, I would be pissed off if I were the event organizers, and I would want this guy brought up on fraud charges.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:34 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Even better was that he appeared before at the ANC electoral congress last year and DeafSA complained about him back then as well."

That makes this doubly strange. Maybe the guy has political or family connections? How else would he keep getting these gigs.


He might be well connected, but I think it's just as likely that he's like any number of worthless business consultants who keep getting jobs. Kiss the asses of senior management and count on them being sufficiently insulated from the effects of your incompetence. There are probably plenty of folks at the ANC electoral congress who would be like "We have no idea where he came from, but we'd like to send him back!" but all he has to do is make sure that the people you talk to if you check his credentials are only aware that he did, in fact, work for them as an interpreter.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:38 PM on December 11, 2013


Well, to extend off the video that joan posted on the 11 different ways smart could be modified, I think it's worthwhile to point out that any of the ways he's signing it in would look remarkably flat to any ASL signer because he's trying his hardest to strip it down to only one cue (morphemes).

Popping random possible cues he could use for a full sign of "smart" off of the top of my head, here's one possible way you could sign smart:

Smart, repeated once, for a full turn of the middle finger outwards and then lingering at the end of the sign for slightly longer, extended further outwards than usual, puckered lips blowing out slightly then turning into a "pow" morpheme when the sign concludes in conjunction with the linger at the end, narrowed eyes, eyebrows pinched together and raised, body leaned forward and progressively leaning forward while you move the sign forward, slight smile, extended signing time detached in conjugation from other signs, sign slowed down to roughly half pace, vibrating the handshape slightly as you move it outwards.

Each of these elements is important and has a meaning to it. So the translation of that sign in an isolated context (contexts can also compound and modify meanings of signs), executed in probably no more than two seconds would be something like:

"I won't disagree that you're smart but you're drawing too much emphasis to it and (metaphorically) putting it into other people's space and being showy about it by attempting to linger on flashy displays for a long time, and I'm starting to get a little fed up, but not enough to directly tell you especially since in some respects I find it a little bit endearing; it's not a big annoyance, but one that's like a fly (visual metaphor)."

Note this is just for one single word, and it would be modified differently if it was in context with a sentence. You can also modify each word in the sentence as so, then phrases, then sentences, and even lend thematic elements to entire speeches. And by changing even one of those elements, which isn't even a comprehensive list and rather off the top of my head, you modify the meaning all over again.

I honestly think it's just one of those differences and limitations that happen between spoken and signed languages just because they operate in different dimensions. I mean, there's certainly weaknesses to operating in a spatial dimension as well, but one of the strengths is that you do get to compound multiple spatial cues over only a handful of oral cues and variations.
posted by Conspire at 12:40 PM on December 11, 2013 [20 favorites]


I honestly think it's just one of those differences and limitations that happen between spoken and signed languages just because they operate in different dimensions.

They don't operate in different dimensions at all, you're comparing apples and oranges. People speaking a language AND people signing a language use gestures and expressions in addition to words. These are not different. An audio recording of a language and a face-to-face conversation are not comprable, regardless of the languages, as they are not the same thing, to compare those you would have to take audio recordings of both, and I'm pretty sure spoken language would express quite a bit more nuance in that instance than a signed one, just as if you took a video of two speakers, one speaking aloud and one signing, without the audio, you would most likely find the signer expressing a lot more to the receiver. But in the everyday, non-recorded world, these two forms of language use many of the same types of clues to express meaning. Neither of these means is superior in that context; meaning, subtlety, and nuance get conveyed somehow, with or without codification, by both methods, just fine.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:55 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


one of the regional languages that was particularly important was Martha's Vineyard Sign Language because a large number of the initial student body came from Martha's Vineyard. That island had a particularly high proportion of Deaf people and a unique culture in which many non-Deaf folk knew sign language...I spent a while trying to put together a good FPP on some of this history but gave up due my inability to find enough good resources online.

I don't have any good online resources, but Nora Groce's Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard is an excellent offline take on the topic.

The Harvard Press summary of the book:
From the seventeenth century to the early years of the twentieth, the population of Martha’s Vineyard manifested an extremely high rate of profound hereditary deafness. In stark contrast to the experience of most deaf people in our own society, the Vineyarders who were born deaf were so thoroughly integrated into the daily life of the community that they were not seen—and did not see themselves—as handicapped or as a group apart. Deaf people were included in all aspects of life, such as town politics, jobs, church affairs, and social life. How was this possible?

On the Vineyard, hearing and deaf islanders alike grew up speaking sign language. This unique sociolinguistic adaptation meant that the usual barriers to communication between the hearing and the deaf, which so isolate many deaf people today, did not exist.


One of my favorite anecdotes from the book is that (Hearing) sailors from the island would often preferentially sign to each other while aboard ship rather than wear out their throats trying to yell over the wind.
posted by cjelli at 12:55 PM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


As a really simple example, ASL doesn't have the verb "to be" at all.

This thread has been an amazing learning experience. I'm only familiar with Romance languages, which all have a verb for "to be." There must be another way to represent the concept of "being" in sign languages, right? I assume there is in tonal languages like Mandarin and in Arabic, the other languages brought up in contrast to English in this thread.

The concept of having such control and understanding of facial expressions (like the eye roll mentioned above to convey slight apology) to use them as an integral component of speech is pretty amazing, too. Do autistic people have a much more difficult time learning these languages? Think I might need to find a good book on this subject....
posted by Thoughtcrime at 12:56 PM on December 11, 2013


The concept of having such control and understanding of facial expressions (like the eye roll mentioned above to convey slight apology) to use them as an integral component of speech is pretty amazing, too.

I hope someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that if you sign

RAIN CLASS CANCEL

without facial grammar, it's essentially "It's raining and class is canceled." But if you raise your eyebrows for RAIN and slightly nod your head at CLASS CANCEL, the meaning has changed to "If it's raining class will be canceled." (source)
posted by joan cusack the second at 1:02 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, there is a sign for "if" (pinky from the cheek), though it isn't always strictly necessary.You can also use facial expression to express a question or contingency.

The existential verb question is really interesting, and Conspire can definitely answer better than I can. But I think part of it is that ASL is an incredibly economical language - it's very efficient. And the existential verb is actually an incredibly inefficient and sort of useless verb. What is really conveyed in "The barn is red," that isn't conveyed in "barn red" (ASL gloss)?

You could sign, for example, that something is real as opposed to imaginary, like "dogs real, unicorns imaginary" or some such. Or you can say someone or something lives in some such place. But as far as having an existential verb in denotation constructions, you really don't need it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:12 PM on December 11, 2013


Was the guy at all consistent in the signs he used? Like, did he always use one particular gesture for "Mandela"? Or was he just waving his hands randomly?

I'm struck -- as someone who doesn't know sign language -- by how still he's standing. The speaker will say a 20-word sentence and he'll make one or two small gestures. Pretty much the opposite of what I've seen with ASL, where even people who don't know signs can tell there's a lot of information being communicated.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:20 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It really depends on what you mean by existing, because you could potentially sign it in different ways depending on what you intend to sign. And this is one of the tough parts of ASL translation, because you have to break down a lot of the vaguer stuff in English into concrete, formal meanings.

For instance, if you mean to say "to be" in a way that implies that you exist physically, you might sign "embodied"; if you mean to imply existence of a metaphorical concept, you might use "real/truth" as in "my love real"; if you mean to say something came into existence, you might use the word "materialize/showed up"; if you mean to say that an object/concept is currently present in reality, you might use a sign whose translation I can't really think of right now, but points to its spatial location as evidence as its reality; and so forth.

If you just want to use it as an existential verb, like "I hope you will be happy" or something, it's really not a necessary construction to a language, so we just strip it out for conciseness' sake.
posted by Conspire at 1:23 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, actually, it's not. Since I just mentioned tone and you mentioned tone, you might want to look up the Wikipedia entry on tonal languages and the distinction between the existence of tone in an example of spoken language and tone as part of a language's grammar.

You're confusing a technical term (tonal languages) with common usage (we are actually referring to intonation contours). Intonation is *absolutely* a part of English speech whether it is used at the morpheme level or not.
posted by rr at 1:28 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Was the guy at all consistent in the signs he used? Like, did he always use one particular gesture for "Mandela"? Or was he just waving his hands randomly?

As far as I could tell, it was pretty much random. For example, he used two totally different "signs" for 'world,' etc. And I'm not sure is was trying to mimic ASL or some other sign language...?

I mean, there is an intuitiveness to some ASL. What I mean is, if you were to totally guess your way through a monologue like that guy did, you will probably get a few signs right. But really, from what I can tell, he's mostly just waving his hands about and trying to vaguely look like he's signing.

It is honestly one of the stranger things I've ever seen.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:29 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, what happens if an ASL speaker also has facial paralysis, like from a stroke? How would that impact their communication abilities?
posted by spinifex23 at 1:31 PM on December 11, 2013


So, what happens if an ASL speaker also has facial paralysis, like from a stroke? How would that impact their communication abilities?

Ask yourself that question with regard to normal spoken language. The answer is of course, in all contexts.

Returning to the topic - was the guy pranking or was he hired as part of corruption and graft? There's a sort of lesson in either case.
posted by rr at 1:32 PM on December 11, 2013


"You're confusing a technical term (tonal languages) with common usage (we are actually referring to intonation contours). Intonation is *absolutely* a part of English speech whether it is used at the morpheme level or not."

I'm using the term as Conspire used it and which you contested. He was talking about the grammar of the language in the context of talking about how spacial nuance is part of the grammar of ASL. That's apples to apples, and so intonation contours is irrelevant.

I don't disagree that English has intonation. I disagree that it's comprable to ASL's use of space.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:33 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a good point that a number of Deaf or signing people will frequently bring other disabilities to the table in addition to or other than deafness. If it's not physically possible for them to sign some signs/grammatical structures, they often use modified versions of signs that are easier and agreed on by consensus by the people around them to mean certain things. Beyond that, a number of the morphemes/cues can also be literally referenced by transposing them back into the signing, or referenced in combination with their literal - I frequently, for instance, do this when I'm speaking to new signers who may not pick up on all nuance. For instance, the "eyebrows raised" cue often denotes a yes/no question, but if you can't do that, you can transpose a "ask-you" to the end of your sentence.
posted by Conspire at 1:34 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps he was a bumbling security person and it was an Enrico Palazzo type situation?
posted by cell divide at 1:39 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


item: “As someone with a grasp of American Sign Language that doesn't go much further than "I love you", I must say that guy is pretty convincing. Such a dick thing to do, though.”
I don't know a lot of ASL, but I know "thank you" because it's one of my "Eleven Essential" things a person should be able to say and understand in any language by which they're likely to be addressed. The only sign I really saw this charlatan make on the news was "Thank You." He made this grand gesture from the top of his head down to his stomach and I thought, "Huh. I thought that was 'whole.' I guess sign language is different in South Africa." I should have known.

Anyway, the fail-terpreter seems like a good enough reason to bring up Holly Maniatty, who interprets live music performances in ASL. She's awesome.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:43 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps he was a bumbling security person and it was an Enrico Palazzo type situation?

Was Reggie Jackson at the funeral?
posted by Etrigan at 1:44 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm curious why the White House let him stand next to Obama if nobody knows who the guy is (and same for all the other heads of state who were there). Doesn't everyone have to be approved by everyone else?
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:45 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is so, so nuts.

If one can put aside for a moment the entirely understandable outrage of the deaf community it is pretty funny.

The way I look at it, it is funny... to people fifty years from now, looking back at us.

What even possesses someone to try something like this? Is he a malicious prankster/performance artist who finagled his way into this for some kind of stupid point? Is so, then Thumbs Down. Or is he effectively speaking Peggy Hill Spanish, where he somehow thinks he is doing it right?
posted by JHarris at 1:49 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was using it to explore Conspire's deliberately obtuse conception of English. English without intonation, without stress, pitch, and pacing is still English communication, but does not define English communication; it is a denuded subset.

To somehow define these as agrammatical so that sign language looks comparatively rich is silly. Facial expressions, etc. count for sign but not for verbal languages? Having spent a lot of time around folks from Gallaudet, this kind of thinking is not new to me and it's still wrong - in fact, this specific topic is one of those areas that comes up a lot.

Spoken languages are poor in communicating spatial relationships. There is where spatial gesturing comes in (i.e., a parallel simultaneous channel). When spoken language users actually do want to communicate spatiality with simultaneous gesture, they do so using a dedicated channel without the noise generated by multiplexing positional information with semantic content.
posted by rr at 1:49 PM on December 11, 2013


This looks like less a case of “wacky madcap hijinks” and more a case of “asshole defrauds a marginalised group”, with perhaps a subtext of institutional corruption (if the crook was known to be incompetent but got the job on connections).
posted by acb at 1:50 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


...Conspire's deliberately obtuse conception...

Is there a way to have this conversation without this kind of attitude? I imagine that discussing where you draw the line between a "proper" language and metalinguistic signaling would be interesting for a lot of people. But aggressive shit like this is just going to poison the well and shut down a useful dialogue.
posted by neroli at 1:58 PM on December 11, 2013 [24 favorites]


Having attended RIT, home of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, I've had a lot of exposure to deaf people and sign language. It was fascinating to watch the interpreter in class and it took a while for us to get used to them being there and pay attention to the instructor. It became obvious after a while what some of the signs were and if you knew language theory you could sense the grammar was different than spoken English.

What was surprising was ASL fluency wasn't universal with incoming deaf students. Some had it, some didn't. It usually depended on whether or not their parents were deaf themselves. Many times hearing parents of deaf students wanted them to read lips rather than sign, perhaps in the hopes they'd "fit in" better. Consequently, NTID started weeks earlier in the Fall in order to evaluate students' sign fluency and provide remedial help.
posted by tommasz at 2:07 PM on December 11, 2013


Why does the google search for "Do deaf people vocalize in their sleep?" turn up 5 cat links before it gets on-topic?

I don't even....

posted by RolandOfEld at 2:10 PM on December 11, 2013


Was the guy at all consistent in the signs he used? Like, did he always use one particular gesture for "Mandela"? Or was he just waving his hands randomly?

From what I saw of the video (and I don't speak sign language), his movements consisted of "touch my head with my right hand", "touch my two hands together", "stick different fingers outward". Nearly every complicated movement was with his right hand; he did very little with his left. At first, it might look somewhat correct, but after a little while you realize he's doing the equivalent of saying "ching chong ching chong" as a translation into Chinese.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:11 PM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


English without intonation, without stress, pitch, and pacing is still English communication, but does not define English communication; it is a denuded subset.

There is a reason linguists break a language into four principle components (phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics). It's specifically to be able to examine this very phenomenon. I don't think anyone is arguing that the entire meaning of some mode of communication is contained in phonology and syntax. Obviously the roles of these four components are going to be different in different sorts of languages - sign, tonal, etc.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:19 PM on December 11, 2013


Thank you Conspire!
The "smart" example blew my mind.

I am wondering if there are translations of works of literature into more accessible sign language? So that more deaf people can enjoy them? Sorry if this is a stupid question.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2013


I'm using the term as Conspire used it and which you contested. He was talking about the grammar of the language in the context of talking about how spacial nuance is part of the grammar of ASL. That's apples to apples, and so intonation contours is irrelevant.

No; intonation contours like "raising the voice at the end of a question" are part of grammar, and absolutely something you have to learn in a spoken language. They are not universals; different languages use different patterns. We happen to mark this contour in written language (with the ? mark), but that's not a universal either. Intonation is not tone, but both are part of the language and must be part of a full description of the language (what linguists would call a grammar).

But you're right that intonation makes a poor analogy to the spatial nature of Sign, which is one of its most distinctive and fascinating features. A Sign speaker describing an event can construct a sort of spatial model of the scene in front of herself; pointing or even glancing at a locus serves to refer to a particular person or item in the scene.

This serves much the same purpose as deictics and pronouns in spoken language, but it doesn't work like spoken language and it's more versatile and informative.

Facial expressions, etc. count for sign but not for verbal languages?

I have to disagree with rr here too. Facial expressions are lexicalized in Sign. That is, they're properly part of the signs, as much as the hand gesture / position / movement. That's not true of spoken language.

Of course, both Sign and spoken language have various means of adding expressiveness. E.g., a rising intonation contour isn't always the grammatical mark of a question; it might be an ad hoc response to doubt, fear, excitement, etc.

Linguistics has a certain bias toward the written word, or more precisely to what can be easily written down. Anne Karpf's The Human Voice describes some of the immense amount of information conveyed by the voice, much of it little studied or understood.

The grammar of Sign includes the signs, the whole spatial framework, aspectual and semantic distinctions conveyed by modifying the signs, facial expressions. They're all things you have to learn and master just to use the language. In addition, like spoken language, it has individual expression and prosody.
posted by zompist at 3:27 PM on December 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


In the new South Africa you do tend to encounter people who've been promoted to positions that are a bit beyond their skill level; a fake sign language guy at Mandela's funeral is perhaps a rather ironic manifestation of this phenomenon.
posted by Flashman at 3:31 PM on December 11, 2013


Those aren't nonsense gestures. I'm pretty sure he was signing "Baba Booey" over and over again.
posted by rocket88 at 3:32 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have to disagree with rr here too. Facial expressions are lexicalized in Sign. That is, they're properly part of the signs, as much as the hand gesture / position / movement. That's not true of spoken language.

I think you're missing my basic point, which is that

(On that note, the word count is actually pretty inaccurate - because of the thousands of variations you can attach to any sign, our vocabulary is actually much less limited than English in conveying nuance.)

is basically bollocks.
posted by rr at 3:33 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I also sit on a Deaf board in Vancouver, and we often do a lot of our discussions by email - several of the members prefer to use ASL construction, and type all their emails in written ASL.
posted by Conspire


Please pardon me if my comment constitutes an offensive failure to grasp a point that should be obvious if I were paying proper attention, but this has me wondering how essential motion is to ASL, and whether ASL could be written as a series of (appropriately abstracted) GIFs where one would start where the previous one ended, and perhaps arranged to be triggered from a motionless state by clicking anywhere in the series and following as the GIF in motion rippled domino-like along the series.
posted by jamjam at 3:35 PM on December 11, 2013


Motion is essential to ASL, both in terms of forming actual words and grammar. And because you often construct compound words or abbreviations by flowing one discrete word/sign into another instead of signing each sign as its discrete static representation, a re-arranged series of gifs or animated gifs would look incredibly choppy anyway since the way the signs look will depend on what precedes and follows it. It would barely be grammatical anyway because each individual sign needs to be granted a proper context, weight and connotation through linguistic cues, and even if you say the same word twice, they might have slight variances in meaning that wouldn't make the same word appropriate for both contexts.

I mean, going back to my original smart example, the single word references no less than three metaphors (maybe more?) in the action of a single sign. For instance, if I were to modify the sign such that I sign it multiple times instead of once, I'm now referencing "radiate" instead of "fly (bug)", and that would change the meaning to (depending on how you sign it), either praise or sarcasm. Or if I didn't make a "pow" morpheme and linger my finger at the end of the sign, I'm no longer referencing a "on the mark" metaphor, so I'm now being sarcastic about them being smart instead of being in agreement. Or if I decide not to extend my sign outside of its usual accepted boundary, I'm no longer referencing a "in your face" metaphor, and I'm now calling the person's behavior within the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Even if I technically want to re-use the word "smart", I probably don't want to re-use it in the same way that I have before, given it was tailored for a specific situation as signs are.
posted by Conspire at 3:51 PM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


(Thanks, Conspire, for answering so many questions.)
posted by benito.strauss at 3:59 PM on December 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


Agreed. You're being very patient with all our "Tell us what Deaf people are like!!!" questions. Thank you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:10 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yes, thank you, Conspire!
posted by jaguar at 4:17 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Conspire, the quibble I have is that you can indicate all those things in English as well. I can call someone smart in praise or sarcasm and it will be immediately evident to another fluent English speaker. And so on.
posted by Justinian at 4:27 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is getting a little tedious flagging all of your comments as fantastic, Conspire, so I am just going to mentally flag you as fantastic instead.
posted by elizardbits at 4:43 PM on December 11, 2013 [19 favorites]


When someone says that he cannot communicate a concept in English, it seems somewhat silly to continue to harp on his explanations of that concept in English as being insufficiently distinct from English.
posted by Etrigan at 4:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


"When someone says that he cannot communicate a concept in English, it seems somewhat silly to continue to harp on his explanations of that concept in English as being insufficiently distinct from English."

That's a good point of logic, but the main claim that Conspire is making is false — that ASL is greatly more expressive than English. This is a common trope found when someone wants to claim that their native language is especially wonderful. You can't wave a stick in a room full of popular articles about English without hitting numerous examples of how, say, English is such a more expressive language than other languages because of how permissive it is with borrowings from other languages. Every damn language has versions of this argument. And there is no good reason to suppose that any individual human language has significantly more expressive power, overall, than any other human language.

On the other hand, different languages can express certain kinds of ideas more efficiently than other languages. That's not the same thing as saying that one language can express a concept that another language cannot express at all, which is another common whorfian fallacy.

But as wompist wrote above, it's certainly the case that signed languages and certainly including ASL, have a particularly powerful expressive ability with regard to spatial concepts and that particular quality of signed languages is important and deserves a lot of attention and respect. But is it overall a "better" language than another language (and certainly overall expressive power would be a key metric of a language's overall "value")? Such comparisons and assertions are simply wrongheaded.

As I wrote, I'm not a linguist, but I've read many, many discussions by linguists about such claims.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:01 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, certainly you can use tone, cadence, accent and so forth to denote English words with sarcasm or praise, but can you say, in a single ordinary English word with no additional words or context, while simultaneously tying and alluding the word to three separate metaphorical contexts and distinguishing between even the smallest alterations in what the word communicates in a clearly communicated way:
    "I won't disagree that you're smart but you're drawing too much emphasis to it and (metaphorically) putting it into other people's space and being showy about it by attempting to linger on flashy displays for a long time, and I'm starting to get a little fed up, but not enough to directly tell you especially since in some respects I find it a little bit endearing; it's not a big annoyance, but one that's like a fly (visual metaphor)."
I mean, I'm really hard pressed to figure out how to convey sarcasm but gentle agreement but also rebuke and specific criticism and then apology and an assessment of behavior just by saying the word "smart" in English, no matter how I slice the tone. I could potentially do it in maybe five words if I was like "I think you're sooooo smart", but then we could equivalently say that ASL now gets three other words (I, think, you) to lend the exact same treatment to and we're down the recursive rabbit hole once again.

I have absolutely nothing against spoken English. My first language was actually spoken English since I was born with only a moderate hearing loss that progressed; because of that, I'm also perfectly fluent in all of the quirks and moments of English as a native speaker. Since I work in mainstream academia, and then in the nights with intersective accessibility considerations that don't always work with organizations with Deafness as their central pillar, my primary language is spoken English.

So as someone fluent in both languages, my personal assessment is that, yes, there's absolutely no way that English can match up to the sheer economy, adaptability and modifiableness (and that's saying something given how adaptable and modifiable English is), and constant allusion to multiple visual metaphors in even everyday words that ASL has. I mean, you can take or leave my assessment, but I believe this to be a honest descriptor of ASL - and it feels weird that people with no fluency or even prior experience with signed language feel that they can completely challenge my assessment of the two languages as a fluent and native speaker of both. I don't think I'm making a value assessment either by saying "ASL is better" - there's a lot of places where it's weaker, like in descriptions of science or algorithmic rather loci-based talk.
posted by Conspire at 5:11 PM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


Why is it better (more expressive) to have lots of ways to say a given word to mean multiple things than to have different words that mean different things?
posted by sparklemotion at 5:25 PM on December 11, 2013


To clarify, I'm not arguing that as a whole, ASL is objectively "better" than English in any way, and I think with sufficient quantity of words and with proper use of linguistic devices, you can be equivalently expressive in everyday English language as in ASL. But on a word-by-word basis, it's not even a comparison to make because ASL is built for economy and nuance. Can you break down the nuance of an ASL Sign into a similar English concept if you have sufficient room to elaborate and analyze? Yes, and I've certainly done so above. But while an English speaker has finished elaborating on one concept, I've moved onto two dozen different ones that now need to be deconstructed in similar ways. This is why ASL interpretation, and especially interpretation of more complex ASL, is so difficult.

Which isn't to say that all signed language can really be easily translated though. The easiest way is to look at music - how would one translate, for instance, the Moonlight Sonata into English? Yet to ask the same of an ASL signer (ignoring hearing loss for a moment, although some ASL interpreters do well at this) wouldn't actually be so difficult - it's pretty easy to preserve thematic concepts and abstract imagery while maintaining the rhythm, tempo, beat and so forth of the original music. I mean, I suppose you could translate ASL translations of music or ASL poetry back into English poetry, but I would argue that the two different modes are absolutely not equivalent at all.
posted by Conspire at 5:30 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


"...and it feels weird that people with no fluency or even prior experience with signed language feel that they can completely challenge my assessment of the two languages as a fluent and native speaker of both."

I'm not sure who those people are — aren't you making some unwarranted assumptions? I'm not fluent in ASL, but I've been around ASL my entire life, as I mentioned earlier.

But that's really beside the point, as is your own intuitive experience of these two languages as a native speaker. You're making a strong linguistic claim; it's a scientific question, not a question answerable simply by virtue of native competency in these two languages — such claims about language in general or a language in particular by native speakers on the basis of their native competency but outside the context of informed linguistic analysis are extremely suspect and very often prove to be false.

"To clarify, I'm not arguing that as a whole, ASL is objectively 'better' than English in any way, and I think with sufficient quantity of words and with proper use of linguistic devices, you can be equivalently expressive in everyday English language as in ASL."

It's unclear to me precisely what you've been arguing because you've made both kinds of arguments simultaneously. Your claims that ASL has certain strengths relative to English are perfectly reasonable. Your claims that ASL is much more efficient than English with regard to compactness or information density and that ASL is much more flexible than English and therefore inherently more precisely expressive, are both claims that deal with the core functions of a language and, were your claims true, would necessarily be equivalent to the claim that ASL is a "better" language, in general, than English. And they mirror similar claims made about tonal languages relative to non-tonal languages, or languages with a lot of information packed into the verb, or whatever.

But while it's arguably silly to claim that every human language is exactly equally information dense and capable of precision and nuance, it's empirically proven to be the case that all human languages are within spitting distance of each other in these respects. And that shouldn't be a big surprise, really, because there's good reasons to believe that much of our language faculty is biological and inherent, and so we'd all share similar capabilities and limitations regardless of the particular language (or rather, particular languages are constrained in the evolution by those capabilities and limitations) and, also, multiples or certainly an order of magnitude improvement of one language over the others in these key respects would be a very powerful social incentive for the universal adoption of that language.

Different languages are especially good at expressing different things, this variety is a good thing and it's one among many reasons to celebrate language diversity. Signed languages, because of their unusual nature, make this be particular true — there is no question that signed languages are especially, remarkably capable at communicating certain kinds of things relative to spoken languages. But when you go beyond that and argue about the language's capabilities in general, whether it's a signed language or some particular spoken language, because it has certain very useful features, then you've moved into territory that is extremely difficult to rigorously defend. People defend such claims on the basis of their own intuitive experience every day; that intuitive experience isn't reliable about this sort of thing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:53 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


In any case, our disagreement is trivial relative to the many misconceptions about signed languages that have been discussed and dispelled in this thread. I favorited the comments like this above, but I want to personally repeat that I've greatly appreciated your participation in this thread, as well as your civility when your patience has been tried.

As I discussed, the education and awareness-raising you've provided in this thread is something that matters to me personally, too, and I think your participation in this thread has made it one of the better MeFi threads in a long while. Thanks so much.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:06 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I disagree with the idea that a claim of efficiency or nuance would necessarily point to an implicit claim that the language as better. The language is organized and performed in a radically different way than spoken language, as we've already seen from the discussion of spatial cues - therefore, the claim of efficiency and nuance is related to the way the language is performed. ASL is efficient and has nuance because it draws upon a shared spatial space, performance of non-verbal gestures, and spatial/handshape/movement-based/etc ties between words that aren't present in spoken languages to evoke metaphor. This is why, for instance, it loses power in highly algorithmic language, because there's no easy way to tie spatial concepts together when it proceeds in a highly linear fashion that references previous linear loci for too long. And similarly for highly scientific talk, or for highly jargonistic speech, because even though fingerspelling can proceed fairly rapidly, there's no way to associate and allude it with other signs and there's very few ways to attach further meaning to the fingerspelled word with non-verbal cues - plus arguably, there's not as much need for non-literal language in those modes of rhetoric. So perhaps you wouldn't say that it's terribly efficient at all in certain modes where it's not conceptually organized for - but in certain conceptual organizations, and in particular in every day interpersonal relationship which I'm most concerned with, it does show a remarkable degree of efficiency and nuance.

And there are concrete examples that I bring forward to posit these claims. I would absolutely love to hear your intonation of the word "smart" in English that brings the exact connotation that I've described that the sign "smart" with particular morphemes or contextual cues has. And then again in the three different variations on metaphors that I've described, ensuring that each intonation of the word "smart" can be distinguished from each other meaning-wise in exactly the ways described in ASL. And this type of multiple-layering of connotation isn't unique to the word smart - it can be performed on literally every word in ASL, and is indeed extremely common to do so in every day talk in ASL.
posted by Conspire at 6:26 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm just joining this to say thank you to Conspire and others for teaching me so much. I saw the story this morning and thought "that's weird" and I was interested to see this on MeFi, but I had no idea I would learn so much from this thread. It's been fascinating. One of the reasons I love this site is because of things like this, but I have to this has, even of MeFi, been a particularly enlightening thread.
posted by ob at 6:54 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are words in english that imply intelligence but in a insulting way, as described. For example: smug, booksmart, ivory tower, gunner, know-it-all, etc...

Why does having multiple special ways to say the word "smart" make a language more efficient and/or expressive than having different words to express different things? (with the understanding that I think we all have that a language being more efficient and/or expressive doesn't necessarily make it better than another)
posted by sparklemotion at 7:09 PM on December 11, 2013


South Africa hunts for mystery fake sign language interpreter
The revelations have sparked a man-hunt for the mystery mimer, who is totally unknown to South Africa's deaf community.

The government, which was officially in charge of Tuesday's ceremony, said it had tried and failed to get to the bottom of the matter.

"Government is looking in to this matter but has not been able to conclude this inquiry due to the demanding schedule of organising events," Presidency MinisterCollins Chabane told a news conference.

Zuma spokesman Mac Maharaj said he was checking the reports, while the SABC state broadcaster, which covered the memorial, said it was not involved as it had its own on-screen signers.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) also professed no knowledge, even though several television clips from a big party meeting a year ago showed the same man gesticulating on stage alongside Zuma.

"I don't know this guy. He doesn't work for the ANC. It was a government event. Ask them," spokesman Jackson
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Why does having multiple special ways to say the word "smart" make a language more efficient and/or expressive than having different words to express different things?

There is no single word in English that can be conveyed by a layman with any intonation in particular and which expresses the paragraph's worth of meaning that Conspire laid out. This is what makes it more efficient. I mean, an RSC actor could probably do it, but that says a lot about RSC actors and not much about English as a language.

Also, Conspire was not claiming that ASL is more efficient solely because there are multiple special ways to say the word "smart"; he stated that such layers of meaning can be put onto any word in ASL. If you can lay a paragraph's worth of meaning onto any word, than yeah, it's more expressive.

It's not a contest. It's okay that ASL can do things English can't.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:54 PM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Well, there is a word (which is not a happy word on metafilter so I was trying to avoid using it). But I get that there might be other examples where English falls down.

It just seems to me that while Conspire is bringing lots of great insight into this thread (and I don't doubt anything that he's said about the frustrations of living under the thumb of the hegemony, he's also making factual assertions about language A v. language B that I'm not sure stand up to scrutiny so I'm just trying to understand.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:17 PM on December 11, 2013


No, sorry. There is no way to layer that much additional meaning onto the word mansplain. You can't use only the word mansplain, and no other word, to convey:
"I won't disagree that you're explaining but you're drawing too much emphasis to it and (metaphorically) putting it into other people's space and being showy about it by attempting to linger on flashy displays for a long time, and I'm starting to get a little fed up, but not enough to directly tell you especially since in some respects I find it a little bit endearing; it's not a big annoyance, but one that's like a fly (visual metaphor)."
Same is true for pretty much any other word. There is no verb in English with which you can replace the italicized one and then use only cadence, inflection, whatever to add all the other meaning. So English has zero verbs with which you can do that effectively. ASL has...all of them.

he's also making factual assertions about language A v. language B that I'm not sure stand up to scrutiny so I'm just trying to understand.

He's fluent in both languages. Are you? If not, what do you know about ASL that he doesn't? And if the answer is "nothing,"* what scrutiny do you believe you're capable of performing that he is not?

More to the point, there are a shitload of laudatory adjectives a person can apply to the English language, but are you seriously trying to front like efficient is one of them?

* SPOILERS: The answer is "nothing."
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:35 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't really know, I think the difference between a language that has a set of words that have been pre-agreed on to have certain rigid connotations and a language that conjugates a wide variety of modifiers and metaphors/word relationships to base words to essentially create one-time words unique to situations should be pretty clear cut. At this stage, it seems like people are just quibbling over whether to believe that my language functions this radically different from English or not, and I don't know how to answer to that than "it does".
posted by Conspire at 8:41 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


He's fluent in both languages. Are you? If not, what do you know about ASL that he doesn't?

It's true, I'm coming from a place of ignorance here. That's part of why almost every single comment I've made on this thread has been a question (or could easily be rephrased as such). In fact, this thread got interesting because someone asked a question and others weren't immediately satisfied by the answers.

At this stage, it seems like people are just quibbling over whether to believe that my language functions this radically different from English or not

I find it hard to believe that anyone still reading this thread doubts that ASL is radically different than English. If you think that's what people have been arguing, that might explain why things have gotten a little circular.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:48 PM on December 11, 2013


I think we can at least conclude that English and Mandarin are much more similar to each other than either are to ASL. For one thing, both use sounds.
posted by Aiwen at 9:04 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"...he stated that such layers of meaning can be put onto any word in ASL. If you can lay a paragraph's worth of meaning onto any word, than yeah, it's more expressive..."

Okay, for example, paragraph and word are inappropriate units to use to make such comparisons. Ultimately, what you are attempting to describe is the information density relative to time, where "more expressive" means that a "paragraph's worth of meaning" in English can be communicated as a "word" in ASL in a much shorter time because all that meaning is compacted into a very "small" unit.

And I'm open to the idea that signed languages, or a particular signed language, are/is an outlier among languages in this metric (assuming that we can reliably produce such a metric and that it can characterize a language on average, which we should be careful about assuming) but that's not equivalent to either what Conspire has asserted or you are asserting here. What both of you have described would be even an order of magnitude greater information density. And that would be a profoundly important finding in linguistics, it would imply, for example, that the bottleneck for the production of speech in spoken languages lie in the muscle machinery of speech generation, or more generally the available signalling bandwidth of the motor aspect of speech generation whereas a signed language avoids that bottleneck and instead utilizes the supposedly much greater bandwidth available for manual production of speech. That's basically what Conspire is asserting. And that would imply something very important about the cognitive portion of language production. This wouldn't be something that native signers casually asserted, it would be a key research finding in neurolinguistics.

But more than that, the other problem is that a version of this argument appears all the time with regard to various spoken languages relative to other spoken languages — in those cases, the arguments involve things like the use of an additional channel of information in one language that isn't available in another (such as tone, or phonemic diversity, or total number of verb tenses, or whatever) — and assert that language A is "more expressive" and more information dense or efficient than language B and this is just never actually true. Again, that's not to say that there isn't variation across language with regard to these things, but the variation just isn't that large. People are very naive about assessing this sort of thing.

"I think we can at least conclude that English and Mandarin are much more similar to each other than either are to ASL. For one thing, both use sounds."

The irony about statements like this and arguments such as Conspire is making, is that the linguistic breakthrough that functioned as a defense against the then-current idea that signed languages aren't true languages was that signed languages aren't qualitatively unlike and unrelated to other human languages, but rather that they fit in the family of human languages quite well, they're not fundamentally different. The exceptionalist argument is the flipside of the argument that signed languages aren't really languages, it appeals to an uninformed idea about both what human languages are like and what signed languages are like.

That signed languages don't use sounds does not place them outside the context of spoken languages; and the key evidence for this is that were it the case that signed languages could be utterly unlike spoken languages because the limiting factor of what spoken languages could be like is that they're spoken, then they would be. Or at least some of them would be. But human languages, including signed languages, are clearly not arbitrary, they share a bunch of regularities, there's a whole bunch of evidence to indicate that the foundational constraints for what human language can be are the same for spoken and signed languages, at least in the main. Does that mean that there can't be a lot of differentiation at the margins? No, there can be. And there is with regard to spoken language, too.

But the claim that a language is much more expressive and efficient because it can say something in a single word that another language can only say with a long paragraph is an ancient trope in the popular discussion about language. It comes up all the time, it's debunked all the time by linguists.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:27 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wonder if the confusion here is that people are under the impression that we're only discussing a single word when I'm actually talking about the method in which ASL constructs expression and nuance. The word I offered as an example was manufactured in the moment - which is to say, it would not have formally been some kind of vocabulary that would have a pre-agreed on meaning that would have been formally part of the language prior.

But even so, the meaning is automatically recognizable for several reasons. First, it works off a base construction that indeed has an agreed-upon and pre-established meaning - which is where you get the quantifier of 100,000 signs. Second, what I'm doing is kind of visually obvious. Sign language is a visual language and a large proportion of the signs will have obvious symbolic or gestural meaning that doesn't need to be explained. Third, while it'd be a stretch to call these rules in any sense, the body language, morphemes and non-linguistic cues that I conjugate have certain visual hallmarks that create certain visual properties that would obviously lend a word this or that connotation just based on appearance. And fourth, I reference metaphors that use similar handshapes, motions or positioning to basically "borrow" the meaning of these words, whether in a literal or metaphorical sense, to compound on my base word.

So it's not just the word smart. You can apply this strategy to literally any word. While what functions you can perform on a word without obscuring its meaning will vary from word to word (for instance, you can virtually perform no functions on finger-spelled words, so they pretty much have to be referenced as a direct literal), for any given sign there would be a number of modifiers that you can use in conjunction and permutation with each other to modify meaning - speed, repetition, intensity, morphemes, positioning, transformative/metaphorical reference to other signs, the list goes on.

While there are key similarities between signed and spoken language, one of the key differences is that signed languages are visual. And because they have a visual basis with sets of visual symbols to use, "making up" (not exactly an accurate word, but I can't think of a better way of putting it) complex words is trivial because you're essentially showing the other signer visually directly what you mean, instead of referencing a set of letters that has been abstractly agreed-upon to have a certain meaning. So in this respect, it makes more sense to call it less of the creation of a word than it is drawing a picture that shows what you mean - not explicitly in the way that you're drawing things in the air with a faux brush, but basically gathering and performing visual elements to create a comprehensive mental image. Spoken language just isn't as efficient at this because it's not visual. I mean, if you're doing written language, there MIGHT be a little bit of comparison to pictograms, but even pictograms are intensely constrained compared to the ability of signing to reference and consolidate visual symbolism into meaning.

I mean, obviously our entire language isn't pictogramic or arbitrarily visual, or it'd be completely chaotic, but because we primarily occupy a visual and symbolic space, we can take advantage of this space. One of the ways, as mentioned before, is in spatial direction and directional cues and drawing shapes; but that's not the limit of what a visual language affords you.
posted by Conspire at 9:59 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sooo.... they just interviewed this dude on the radio. He claims to be legit but that he had a schizophrenic mental breakdown due to the stress.
posted by PenDevil at 10:16 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


When asked how he felt about being the centre of questioning about his interpreting skills, Dantyi said: "It is very sad at this present moment because I believe that it was an issue that had to be dealt with earlier. If the Deaf Federation of South Africa​ have an issue with my interpreting they should have clarified it a long time ago, not at this crucial time for our country." (source)
Yow.
posted by hades at 10:45 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow. I've found the discussion of signed and spoken languages interesting (thanks, Conspire, et al.), and as a budding linguist, I decided to go rooting through the literature. From the best that I can understand of this thesis, and some other references (e.g., this one), most linguists think that spoken and signed languages present information at about the same rate. My rough understanding is that signs take longer to make than words, but some combination of the ability to encode multiple morphemes in one sign (like in Conspire's "smart" example), and the elimination of inessential morphemes makes the two modes about the same speed, which explains why fluent bilinguals can translate between the two in real time.
posted by Tsuga at 12:26 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


He claims to be legit but that he had a schizophrenic mental breakdown due to the stress.

The charade continues.

Corruption and nepotism are always bittersweet. Mostly painful and frustrating, but occasionally lightened by the dark humour of these ridiculous charades, embarrassing public incompetence and ineffective face saving whoppers.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


That really is a belter of an excuse. Only bad people would hound him now. Poor dear.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 2:51 AM on December 12, 2013


nadawi: "for anyone who thinks we should do away with sign interpreters and that captioning should be enough - put your tv on mute for a week and just read captions, especially for live events. it might be illuminating for you."

Not sure if anyone has mentioned it yet, but signed language as used by deaf people is not another form of written common language, English, for instance. ASL is spoken by the majority of the Deaf Community in the USA, but it is not English, nor does it have a written alphabet. There is no equivalent, so "captioning" in ASL is not possible - this is true of all core signed languages commonly spoken by deaf people around the world, though they are different languages unto themselves and don't necessarily resemble each other. Some deaf people speak SEE, or Signed Exact English, but that is mostly not accepted by the Deaf Community at large.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:13 AM on December 12, 2013


I hope they release a recording of the event with a real interpreter superimposed over the faker.
posted by pracowity at 3:21 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


If the Deaf Federation of South Africa​ have an issue with my interpreting they should have clarified it a long time ago, not at this crucial time for our country.

Wow. WOW. That is, uh, quite a response.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:10 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here is a link to the fascinating book written by Oliver Sacks called 'Seeing Voices'. It was a real eye-opener for me when I started working as a relay officer.
posted by h00py at 4:22 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


(My perspective is that of a hearing person on the fringes of Deaf culture and that is why I've recommended the above book to other hearing people who are interested in learning more about Sign as a language - I'm totally not ignoring Conspire's perspective as one who is part of that culture).
posted by h00py at 4:27 AM on December 12, 2013


He may be shit at sign language, but he is certainly fluent in spin language.
posted by Etrigan at 4:36 AM on December 12, 2013


Article referencing schizophrenia claims.
posted by h00py at 5:00 AM on December 12, 2013


Basically what it comes down to is that the SA government let an unverified, and in the worst case mentally unstable, person within stabbing distance of Obama.

The Secret Service must be just overjoyed at the moment.
posted by PenDevil at 5:06 AM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


His story does not comport with my experience of schizophrenics. I'm not in any position to truly call bullshit, though.

Is he claiming to have been suffering from schizophasia? Schizophasia is not triggered by "hallucinations". What's more, schizophasia is not just a collection of gibberish morphemes which don't appear to be any known language, but rather real words and sentences that just so happen to be repetitive and nonsensical.

...

If he's telling the truth, then this is just weird and sad and deeply unfortunate.

But, if he's lying about this, then I will personally see to it that this man is drowned in a vat of steaming quagga urine.

...

More generally, I would be very interested in learning more about how schizophasia is expressed in sign languages. Sign languages are fascinating!

...

When I was googling for an example of schizophasia, I made the mistake of going to psychology.wikia.com. They actually cite "Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?" an example of schizophasia.

I won't lie, I laughed, but c'mon, guys.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:17 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


pretty ballsy to say that they should have complained about his interpreting before, since they did complain before.
posted by nadawi at 5:52 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not sure if anyone has mentioned it yet

yes. i'd say a good 1/3 of the thread under my comment is on that exact topic (also, a view i agree with and was trying to support with my comment...).
posted by nadawi at 5:53 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"But, if he's lying about this, then I will personally see to it that this man is drowned in a vat of steaming quagga urine."

Have you considered doing this work freelance? I'm asking for a friend.

"His story does not comport with my experience of schizophrenics. I'm not in any position to truly call bullshit, though."

Just to prove that, contrary to a recent MeTa comment of mine, I am fully capable of being a cynical bastard, I'll happily assert that this is bullshit. This is pretty much the sort of thing that these kinds of inept con-artists use to try to get out of trouble. This isn't some elaborate scam, this is the habitual use of the brazen lie that people don't expect because it's so brazen and stupid. This actually works.

Not so much on the world diplomatic stage, though.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:55 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wait, my last sentence? What was I thinking? The world diplomatic stage is all about the brazen lie. Forget that part.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]




i love that clip! i linked it up thread but with a not very descriptive title...
posted by nadawi at 6:39 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It makes me very happy to have so many people interested in learning more about Deaf culture and sign language, so thanks for this discussion. And thanks again to Conspire for his incredible contributions and patience.

My rough understanding is that signs take longer to make than words, but some combination of the ability to encode multiple morphemes in one sign (like in Conspire's "smart" example), and the elimination of inessential morphemes makes the two modes about the same speed, which explains why fluent bilinguals can translate between the two in real time.

Just as an interesting (possibly exclusively to me) note, most fluent bilinguals can't translate between the two in real time. Simultaneous interpreting (sign/spoken or spoken/spoken) is a very cognitively demanding task that requires abilities above and beyond those of typical fluent bilinguals.

Obviously, this is in no way excusing this man's behavior.
posted by joan cusack the second at 6:45 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'll happily assert that this is bullshit

This is a two-audience thing though.

Like "he's Xhosa speaking' and "signing in Zulu" and "he's schizophrenic", the intended audience is the ANC's core voters - less educated black South Africans, who I guess will treat each of these comments with less scepticism than educated black and white South Africans.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:55 AM on December 12, 2013


Conspire, thanks for being so, so patient, and for being so good at articulating the discussion. It makes me think of the differences in nuance with German words, where it's probably much more similar to differences between English and, say, Hawaii'an.
posted by theora55 at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Holy moley, this article says he received one year of training. Dude, I took two years of French and shouldn't be allowed to live translate an elementary school play, let alone a major international event.
posted by insufficient data at 9:35 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's what he's claiming, but I don't think even that's true.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:44 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I don't know what to believe! I was ready to dismiss everything he said as just ass-covering nonsense, but it's so bizarre.

Like, the same article says "Asked how often he had become violent, he said "a lot" while declining to provide details." Like, if he's just straight up lying, why would he add that? O_O Although I guess it would distract people from the "fake sign language interpreter" thing and lead to a "holy crap a violent crazy person was standing next to the president" thing? Who knows, maybe he's just throwing out things that he thinks will gain him sympathy and, uh, doing a poor job of it. Either way, way to make things terrible for deaf folks *and* mentally ill folks. Good job dude and people who hired him!
posted by insufficient data at 9:57 AM on December 12, 2013


Man, the end of the article, where he says he doesn't remember any of it, just makes me think of Walt's 'fugue state' in Breaking Bad. "How did I end up naked in this grocery store on this stage in front of all these people? I totally don't remember any of it!"
posted by insufficient data at 10:02 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's what he's claiming, but I don't think even that's true.

Yeah, I really doubt that he would be fine lying about being able to sign when he was going to have to prove himself in front of billions of people at one of the largest world events of the year...but would NOT lie about all these other stupid things that are harder to catch him out in.

He's an idiot. Couldn't he at least have gone with "partial paralysis" or some other issue that would have kept him from being able to sign? It's not like schizophrenics are all wondering around having forgotten how to talk, I really don't know what sudden-onset-schizophrenia (eyeroll) would have to do with his ability to sign.
posted by rue72 at 10:38 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


One year of training is enough to learn that one year of training is not enough.
posted by Area Man at 10:40 AM on December 12, 2013


It actually doesn't take long to become an interpreter for ASL! Most interpreting programs, including the top-rated ones, only take about two years. But reasonably, for entrance into these programs you need some basic understanding of ASL, so you probably need to take an intro-level course at a community college or somewhere prior to these programs.

Which isn't to say that interpretation of ASL is easy in any sense, though. Even as someone fluent in both languages, I find it difficult to interpret intense conversations for more than 15 minutes (sometimes when we don't have interpreters on hand, I volunteer to assist), otherwise my brain shuts down. Real-time interpretation, especially since you have other complicating factors beyond that of interpreting other languages that make interpreting particularly heavy on mental processing skills (the unique spatial/visual quirks of ASL that don't translate well, as mentioned, plus the fact that you're routinely expected to interpret simultaneously to someone talking/signing). Actually, this is a pretty big deal with interpreters - my interpreter in high school actually didn't have formal certification (since my high school was cheap), because her processing speed was considered too slow. She doesn't really have a learning disability in any formal sense, but she told me that her "brain doesn't work fast enough" to interpret on a full level.

Beyond that, interpreters face other challenges. It's true that the base vocabulary is pretty limited in ASL, which is why it's pretty easy to get a passable level of ASL to begin with, but the use of non-manual cues can be really difficult to teach. The problem is that while there are vague rules governing morphemes and etc, they're not consistent from sign to sign, and different signs can be acted on in different ways that are intuitive to native signers but difficult to figure out for new interpreters. These are things that interpreters mostly pick up in the course of interacting with Deaf people rather than formally learn, I find. It helps to be a visual learner.

Furthermore, being an interpreter really depends on your ability to integrate into the Deaf community and gain a reputation in Deaf communities as well. Deaf communities are incredibly close-knit - which is why in the original article, they mentioned the guy wasn't known in the Deaf community at all. There generally aren't too many obstacles here because Deaf communities tend to be pretty welcoming due to their heterogeneous nature since 90% of deaf people are born to hearing parents (this is also one of the reasons why there's so much queer visibility and so many queer interpreters as well - queer acceptance has pretty much been a running trend in Deaf communities due to the parallels in how they draw their communities) - but there are interpreters that initially start off with very patronizing "let's help disabled people" attitudes, and they do get rejected. But establishing a reputation in a tight-knit word-of-mouth-based community is a thing that interpreters do have to do, though - or else they won't get hired, or worse, get criticized by the Deaf when they do.

And I would say that "interpretation" is a good name for it, because in many circumstances interpreters are trying to "name" visual concepts that would usually be preserved as visual going from person to person. It's important to note that while I provide some interpretations in this FPP, these ARE interpretations - for instance, I would also disagree with some of the English interpretations that the signer makes in his 11 words for smart. Which isn't to say the concept isn't clear to me from a visual language perspective, but it's difficult to really place names on them that do full justice to their meaning - it's basically like trying to turn an interpretative dance into a transcript. Ultimately, a lot of the nuance in ASL is more like meta-data for signers exclusively - for instance, metaphorical allusion just doesn't translate well. Like for instance, the signs "fire" and "wait" share the sign but only differ slightly in the pace you do it - so you can easily transform wait into fire. I suppose you could interpret it as "waiting eagerly" or something, but that doesn't really do much justice to the visual concept. And that's a pretty relate-able concept in English since the concept of fire is pretty much associated with jitterness and movement and so forth - but when you get deeper into it, how do you draw relations in English between stuff like "taxi and unicorn"?
posted by Conspire at 11:03 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Conspire -- I find it difficult to interpret intense conversations for more than 15 minutes

I was interested to read from insufficient data's link above:

Ordinarily, sign language interpreters in South Africa are switched every 20 minutes to maintain their concentration levels, she said. Jantjie was on the stage for the entire service that lasted more than four hours.
posted by rosswald at 11:30 AM on December 12, 2013


So even if someone had approved his qualifications, and even if he'd passed whatever security checks one would think would be run, they messed up in yet another way.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:16 PM on December 12, 2013


They have a Deaf member of parliament who has interpreters. There are also South African organizations for the Deaf. If the government wanted to find qualified interpreters , it had some great sources for quality referrals.
posted by Area Man at 1:42 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now I'm wondering whether any government has like a stable of sign interpreters on retainer or salary or whatever. Seems like at least having a few around for the big speeches would be a good idea.
posted by Etrigan at 1:47 PM on December 12, 2013


I'm still curious, were the ceremonies only in English? South Africa has a lot of other spoken languages with large populations who don't speak English. Did they translate to Zulu, Xhosa or Afrikaans? Mandela himself grew up speaking Xhosa, surely they had some affordance for Xhosa speakers?
posted by Nelson at 1:55 PM on December 12, 2013


Etrian, growing up in Canada all footage from The House of Commons and The Senate was broadcast live with sign language interpreters who are salaried employees of the Federal government through the Translation Bureau. They provide services at State Occasions as well as private meetings with Members of Parliament or the Public Service. All services in Canada (Federal, Provincial and Municipal) must be provided in Sign Language.
posted by saucysault at 2:53 PM on December 12, 2013


I wonder if, in his mind, he was going to give it 110% and come out like these guys, or maybe this guy. He may not know much sign language, but gosh darn it, he's got heart!
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:09 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Captions would provide one option for people watching tv to know what's being said.

An interpreter can interpret for deaf people attending the funeral.

The idea of a deaf person watching captions on their phone during a funeral is ridiculous. We don't approve of hearing people staring at their phone when a eulogy is going on, why would we force a deaf person to stare at their phone to be able to understand what's happening?
posted by yohko at 4:00 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Quantum Leap, episode 273: Sam leaps into the body of a sign language interpreter at Mandela's memorial. "Oh boy." - gasmanic
posted by Evilspork at 8:24 PM on December 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


Holy carp. He's been accused of murder.

I would NOT want to be the one fielding calls from the Secret Service today. Yikes.
posted by sonika at 6:40 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Murder? Sure...murdering South African Sign Language!

(cue rapturous applause, bows before a brick wall illuminated by a spotlight, reminds patrons to tip their servers)
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:43 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll just leave this here.
posted by Freen at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


People used to talk about foreign spoken languages with contempt, "it just sounds like babble, it can't be a real intelligent language". We're past that now in polite society for spoken language, less so for Sign.

I think honestly that might be what let him continue so long -the desire not to do that. I would bet a few people looked at this guy, said, "It looks like he's just repeating the same signs and babbling OH GOD I'M A BIGOT SHUT UP SHUT UP."

On the one-word smart/paragraph smart bit - I don't think that makes ASL a more expressive language, though I would say it makes it a more dense language. And I think it's an error to assume that spoken English doesn't contain tonal and physical cues that can perform that same expressiveness - but I think it's just that since spoken English doesn't have the same commonly used tonal and physical cues standardized, this kind of thing is confined to close family members and friends - essentially, just as "family sign" used to be.

"I won't disagree that you're smart but you're drawing too much emphasis to it and (metaphorically) putting it into other people's space and being showy about it by attempting to linger on flashy displays for a long time, and I'm starting to get a little fed up, but not enough to directly tell you especially since in some respects I find it a little bit endearing; it's not a big annoyance, but one that's like a fly (visual metaphor)."

So for example, the "you're so smart" example referenced above would become, for me at least,

*head slightly tilted towards the person I'm addressing, affectionate curl on the first word* You're *second word abrupt and a bit forceful to express my frustration* so smaaaaart *third word drawn out, corner of the mouth crinkling up to show that I think it's a little silly but not so much as to show that it's worthy of mockery. At the same time, lifting my eyebrows and bringing both of my hands up in a splayed gesture that slightly rotates, referencing cultural touchstone of jazzhands without actually bringing it up and trying to just convey that level of flashiness on the conversation.

That's English, that's not ASL - but it doesn't mean I'm sitting on my hands and my facial gestures are missing.
posted by corb at 7:19 AM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's nice but not quite the same thing as speaking in a purely visual language.

Sign is necessarily more expressive in gesture and body language and facial expressions and visual cues.

I don't really see what your point is, I guess?
posted by h00py at 8:13 AM on December 15, 2013


nadawi: "films often have far better captions than tv, especially live events (hence why i specified that). also, i'd wager that people who read subtitles and don't understand the language are missing out on some of what people who do understand the language get in those films - at least that was my experience watching subtitled french films and then watching them again once i learned french."

One thing I've noticed on TV at least is that often captioning censors words that *aren't* censored in the spoken version -- which I find a bit crazy!

Also, it's clear sometimes the captioner just gives up and will enter something like "unintelligible" when in fact if they spent a second to listen carefully they'd realize it was an actual word.

They're especially lousy if one or more of the characters speaks in an accent unfamiliar to the captioner.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:58 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Flunkie: "But, at least as presented, that's not nearly as different from English as Chinese is. That's just a temporarily unfamiliar word - the English listener would say "Huh? What's a cha burrito?", the interpreter would say, "Oh, sorry, 'cha' means like 'really big'", and everything would be totally understandable from there on out with essentially zero effort.
"

The only reason they are similar is because that peson lives in an English speaking country and has taken on both English and ASL as languages.

It's like if a Russian happened to move the US and when talking to you accidentally inserted a Russian word into their conversation. You understand the rest of the sentence because it is English, not because Russian is just like English.

I don't know how much more clearly it can be expressed that ASL and English are two different languages that only happen to share a geographic overlap.

As I understand it, it is true that some phrases or words in ASL are influenced by English, but again that is only a consequence of being in an area where English is the majority language.

Oh! A perfect example from the sentence -- you know what the word "burrito" means because it has become a common vocab word here in the US. But unless you speak Spanish, which you would probably acknowledge is very different language from English, you are not going to understand the sentence "I ate a big burrito" if it were written in Spanish instead of English.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:19 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]




Good lord, this rabbit hole is deep! Are they going to discover next that he's one of those people that supposedly believed a witch stole his penis or that he had to rape a baby to ward off HIV?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:28 AM on December 16, 2013


Slavoj Žižek:The 'fake' Mandela memorial interpreter said it all.

"[...] what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn't really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

And was this also not the truth about the whole of the Mandela memorial ceremony? All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense. What the world leaders were celebrating was the successful postponement of the true crisis which will explode when poor, black South Africans effectively become a collective political agent. They were the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling, and his message was: the dignitaries really don't care about you. Through his fake translation, Jantjie rendered palpable the fake of the entire ceremony.
"
posted by progosk at 9:26 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


From that Slavoj Žižek piece:

"And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much more intended for us – it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered."

I'll answer that question: "No" and "fuck you".
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:32 AM on December 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

"You know, there's no such thing as true altruism, man."
posted by Etrigan at 9:35 AM on December 16, 2013




Mandela is inspiring people to learn about different cultures and open up accessibility to all people even after he's dead. We GET it, dude, you're a saint. Sheesh.
posted by Etrigan at 10:01 AM on December 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'll just leave this here:
posted by GrapeApiary at 5:50 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much moe intended for us – it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered.

There are times, and this is one of them, when I wonder if Žižek isn't some kind of IRL version of a fake-twitter account. Some pranksters have hacked into his cerebral cortex and are seeing just how silly his statements have to be before his acolytes say "wait, what?"

Answer: distressingly silly.
posted by yoink at 8:52 AM on December 19, 2013


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