Practicing Sign Language

When we first started dating, Jared and I used to practice sign language together. The train from Hampton Court station to Waterloo was a particularly good place for doing this; all the fun of a road trip but no one has to keep their hands on the wheel.

We could have been talking about anything but it wouldn’t have mattered because chances were good that no one in the vicinity would have understood us. Not because we were signing – there are plenty of deaf people in London – but because we were using American Sign Language (ASL). Just as in spoken language, there are countless languages and dialects in sign, and understanding one does not mean that you’ll understand another.

We speak the same language and still there is confusion.

So we chatted away about nothing in particular, Jared committing new vocabulary to memory and me enjoying communicating in what is technically my first language. When the train pulled into the station we got off, temporarily abandoning the lesson to navigate the busy platform.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar hand flutter; someone was trying to get my attention.

I often think people are trying to get my attention, because in Deaf culture this is done with a wave, or a foot stomp, or, in my family, by calling ‘wooooo.’ (I’m not sure how that one evolved. It just did.) So whenever I see one of these gestures, my default setting switches to ASL.

“Excuse me,” he signed, in ASL. “Are you Deaf?”

“No, my parents are Deaf. My boyfriend is learning sign so we were just practicing.”

“Ah! I couldn’t figure out why two hearing people were using ASL in England. Now I understand.”

“Are you American?”
“No, but my partner lives in San Francisco.”

It was a nice reminder that the world is small, and we’re all connected in ways we don’t realize.

Le Clerc statue
Visiting my parents’ Alma Mater of Gallaudet University, Washington DC, January 2013

This memory surfaced today after almost five years when I saw the news stories about the fraud interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. It’s become a joke within the media – a local radio show here in Newcastle used the story to launch a call-in segment for listeners to share times when they’ve gotten away with a blatant scam. Jimmy Kimmel got a registered interpreter on his show to try and decipher what the guy was saying – though unless Kimmel’s interpreter knows South African Sign Language I’m afraid his attempt, while funny, is null and void.

And I wondered – like Jared and I on the train, did this guy assume no one was paying attention? Was he struggling to translate first from English to Xhosa, then to South African Sign Language? He’s since said that he was suffering from a schizophrenic episode onstage. If this is true, it still doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t a professional interpreter. Reports indicate that the organization he is registered with vanished into thin air soon after the controversy erupted.

According to Business Week, his fee for the day was 800 rand – a paltry $77USD considering that many interpreters in South Africa charge 1700 rand an hour for their services. No one has stepped up to admit hiring him (Which, wtf? How is no one accountable?) but I’d suspect that the low price tag was more enticing than professional credentials.

I find myself feeling sorry for the interpreter and, bizarrely, hoping that he does have schizophrenia. The person who should be taking the brunt of this is the one who hired him – apparently a minion who self-destructed when the task was complete.

Yes, the world is small, but the connections between us are strong. I’m glad that there was an interpreter at the event, because there darn well should have been. I’m even happier that when that interpreter turned out to be (extremely) substandard, the Deaf community called him out. Interpreting isn’t an afterthought or a goodwill gesture; it’s essential for the millions of people around the world who communicate through various sign languages.

Good interpreters do exist, so I hope they’re the ones we see on the world stage in the future. As for the rest? I hear trains are a good place to practice.

Gallaudet University, 1988
My sisters and I, Gallaudet University, 1988

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  1. I think it’s great that Jared learned ASL. That’s the kind of gesture that would make me think ‘Yep, this guy is definitely the one for me!’

    Also, loving the matching photos. I have ones of me on the same bridge in Verona doing the same pose when I was 8 and then 21. It scares me to think that it won’t be long before that time frame has elapsed again!

    1. Learning ASL was one of the absolute requirements I always had in my head for whoever I’d end up with, and he approached with a way that left no doubts in my mind! And the photos – it does leave you reeling a little bit to think about the time lapse. 2013 was easily the fastest year in my life so far, if that makes sense.

  2. I love learning languages, and have always had ASL on that list. Language opens so many doors! So many new humans to communicate with and so many potential opportunities to learn about their different human experiences! it blows my mind!

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