Why do people make ASL translations of written documents?

My friend Josh was puzzled to see that the City of New York offers videos of some of its documents, translated from the original English into American Sign Language, on YouTube. I didn’t know of a good, short explainer online, and nobody responded when I asked for one on Twitter, so I figured I’d write one up.

The short answer is that ASL and English are completely different language, and knowing one is not that much help learning the other. It’s true that some deaf people are able to lipread, speak and write fluent English, this is generally because they have some combination of residual hearing, talent, privilege and interest in language. Many deaf people need to sign for daily conversation, even if they grew up with hearing parents.

It is incredibly difficult to learn to read and write a language that you can’t speak, hear, sign or see. As part of my training in sign linguistics I spent time with two deaf fifth grade students in an elementary school in Albuquerque. These were bright, curious children, and they spent hours every day practicing reading, writing, speaking and even listening – they both had cochlear implants.

After visiting these kids several times, talking with them in ASL and observing their reading and writing, I realized that at the age of eleven they did not understand how writing is used to communicate. I asked them to simply pass notes to each other, the way that hearing kids did well before fifth grade. They did each write things on paper that made the other laugh, but when I tried giving them specific messages and asking them to pass those messages on in writing, they had no idea what I was asking for.

These kids are in their thirties now, and they may well be able to read and write English fluently. At least one had a college-educated parent who was fluent in both English and ASL, which helps a lot. Other factors that help are the family’s income level and a general skill with languages. Many deaf people have none of these advantages, and consequently never develop much skill with English.

The City could even print some of these documents in ASL. Several writing systems have been created for sign languages, some of them less complete than others. For a variety of reasons, they haven’t caught on in Deaf communities, so using one of those would not help the City get the word out about school closures.

The reasons that the City government provides videos in ASL are thus that ASL is a completely different language from English, many deaf people do not have the exceptional language skills necessary to read a language they don’t really speak, and the vast majority of deaf people don’t read ASL.

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