Deaf Culture: Another Kind of Bilingualism

I just finished reading a book that my grandmother gave me years and years ago called Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World. It is by Leah Hager Cohen whose father, Oscar, was a longtime Superintendent at Lexigton School for the Deaf in NYC. She writes about her own family, her relationship to the Deaf Community, and about a couple of students at Lexington around the middle nineties.

It was interesting reading about the ways that they teach in this kind of community. There are many parallels with any other dual-language curriculum, even though ASL and English are perhaps much more similar than other languages to each other, the very visual way in which English must be presented to the Deaf feels very related to the CLIL techniques we used at the bilingual school where I worked in Spain.

The book was also interesting to me, because while Hager Cohen has a much deeper and longer running relationship with the Deaf Community than I do, many of the things that she said were very familiar. It made me miss my Deaf friends.

I say that ASL resembles English, and in some ways it does. But really it is a complex and beautiful poetry all to itself. It has a relationship with written English in a similar way to colloquial spoken English, at least where the spoken English is non-standard. What I mean is, ASL has its own form of grammar which follows English directly, but which also cuts things away and adds other things. So to say, “How are you?” in ASL you only make the signs for “how” and “you,” but you must also make a facial expression and show with your shoulders that you are asking a question.

I’m not very fluent in ASL (anymore, if I ever was) but I love to sign.

One of my favorite passages in the book describes a Literacy Day activity where Oscar, the author’s father, reads a story to the children. He asks if they want him to voice the story, or to sign it. The children want him to do both so that they can learn more words. Oscar is bilingual in ASL, an uncommon thing for a hearing person, because his parents were both deaf, and so he learned to sign before he learned to speak. He explained things about the slightly complicated story very well, and I liked the questions that he asked the children at the end.

Many of the issues that were facing the Deaf community at that time are still true, and many of them are the same sorts of issues that any minority language culture faces in a larger culture. They were talking about how to teach children English, so that they could get good jobs, and about the tension between the families and the school. This is true for many immigrant children who are forced to play translator for their parents as well.

One difference is that Deaf people are native-readers of English, and that there is a stronger thread connecting English to ASL than English to Chinese, Polish, and maybe even to Spanish. Another difference is that there will always be a degree of non-fluency for the Deaf, even if they are good at voicing and at reading lips because they cannot hear the sounds that they make.

That said, hearing isn’t such a big deal most of the time, and there are things– besides sign language– about not-hearing that make Deaf culture more special.

Ms Cohen talks about how much more touchy-feely Deaf people are, and I’ve experienced the same thing. They also take care of each other instead of competing. They form the proverbial band of ten scholars touching the elephant trying to figure out what it is, and instead of arguing about who is right, or about the essential nature of the elephant, they weave it into answers and questions to help themselves as a community advance. This is because nobody within the community is ever quite sure he or she understands the hearing community. Some don’t want to, but even those who hate hearing people, usually must interact with them, so they share tips and tricks and news more freely than do hearing people.

Deaf Culture is as strong and valid as Hispanic Culture, or Black Culture, and I’ve observed it come into conflict with the “mainstream,” in little ways that I didn’t understand at the time. Now that I’ve been in Spain, those little things make so much more sense to me. Let me tell one story of my own, and you will see what I mean.

When I first arrived to Spain, I kept running into people on the street. By the end I didn’t. An Italian friend of mine living in London had the same problem in London, where I’ve never had a problem. I said to him, “You move differently,” which he understood to mean, “you change directions,” and he said, “No, I don’t change my path at all.”

This triggered a Eureka moment with relation to Edward Hall’s concept called “proxemics.” I ran into people in Spain, because until I adjusted to their culture, I moved differently from them. That is, as an American, I weave as I walk to avoid people, rather than slowly shifting along a longer arc. My friend did the opposite. He didn’t weave as he walked, he picked a trajectory and only modified it slowly. So in London, people would change their path at the last second, but not enough, because he didn’t move the way they expected him to move, and in Madrid, people wouldn’t change their paths the way I expected them to, so I would run into them.

There is a similar thing with the Deaf that I’ve observed on more than one occasion. When they are in public space, they spread out so everyone in their group can see everyone else’s hands. Once on the EL on the way from Chinatown to Lincoln Park, I was with a big group of Deaf friends who had just gone to celebrate Chinese New Year and eat Dim Sum. They formed a big circle through the middle of the train, and a couple of them kept running into the hearing people around them as the train shifted.

The hearing people had been there first, so they didn’t move, and the Deaf people needed to see each other to talk, so they didn’t move. The hearing people were getting steadily more upset that that guy next to him wouldn’t get out of his space (the Deaf guy wasn’t actually touching him, just standing “too close”), the Deaf guy didn’t notice at all because he was having a great conversation, and I grew steadily more embarrassed at both the hearing guy and the Deaf guy, but I didn’t understand why.

Now it makes more sense. It was embarrassing to me because I could understand both cultural motives, and couldn’t resolve the tension which resulted. They each had an extremely valid intra-cultural motivation for maintaining their claim on the space, and because they are both “English-speaking” Americans, neither could understand that the other was really, truly in a different cultural mindset. Therefore, neither one tried to make an inter-cultural bridge to solve the problem.

There was a conflict of “values:” The hearing guy felt he had claim, and in general had a larger personal space than the deaf guy, and the deaf guy felt he had claim to the space, and didn’t realize (because of his smaller concept of personal space) that he was even infringing on the hearing guy. It follows the same tenets that the proxemical relationships between other more acknowledged cultures do. Each of the parties had his own implicit idea of space based on the values and needs of his own culture, and they each behaved accordingly, which caused a friction between their two unacknowledged ideas about space.

Until hearing people in general realize that the Deaf have– by necessity and by choice– their own culture, these little points of tension will always occur. I wish I had an answer about how to alleviate these tensions, both for Deaf people and for other minority culture groups. The only thing I can say is, pay attention to how other people react to you, and try to modify your own behaviour according to context.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. As well as Beyond Culture by Edward Hall.

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