Note from Uncle Dale: Does Learning ASL Change You? Only If You Do It Right.

I teach a class called “Visual Linguistic Analysis.” It’s an interpreting class but we open it to Deaf Studies Majors generally.

It is in essence a Discourse Analysis class that focuses on analysis within context, within setting, evaluating cultural influence as well as markers within the language structure; not just what a person who is Deaf is saying, but how people who are Deaf make themselves understood and how settings and context influence the meaning. It’s fun. Seriously.

On the first day a have a speech (in an academic setting I really should call it a lesson plan) I use this speech to invite the scared to become the inspired. I tell them, “you are not Sign Language students, you are ASL Interpreting students now. You have all the vocabulary you need to interpret almost any topic thrown at you, and starting today we are gonna to convince your brain of that fact.” I spend a lot of time in the class trying to help them understand that vocabulary is only one component of meaning.

We then look at a video of a native ASL user telling a story. When it’s finished I ask, “what was the story about.” Without fail the class consensus is, for example, “it’s about how some Deaf kids get into trouble but then get out of it ok.”

I then propose, “what if I told you that if I show this video to a native user of ASL that person will tell you this is a story about how being Deaf saved their lives? This is a story of Deaf-Gain.”

If I’m lucky I have a class dynamic that trust that I know what I’m talking about (side note: it always makes me chuckle when students are amazed at the insight I have into texts I have been using to teach these principles for 14 years. Um… I’ve seen them once or twice. That being said, last year I was using a text that I FILMED-MYSELF! in 1994 and a student said “the girl’s name is Jennifer…” I marked it as an ‘addition.’ My student challenged me and OH CRAP! she was RIGHT! For twenty-three years I have used this text in workshops and classes and NEVER ONCE did I notice that the presenter introduces the character in the story by name. I’ll just back slowly away from this parenthetical now).

As a class we then walk back, frame by frame, through the story and… boom it’s a story about how being Deaf saved their lives.

I then explain that this is the purpose of the class. The difference between their first understanding of the story and the deeper meaning of the story comes down to a processes they have yet to develop in their brains, visual cues their brains literally ignore. This class begins the process of restructuring their very brain configurations to incorporate the meaning of the visual nuance of ASL into their thought process.

In other words to teach them how to see ASL instead of Signs.

“If you do this right,” I tell them, “sometime around midterm your head will start to hurt. That is your brain physically rewriting itself to incorporate the demands of a three-dimensional visual language structure.”

It is my belief that learning ASL as a hearing person not only shifts the physical structure of your brain (Oliver Sacks would agree with me) it changes the very way you think.

That why I love the movie Arrival.

When I mention that we will be watching this movie in class many of my students get all “scrunch faced” and say, “an alien movie?” Their eyes roll so fast I fear it will lift them off their seats.

I tell them, “aliens are the framework used to tell the story, but the movie is about how language analysis, properly executed, saves the world.”

This gets the interest of a whole new level of nerds.

Arrival, if you have not seen it, is the story of what each hearing person who learns ASL experiences. If you watch this movie and don’t relate, you’re doing it wrong. But, maybe you do not realize the change ASL causes until you have watched the movie.

It is the story of learning not just what the aliens are saying, but of how they make themselves understood.

The main feature of the film for my purposes (and no I’m not giving anything away. Spoiler free!) is how learning the methods cultures employ to communicate changes the very structure of your brain, your mind, and as a result every aspect of how you think about and relate to the world.

Oh, and the parallels between Sign Language and the alien’s language are obvious to the point where the first time I saw the movie in a theatre the stranger sitting next to me whispered, “how is that possible?” To which I whispered back, “Sign Language.” He paused an said, a little too loudly, “oh, right, RIGHT!”

Watch the movie.

Until you do think about how ASL changes the way you think. In spoken languages the meta-concept of an “idea” is an abstract. In ASL it becomes a concrete.

If I want to give you “my opinion” in ASL I can physically hand it to you.

If I want to talk about a person who is not present I must make that person present, I must manifest that person physically in order to refer to them. In essence I can never talk about someone without the person about whom I wish to speak being, in one form or another, right there in front of me.

Think of how each of these elements changes the way your brain processes the meta-information and the subsequent impact that has on your relationship with the concepts themselves.

Pretty deep for a Note from Uncle Dale, I know, but beautiful and inspiring at the same time.

You can identify the base components of a language (signs or words) without being able to communicate the actual meaning and that is no kind of communication.

You have to let it get inside your head and change how you think. If that happens, you’re doing it right

Note from Uncle Dale: What Do You Think of Me?

Several years ago (I’ll go with many years ago) I was interpreting at a university. A little after midterms I got a call from the interpreter coordinator.

It was a weird call.

The coordinator never called me at home unless there was some kind of change in the schedule. This time the coordinator just talked and talked and talked. Talked about respect. Talked about new opportunities. Talked about change.

I finally asked, “are you firing me?”

She replied in careful tones, “not exactly. But you need to know that you won’t be working for the university after this semester. We won’t be hiring you again.”

I couldn’t let that stand, “that is ‘kinda’ firing me. I don’t do ‘kinda fired.’ If I’m fired- I’m fired today. Right now.”

She backpedaled, “oh no I’m not saying that! We will let you finish out the semester…”

I quickly corrected her misconception, “you don’t get to fire me but still get the benefit of my skills; I’m in or I’m out right now.”

Then she uttered the words that set every interpreter’s teeth on edge, “So. You would just walk away from students?”

“No,” I explained, “you are taking me away from the students. I did not quit, you fired me. I am ready, willing and able to provide my services, but you are saying you do not wish me to.”

And then it hit me. The question my shock and anger had hidden from my brain until this moment.

“By the way, why are you firing me?”

There was a long pause. “Um… there have been complaints.”

This was just getting weirder and weirder. “What complaints? By whom?”

Again a pause, “I am not at liberty to say who complained but some examples are: showing up late, leaving in the middle of classes for long periods of time…” the list went on.

Funny thing was, I wasn’t doing any of those things.

My team was.

I liked my team. I did, I liked her and I didn’t want to make trouble for her. So, like the CPC says I had tried to talk to her privately about leaving me hanging, and when that didn’t work, I just picked up the slack whenever she walked out for a smoke in the middle of class.

I realized out loud. “No student made those complaints, [my team] did, and these are all things she is doing.”

No pause this time, “I can’t confirm that! I couldn’t if I wanted to. But it doesn’t matter because this did not come from me, the Director of Accessibility Services told me to make this call, tonight!”

Now it was becoming clear. As you may well imagine I’m, how to say this, rather open with my opinions on things. I had in fact caused a little grief earlier in the semester, that one was on me.

What happened was the Assistant Director told me I would only be paid for the time I was actually interpreting for a student and would not be paid for the 15 to 30 minutes breaks in-between classes. That was effectively cutting my paid by an hour or more each day.

I told him I would accept that deal only if he agreed to only accept pay for those times he was actually advising a student in his office (he told me “that’s not how this works,” and I replied, “you are exactly right! That is not how this works”) and in the end I kept my paid hour (Just rereading that… yeah… I’m a jerk sometimes).

Anyway. That did not win me friends in the head office and it had not blown over.

“I need to meet with [the Director] tomorrow morning,” I said.

“I don’t think she will meet with you.” She replied.

“She can meet in the morning in her office or we can meet in the afternoon at the labor commission,” I said, “I’ll leave that up to her.”

We met the next morning.

When I walked into the Directors office it was obvious that she was braced for an argument, but instead I simply asked, “what is your opinion of me?”

She looked at me warily and said, “I’m not sure.”

“Oh no,” I corrected, “you have a definite opinion of me. You are sure enough in your opinion to fire me.”

She started to argue that I was not actually fired, but I told her we could save the discussion on semantics for another day.

“You are sure enough in your opinion of me to fire me on the word of [my team] without investigating if any of the allegations are true.”

She sat up and said that she could not tell me who had made the complaints and I should not assume.

I told her that I was in no way assuming. I was much more aware of my team’s reputation of questionable work ethics than she was. My team was well known in the community as not working or playing well with others and this was not the first time I had heard of her throwing a team under the bus. But it was definitely the worst.

Be that as it may, I knew the Director had not actually investigated to verify what had been reported because not only were the allegations not true, they were easily proven to not be true.

“How?” she asked.

“Simple,” I said. “At the end of the semester you ask all of the Deaf students to fill out an evaluation of their interpreters. Mostly it’s a formality, but do that evaluation today and I will accept whatever it says. Let’s see if my team is willing to do the same.”

The Director agreed and had me sit in her office. A few hours later she return with a stack of papers in her hand and a pained expression.

“I owe you an apology,” she said, “I should have looked before I leapt.”

I told her not to worry about it, so long as I was no longer ‘fired.’

She assured me that I was not and would be welcome back next semester.

I told her that unfortunately I would not be returning the next semester because I had another offer from a different agency.”

Her jaw went slack, “if you’re not coming back anyway, then what was this all about?”

“My reputation,” I stated. “You see about two weeks ago in-between classes I told my team that I was not coming back next semester because I had another offer. It’s my guess that she thought she would make herself look better by making me look worse.” I thought for a second, “I think she figured that you would not talk to me about it until the end of the semester and by that time I would have told you that I was going anyway.”

The Director shook her head a little while she mulled this over and then said, “well, I appreciate you taking this so well and I have learned a lesson today. You understand it would be hard to lose [my team] in the middle of a semester but we will do some switching around so you don’t have to work with her anymore.”


This was obviously starting to give the Director a headache. “What do you mean why?”

“I mean, why,” I said. “I never complained to you about her. When she is actually doing the job she is a skilled interpreter. She knows the classes and the context and it would be totally disruptive to the students to switch her out now.” I continued, “I mean, do what you want because you’re the boss. But I never said I had a problem with her. If I did I would have come to you with it.”


Now you may be thinking ‘cool story. Thanks?’

I will admit it was a pretty long journey to get to a short point.

Always be the interpreter with the work ethic that allows you, if questioned, to comfortably respond, ask the Client to evaluate me and I will go with whatever they say.

Be that interpreter and you will sleep well at night for the rest of your days.

Note from Uncle Dale: So, Today You Test!

Hi everyone!  Uncle Dale back again.

Ready? Here we go! What do these three questions have in common?

1. Vehicles from which country use the international registration letters WG?

2. Freddie Mercury died in which year?

3. To within ten thousand square miles, what is the area of Louisiana?

The common link? It is highly unlikely that you will need to know the answer to any of these questions in order to successfully pass any interpreter certification screening; state or national.

There will be no surprise algebra section.  There will be no surprise sections at all.

What you will need to pass is the skills you have practiced everyday from the day you started to learn ASL until the day of your test.

Think.  Suppose the presenter’s topic is “how a bill becomes a law,” that is a process, just like, “how to make fajitas,” is a process or “directions to the lake,” is a process or “how to get to my office from the San Diego airport,” or “how payroll works.” (I hope at least one of those is familiar? Grin)

All of these are the same thing-a process-the content within the steps of the process in each has been replaced by different content, “how a bill becomes a law” or, “what are the risks and benefits of your surgery,” or “Deaf Culture in the 1800’s.” These are each just the same things you have practiced over and over and over… these are each same process with different words, different content. Just do what you do in class or in the field everyday.

The same is true when you are working from ASL to Spoken English. Do what you trained to do. Look for the meaning don’t just substitute spoken words for the signs. Don’t chase the text. Let it come to you. It will come if you let it. It won’t get away, if, you look for meaning instead of substituting spoken words for signs.

When in doubt slow down! Slow down and think. Just repeat to yourself this mantra:

Pay attention.process, produce… pay attention, process, produce.

Just like you have always practiced.

Some screenings and state QAs even give you the topics ahead of time.  Google is your friend.  With google at your finger tips you not only have the process but might even have the terminology and content to stick in it before you even begin (feed your ELK).

Don’t evaluate your work for the screener. That is their job. Missing a word or a Sign is not an instant fail. If it happens don’t take on the aspect of failure for the rest of the test. If you feel you messed up, fix what you can and move on.  Don’t live in that moment. Don’t pitch a tent there. Don’t build a little cabin there. Don’t design a small research facility to examine the mistake.

Just move on.

Have you ever seen The French film La Femme Nikita? Not the TV series or that terrible terrible travesty of an American version with Bridget Fonda (nothing against Ms. Fonda… just dislike the remake!), the French version with Anne Parillaud. (Sadly the scene I found is dubbed… that doesn’t change my metaphor at all, dubbing just sucks in principle, wow I’m grouchy… deep breath, smile, and we move on).

Nikita was very naughty and was “executed” by lethal injection. However, she “wakes up” in a weird kind of finishing school.  They teach her how to dress and walk and use computers and fight and shoot. She is there for three years. On her 21st birthday her instructor takes her out of the school (for the first time) for dinner.  He gives her a birthday present, a big gun, tells her to shoot the diplomat behind her and escape though the window in the last stall in the men’s room. This is how it goes:

If it is not obvious, it’s a test. It’s what she was trained to do.  It does not go as she planned and she freaks out, twice.  Then she pulls it together and does what she trained to do.  The point is not that she freaked out.  The point is she does what she trained to do.

It’s just the NIC or the BEI or the state test or… whatever test is on the other side of that door.

It does not matter if something goes wrong if you do what you trained to do.  You can fall down. You can fall down a few times-so long as you always get back up one more time than you fall.

Do what you trained to do. You’ll be fine.

Before I send you off to test remember, oh remember, these three things:

1) this is a review of the the work you produce during a twenty to forty minute moment of your life, not a judgment on your worth as a person;

2) no matter what happens in that room no one will go to the morgue and no one will go to jail; and,

3) you enjoy interpreting. This is interpreting.  It’s ok to enjoy it. Feel the stress sure, but it’s ok to enjoy the process.

Good vibes to all of you!

(Psst.  I know I didn’t answer the 3 questions at the top.  That’s the point. If it bothers you, Google is your friend.)