Are You Listening?

Some of the best humor is the unintended – a slip of the tongue, a word misspoken, or a sentence that just didn’t come out the way it was meant to. During the first few years after my family moved to Peru, we had plenty of “oops” moments. One that really stands out in my memory is the time my father said he was pregnant!

Are You Listening?

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He was telling a personal story, and he wanted to say that a certain situation had really embarrassed him. In Spanish, the word “embarazada” (or “embarazado” in the masculine), sounds awfully close. But don’t be fooled! That’s what we call a false cognate. It sounds similar, but it means something entirely different.

So when Dad said he was embarazado, the whole church started laughing. And he ended up even more embarrassed – and no more pregnant – than he was before.

Now, my Dad has a good sense of humor about these things, and he adapted. In fact, even now after fifteen years on the field, he is careful not to take himself too seriously. If his Spanish is wrong, he laughs, corrects himself, and moves on.

As you learn Sign Language, prepare yourself for plenty of laughs! Even after years using the language, you won’t be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you learn to laugh at yourself, you can enjoy the process and be used of God in spite of yourself.

Everyone makes mistakes, but if you learn to laugh at yourself, you can enjoy the process and be used of God in spite of yourself.

But what if, years ago, instead of acknowledging his mistake and changing his language, my father had declared that when he says “embarazado” he means embarrassed, and people would just have to understand that and get over it!

He could have said that it was difficult to change, or that it would help people learn English, or that people knew what he meant and so it didn’t matter. He would have been wrong. What an insult to the Spanish-speaking people! What a lack of respect!

That sort of arrogance quickly offends and alienates visitors and members alike, especially people who love their language. Yet so many Sign Language interpreters fall into this trap! After a few years interpreting the language, interpreters begin to feel accomplished and successful. Any criticism, whether from the Deaf or from another interpreter, can feel like a threat to one’s identity and self-image.

Any criticism, whether from the Deaf or from another interpreter, can feel like a threat to one’s identity and self-image.

Be Willing to Change

When I first started college, I had been using Peruvian Sign Language for years, but I had had limited exposure to ASL (American Sign Language.) Some things were fairly easy. I stopped using the Peruvian sign for man and woman, and I began signing them in ASL.

Other signs, for whatever reason, were more difficult to change. One particular sign gave me fits. In Peru, the sign for “strong” is to place one hand on the bicep of the other arm and flex the muscle. In the US, I was told that the way I was forming the sign could be understood to mean “rape”!

Somehow, that was hard for me to accept. I liked the way I signed “strong,” and I really didn’t want to change! Plus, the sign was habitual, or automatic. To be honest, I was a bit annoyed that I had to change my “perfectly good” sign to suit the Deaf people there. Couldn’t they see what I meant? The leaders of my Deaf ministry were patient, however, and they lovingly reminded me each time I used the sign until I did change.

Stay Humble

If you are a Sign Language interpreter, no matter how long you have been interpreting, please. Don’t stop listening! Stay humble! You are interpreting for people who have grown up with Sign Language as their first, and sometimes only, language.

If your version of Sign Language, however refined and appropriate in your own opinion, is not the language used by your Deaf people, then learn what they use, and use it. I have spoken with Deaf people concerned because people attending the services at their church could hardly understand some of the interpreting and preaching.

One Deaf man showed me several signs which had been used by visiting preachers, and explained to me that those signs had vulgar meanings, and had been hurtful and confusing for the people.

Guess what? It happens! You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be paralyzed by fear of using a “bad sign.” People may be confused, amused, or offended, but a simple apology in a good spirit can go a long way to fix all of that. As it says in Proverbs, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” But you do have to listen!

People may be confused, amused, or offended, but a simple apology in a good spirit can go a long way to fix all of that.

Keep Growing

In one Deaf ministry several interpreters were hurt and frustrated after telling a fellow interpreter repeatedly that several of her signs had vulgar meanings or connotations. She heard them out, but she didn’t change. Sunday after Sunday, the signs stayed the same. She considered herself too set in her ways to adjust. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

The true problem, of course, was that there was no desire to try! If you think you are too good, too old, or have used certain Signs so long that you will not even try to change, then perhaps you should not be interpreting. Remember, you are there to help people understand the Word of God. The signs you use can make you more effective or they can destroy your efforts.

Don’t become a stagnant signer!

Here are some surefire strategies to avoid becoming stuck.

  • Talk with the Deaf. Make a point of regularly talking with Deaf people, and watch out for new signs! Whenever you see something you haven’t seen or used before, take note. Explore what it means, and try it out yourself in conversation! Once you’ve used it a few times and you are comfortable that you know its semantic range, incorporate it into your regular vocabulary.
  • Don’t take criticism personally. If someone tells you that something you sign is inappropriate, signed incorrectly, or simply not the right sign for the job, don’t stonewall and don’t go on the defensive. You may think you know better! You may very well be right. But be willing to question yourself and your signs.
  • Ask for help. Here’s how to discover the truth. First, simply thank your unexpected critic for their help and ask how they would have signed the concept in question. Next, ask several experienced signers about the issue. It’s best to ask both veteran interpreters and people whose first language was Sign Language. Always ask more than one; different signers have different experiences and use the language differently.
  • Watch Sign Language videos. Watching movies and TV in a foreign language is always recommended for ongoing language development. For American Sign Language, there are a multitude of videos available online to watch and enjoy. You can find stories, news, preaching, and music presented in ASL. Again, keep an eye out for new signs and signs used differently than you expect.

What strategies do you use to avoid Sign Language stagnation? Please share them in the discussion for this article!