Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

36: Villages, gifs, and children: Signed languages in real world contexts with Lynn Hou

G: Welcome to Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics! I’m Gretchen
McCulloch. I’m here with Dr Lynn Hou, who’s an assistant professor of linguistics at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, and a signer of American Sign Language. But first,
it’s thanks to our patrons that we’re able to expand the podcast into interesting
new formats like a video episode about signed languages, which is one of our most-requested
topics. To become a patron, you can go to
[Music] G: Hello! Lina, welcome!
L: Hello. Happy to be here. G: It’s so nice to have you on the show.
This is a question that we start with all of our guests, how did you get into linguistics?
L: Oh, that’s a fascinating story, if I do say so myself. Well, my parents are from
Taiwan. When I was about 7, or perhaps 6, it was the first international trip that my
parents had brought me on. We went to Taiwan. They are from Taipei, which is the capital
of Taiwan. I thought, well, I knew deaf people were in the United States and they had their
own sign language, that being American Sign Language, or ASL, but my trip was the first
time that I had actually witnessed another sign language. My mom went to a deaf institute
there and we saw sign language. It was a sign language that wasn’t quite mine. It was
Taiwan Sign Language. Something was quite different, and I didn’t understand what
they were saying. The deaf people were signing, and I was quite fascinated. At that moment,
I began to realise there are different signed languages in different countries. I began
to think, “Hmm, maybe that’s something I wanna do later.” I began studying various
signed languages. The problem is that you can’t go into a library or a particular
place and look at a grammar that has been published. You have many users and speakers
of that language. When I got into linguistics, I began to study the language. With sign language
though, it’s almost impossible to go into a place like that. I happened to meet various
deaf people in different countries, and that was really exciting. I thought, “Where do
I meet them and what do I do?” It’s something that I kept in my mind, in the back of my
mind, until I was an adult. Then, I had the opportunity to travel the world and meet various
deaf people. G: You took linguistics at school or how did
you get from “These are so cool” to “I’m a professor doing this”?
L: Well, that’s another story. Linguistics, I think, for the first time, I heard about
it when I went to college. I went to UC Berkeley – the University of California at Berkeley
– as an undergraduate student. Linguistics wasn’t my thing, but I had a friend who
was studying linguistics, and they had to take it for their major – not linguistics
itself, but majors like cognitive science or computer science. I, in general, was interested
in that. People had to take that to satisfy a major. I had a deaf friend who took a few
linguistics courses. The problem was that they said it’s really hard. He actually
had taken phonology and for some reason had to do a lot of lab work. He was talking about
this and I thought, “Uh, maybe linguistics is the study of, yes, language but for spoken
languages only.” That was my first impression. G: How do you do phonology with a signed language?
Maybe we’re getting off track here. L: Well, yes, I didn’t know because phonology,
I thought, was related to sound and no linguist for sign language. Right, I didn’t think
there was linguistics of sign language and so I wasn’t sure what to do.
G: Okay. What happened next? L: My major was comparative literature. I
was fascinated with reading books during my whole upbringing and I thought it was interesting
to think about that for grad school. At the same time, I wasn’t sure. I met other grad
students in comparative lit and it didn’t seem like they were having fun. Learn more
language is interesting and that’s fun but learning enough to become fluent in reading
literature and then write papers about it and then give presentations and talks, I thought
in the beginning, “Well, yeah, many languages are signed and spoken. Many don’t have written
systems or components for them.” If I study only the written system, I think that’s
the tradition of literature. If I wanted to study ASL, for example, then how would I do
that in comparative lit? Yes, we do have ASL literature, which I can discuss briefly, but
I wasn’t really sure what I should do. I dropped the idea of studying that and I thought
about something else. After college, I met more deaf people and it just so happened I
was living in the Bay Area in San Francisco. There’s a diverse group of people, who some
are deaf migrants. They moved to the United States. They brought their own sign language.
I met a lot of these people. I realised as they’re learning American Sign Language,
you can realise and see at the same time that they have their own accents as their first
language from whatever home country they are from and then learning American Sign Language.
I can understand the concept of accent in sign language. Hearing people talk about accents
from other countries – parallel idea. G: If someone’s first language was British
Sign Language or French Sign Language or something, then they would have a BSL or FSL accent in
ASL? L: Yes, yes. And I could see that. BSL – British
Sign Language – and LSQ, did you say or…? G: Well, French Sign Language or LSQ, which
is the Quebec Sign Language – Langue des signes Québécoise.
L: Yes, yes, LSQ is special in its own right because the language emerged from LSF and
ASL because it has regional contact. But there’s history to that.
G: I feel like I should know more about LSQ because I live in Montreal, but I don’t
actually know anything about it. L: It’s an interesting story because ASL
is from Old French Sign Language. Many sign languages of the world tend to – bring through
deaf schools. That’s how the language is passed on. That happened with LSQ and ASL.
LSQ – well, let me hold that story. G: Okay, okay, okay. We’ll get that later.
We’re still in your life story. You met a bunch of deaf friends. They spoke different
sign languages. You were like “They have accents! This is so cool. I’m gonna study
this.” L: Yeah, pretty much. I just based my everyday
life in socialising with various deaf people and it was exciting. I was fascinated with
their accent and, at the same time, the use of everyday language. I was fascinated with
their structure, the function of the language, how people talked about various things in
everyday life, and how they would tell stories, the poetry, how they expressed complex ideas,
just the possibility of talking about anything in sign language. I wanted to study that.
I thought, “Well, what can I do?” As I mentioned, I’m a serious nerd. I read a
lot – total bookworm. I rolled up my sleeves and I looked for a book to see if there’s
anything written about sign language – anything about ASL or otherwise. I found one book in
fact – one book. I think it was called – I forget the exact title – it was about ASL
and linguistics. G: We can link to it in the show notes.
L: Oh, okay. That would be great. That’s how I found my PhD advisor because I read
– and often all the linguistics books refer to other people’s work and what have you.
I was reading and there was one chapter that talked about a person and how ASL marks first
person singular and non-first person – second or third person “you” or “she” or
“he.” It just so happened they mentioned my PhD advisor Richard Meier, referring to
his work on person that he has done. I thought, “This is very interesting” – his worked
fascinated me – “maybe I should apply for the University of Texas in Austin and
work with him.” I knew that he had also researched the acquisition of sign language
for many years as well. I thought, “Hmm, that’s fascinating. I could learn about
acquisition. I could learn about sign language.” My whole life I was fascinated with how deaf
people learn sign language because most of us, including me, we’re born to parents
who are hearing, don’t sign, and we learn sign language, then, through meeting other
deaf children in school or social events, and got lucky that I met someone who had deaf
parents. I was a child when I met my first deaf family, so to speak. I thought, “Wow!
Well, yeah, it’s like hearing children. They learn language from their parents and
then they actually just are deaf.” It’s a rarity in our community.
G: You got interested in how deaf kids learn sign language as kids versus with other kids
around the same age – when they learn it from their parents or from other kids?
L: Yes, exactly. G: Was that your research topic in grad school?
L: Yes, that was my enthusiasm in getting into grad school. I didn’t quite understand
what the research meant. I thought, “Oh, it’d be fun to learn more.” So, I applied
at Austin. I didn’t realise that grad school was a serious thing – a serious endeavour
for sure. You literally started your career when you applied for grad school. Luckily,
Richard accepted me. Then, that began my journey into research, I guess.
G: What did you end up doing your dissertation on?
L: Well, I thought I was going to research how deaf children learn ASL in general terms.
It was pretty vague at that time. Then, I took Richard’s class on introduction to
linguistics of sign language. They talked about various sign languages and the emergence
all over the world, and various sign languages that have popped up. We talked about Nicaraguan
Sign Language. Many people know about that because it’s often referred to and cited
in publications, perhaps on radio, and some in film. I was fascinated with the concept
of how deaf children can make up their own language in a school, for example, at least
in that context. Also, I had heard about other sign languages like ABSL, which is the Al-Sayyid
Bedouin Sign Language, which is a very small area with a number of deaf people in Israel.
The concept of language emergence not in a school per se –
G: The village sign languages? L: Yes, yes, exactly, yes, like in a family.
G: There’s a really nice video on YouTube about Nicaraguan Sign Language, which we can
also link to if people want the whole story on that.
L: Okay! G: Yeah, you were looking at all these different
kinds of sign languages emerging, and this turned into – I haven’t actually read
your dissertation, I’m sorry. L: Oh, no, no, no, it’s totally fine. Please,
don’t, actually. G: Many people say this.
L: Yeah, yeah, yeah, right. I was thinking, “Well, there’s so many interesting topics
that I could research. How do I begin? Where do I start?” I didn’t realise that to
be in the right place at the right time and meet the right person could definitely shape
my future. I was thinking about my work and, obviously, Richard wasn’t working on Nicaraguan
Sign Language at the time, so I thought, “Hmm” – well, my department was – well, I’m
sorry – my old department. I have to back up.
G: Right, because you’re at UCSB now. L: Exactly. It’s hard. My department chair
told me, “Stop saying your ‘PhD advisor.’ He’s not yours anymore.”
G: Because you’re all grown up. L: Exactly.
G: You met Hilaria Cruz, who we did another interview with for Lingthusiasm. And you also
started working on Chatino Sign Language or the one that’s spoken in her community.
L: Yes, that’s is correct. The University of Texas in Austin has a great program for
training indigenous scholars. It just so happened that I met a friend, Hilaria Cruz, who was
a few years ahead of me in the program. She’d written her name in IPA on the board. I thought,
“Oh, interesting.” Through her I met her sister, who is also a PhD student at the time
in anthropology. Somehow, I was learning about their life story and we got to know each other.
We became friends, I guess. It just kinda happened. We’d see each other every once
in a while. Then, the three of us were curious about one another because we’re all very
different. They’re from a small community in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’m from Southern California.
And I’m deaf. It’s kind of a strange coincidence that we met. They seem to be fascinated with
seeing a deaf person who studies sign language in the linguistics department. That was a
new concept, I guess – a novel concept for many people in general at the time. Perhaps
more for them because they have several deaf people in their family who clearly lead a
different life than mine. They told me about some deaf people, and I asked them questions.
But they couldn’t respond, and they said, “We don’t know. You’ll just have to
come and visit and meet our family and see what it’s like.”
G: That’s so cute! I love that. L: Yeah. That kind of conversation led to
one thing, and it was the first opportunity that I thought – well, I’d never thought
that I could fly to another country like Mexico and go in a van, afar, and travel about eight
hours in a van to – maybe it was longer – and go a whole-day trip to the village.
I wasn’t really sure, could I go? Could I do the work? I don’t wanna be one of those
linguists who just shows up and says, “Hi! I’m here! I’m ready to study you.” We
had that conversation. Hilaria and I talked about going to the village. Then, I went,
and I continued to go. After a while, I felt ready to begin to work. That’s when the
visits began. I watched Hilaria and how she worked with them. She recorded them speaking
the language from the elders in the village, especially for the new year. It was a fun
activity. They had some celebrations. The hours just continued all day and all night.
It was really fun to meet some deaf people there. That led me to meet other deaf people
in the village. It wasn’t just deaf people; it was the whole life of Chatino people and
that experience of socialising with people and how they accepted and thought about deaf
people. It was very natural. Deaf people don’t have access to education there. There’s
no support for a use of sign language in schools – in the local schools – so maybe Hilaria
may have mentioned that the schools only use Spanish as the language of formal instruction.
That’s another problem on top of those who are deaf.
G: But they communicate with each other and with their family and friends up in the village?
L: Mostly just in the family. That’s another thing I learned but it took me a while to
figure this out – years, in fact – that, well, who people talk with is really intentional.
Anyone does not speak with everyone. It was interesting. Part of their social life is
that everyone is organised within the family and the extended family. Everyone who is in
the family, they have kinship. They are in this family unit. It’s like a speech community,
when you go into and enter a speech community, you have a relationship with one another – some
good, some bad, and some strongly political, different than my life here based on the type
of relationship that we have in some ways. It’s very similar in that way for the Chatino
people. For deaf people, their relationships in the village are strongly associated with
family and kinship. That’s who they communicate with mostly. I was fascinated to see how they
made up signs in order to communicate and to get what they needed for everyday life.
It’s a little bit different than mine. I work within linguistics all the time. I use
very abstract, sophisticated terminologies at times with my colleagues and my collaborators
versus using language to make sure that people understand. With most Chatinos, they have
their own language. They talk about what is relevant in their life. That was fascinating
and that became my dissertation topic after a while, eventually.
G: You were figuring out what kinds of signs people use there, how the social structure
fits into that, and all this different stuff? L: Yes, exactly. The most fascinating part
was how languages emerges there during interaction. That’s my focus – how it happened in a
place that is not a school, not an educational system, it’s deaf and hearing people and
family members in a group. G: Because hearing people also use these signs
as well? L: Yes. If they socialise with deaf people
mostly, yes. If they live with them, then they definitely do communicate with them – or
if they work with deaf people. G: Did you find that it was like the Al-Sayyid
Bedouin Sign Language where they have a kind of village sign language because there’s
a high proportion of deafness and they have this kind of village sign language? Or is
it a different thing from that? L: Well, it is different for many reasons.
I think the community where ABSL emerged is special because it is a large proportion.
It’s a village with a large number of deaf people who have been born there and have been
in the same family – so a clan, if you will. People in the community of 3000+ people, there’s
no other community like that that has ever been discovered. It’s quite special in that
fact. Where I work is a very small number of people, maybe 10 deaf people in total,
I think. That’s a big comparison to the Bedouin village sign language. Again, people
that I study are mostly related. If you can analyse the family and look at the kinship
and the relationships, then they are all socialising together every day. Deaf people in the family
mostly have hearing people. They may have some relatives or other siblings. It’s not
like there are deaf people like there are the Bedouin sign language where there are
masses of deaf people within families. G: Right, okay.
L: That means that, I guess, if you look at Chatino Sign Language or what I – in academia
you need to name things as separate languages. It’s not really called “Chatino Sign language,”
but people who use the language don’t have an official name for the language. They say,
“My language” or “We’re just talking.” ABSL and Chatino Sign Language are quite different.
Chatino Sign Language is much younger. The structure looks very different. They depend
on the family that they socialise with. At the same time, we have overlap with family
signs. Everyone knows one another. Language is common. The family signs feed one another
if you can say that. The community has conventional gestures that kinda feed the family signs
as well. Many things are happening at the same time.
G: Is it kind of like the home sign system that was at the beginning of Nicaraguan Sign
Language – when Nicaragua established the first school for the deaf and all the people
came from different villages and saw they each had their own home signs, and then they
came in and developed Nicaraguan Sign Language because of the school?
L: That’s one way of looking at it, yes. My feeling is that home signs – what psychologists
and linguists call “signs” of one deaf child in a family that they make up in the
home – I think there’s a lot more diversity to how home signs emerge because, again, it
depends on the interaction, whether you have one deaf child, or you have several deaf children,
or deaf plus hearing interacting with one another using sign language.
G: This one’s different because they have 10 deaf people, and they’re all interacting
with each other, and so they can feed back into each other?
L: Well, yes and no. They don’t identify as deaf – culturally deaf. It’s not a
common belief. I’m not saying that it means that they don’t have an identity. It just
means they identify themselves as a family member first. Then, they identify as a member
of their community second. Everyone recognises that they are different from other indigenous
people who are not Chatino because of how they dress, the type of rituals that they
perform in their daily life, etc. G: That’s really interesting.
L: Also, I guess, to recognise the difference between them and other Chatinos within in
the area. Deaf people do interact with their families, who are related. They visit one
another. They will meet and talk, or they’ll go to the same family events, parties, community
events, etc. If their family isn’t connected, then they have less chance of meeting another
deaf person if they’re not in the family. If you have two deaf people meet at random
on the street, they may say “hello” if anything.
G: Because you don’t talk to people outside the family?
L: They may not talk to one another. I’m sorry, say that again.
G: Because they don’t talk to people outside the family or there’s more restrictions
on that? L: I think it’s because maybe they don’t
like each other. G: Okay. Okay. That’s fair. That’s really
neat. Since your dissertation, you’ve also kept going back to this community, were there
this summer, and then you’re still doing more projects?
L: Yes, for my dissertation I did focus on – I have to remember; that was a long time
ago – yes, eight girls – four deaf, four hearing – all girls, it just so happened.
Of the eight, they are among five families, two types of groups that I study – deaf
children with hearing parents and hearing children with one deaf parent. The communities
don’t have deaf families. They don’t have two deaf parents with deaf children. They
don’t have anything like that. That’s very rare in the world in general, even rare
in ABSL, in that community. I studied how they interact and how the languages emerge,
of sign language, how it happened. That was mostly my dissertation. I did go several summers,
stayed one year at one time, and that was the only way for me to take full advantage
of being immersed in the community and within the sign family. I went in each family. I
stayed for a bit. I slept there. I ate with them. I visited with them. Then, I went to
one of the ranches that they have and just did the daily activities and daily life with
them. Then, I had to finish my dissertation. That took a while.
G: Yeah. You’ve also done some work on ASL as well, right?
L: Yes, after I graduated, I got a post-doc for two years at UC San Diego. I had an opportunity
to work with Carol Padden, who is well known for her work on ABSL and ASL. At that time,
I took advantage of the opportunity to work on ASL. Let me back up. I have worked with
Richard on ASL, focusing on verbs. I love verbs. It’s one of my favourite things.
As a postdoc, I thought that was a wonderful opportunity to expand my research on ASL to
collaborate with Carol Padden to compare Chatino Sign Language with ABSL, the use of space
for grammar as a specific unit of study – for a unit of analysis. ASL specifically has something
that I’ve noticed, which is very interesting, about things on the internet. More deaf people
are filming themselves using sign language and then posting it on Facebook, YouTube,
and various social media sites. It seems to be exploding recently. People will film themselves
in the car. They have privacy. They can talk, and post, and people watch, and then they
film themselves sometimes in responding. You can see a huge explosion with signing videos.
G: Because you can study these videos? L: Yes, yes. The data is there! I can see
data before my eyes. It’s in action. I never thought for a moment that there could be another
data given on the internet. It’s right there. G: You don’t have to go out with a camera
and film yourself. L: Exactly. It’s a perfect point if you
think about it. You can’t go into a library and look for grammar. You have to look for
deaf people. One challenge that is unique to sign language, I think, is to look for
deaf signers out there in general. For some researchers, they bring deaf people into the
lab and they film them signing. But for me, I don’t do that. As a deaf signer, I feel
that language happens in the natural when you’re communicating and interacting with
people. It’s a hard role for me because when I go to see my friends, or go to a deaf
event or a conference, and I see sign language research and people getting together to talk
about things, they’re not just going up – I can’t bring a camera and say, “Here
I am,” and film. I have to keep these things in the back of my mind. Interesting things
do occur there. It’s a huge dilemma for me because I don’t want to bring deaf people
into a lab artificially and film them. I find what they do in a lab is not natural.
G: You have the observer’s paradox. Once you start observing something or filming it,
that it changes. L: Exactly. That’s an ongoing problem. I
think everyone knows that it becomes – people are aware that they’re in a lab being videotaped.
Deaf people are very well-adapted to being able to meet researchers or hearing signers
and – what do you want from me? What can I do to accommodate you? How can I answer
this question? It’s a common problem with some of my hearing friends who look at me
as a signer with other deaf friends. They say, “You don’t sign that way with me,”
as a deaf person. Why are you signing that way?” I say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to.
It’s not intentional. I code switch.” For hearing people, you change how you speak.
I think some hearing people do that too. It’s not only a second language user thing. I think
it’s just you have academic register, you have typical, everyday conversation and chat.
G: This is kind of like the classic sociolinguistic – you go into a department store and you
ask someone, “Where is the shoe section?” You’re gonna write that down rather than
bring them into the lab and say, “Excuse me, can you tell me where is the shoe section?”
It’s gonna be a very different response. L: Yes. Back to the internet data – and
I thought, as I’m watching films, “This is a wonderful opportunity to research because
deaf people are filming themselves.” It’s very powerful.
G: They’re filming themselves for other deaf people?
L: Exactly. I think the concept of monologues in how they film themselves is not exactly
how I would describe the film I’m watching because they’re signing, and they’re talking,
and they’re responding to what someone else has said. It’s a little bit different than
a monologue. The point, I thought, when looking at this data is that I could use videos to
analyse. I could look at them and what they’re saying, and they could pick whatever they
wanted to say and do their own video. At the same time, they’re signing naturally and
spontaneous. G: This was the focus of your talk at the
Five-Minute Linguist at the LSA last year, which was really good. I really enjoyed that.
L: Exactly. You remember that? I’m embarrassed about what happened because the first video
that I showed didn’t quite work out. G: You recovered really well. That’s the
thing with live events. Yeah, we can link to the video of that, which is also online,
if people wanna see what you found when you looked at YouTube and how people sign on YouTube.
L: Yes, what I talked about in the Five-Minute Linguistics talk was showing how the video
has evidence of how one verb “to look at” changes the meaning. You can see the different
functions and the different form. That is what I found from watching all these videos.
That verb and how to analyse it has kept me busy. I think the internet data helped me
understand it much better because it truly represents language in the deaf community.
G: I mean, it’s so cool because this is what I like about internet data as well. You
can look for a new word on Twitter or something and like “Look! There’s real people using
it.” You don’t have to wait until it gets entered into a dictionary or until some lexicographer
finally notices it and does it. It’s just right there – people using it.
L: Yes, exactly. It’s also a good opportunity to see what signs deaf people are inventing
or how they’re playing with signs, nuances, talking with deaf friends about certain things
that they’ve seen on Facebook, or teaching me new signs, new concepts. I think that that
is how language spreads and changes because it’s true for spoken language as well. Languages
change – and written too. G: It’s great to actually have high-quality
video that people can send back and forth to each other rather than TTY or something.
L: Yes. I’m impressed that you know what “TTY” means and used it effortlessly.
G: I was like, wait, did I get that acronym right?
L: Yeah, thinking about my first quarter – I just finished my first quarter at UC Santa
Barbara – one undergraduate student who was learning about ASL, I suggested that they
could watch a DVD. They said, “Oh, can I watch it online?” And I thought, “Yeah,
okay. DVDs are old now.” Talking about VHS – what’s that? I mentioned VHS and I thought,
“Oh, what is VHS – oh, never mind, never mind, never mind.”
G: Imagine shipping VHS to each other to communicate in video. The internet’s a lot easier.
L: Yeah. Back then, deaf people had to communicate through TTY. The problem with TTY is that
it looks like a small typewriter. You have one line that has the words and then you wait
for the person to say, “Go ahead.” Then, when they’re done, it’s your turn, and
you type back. They do have – had paper – a little printout that you could read.
I remember one common joke is sometimes you read it, and you didn’t understand, and
then you would wait until you met the person again, and then you’d show them the paper
and say, “What did you say here? What does that mean? Tell me. Sign it to me.” Then,
they’d do it and then it’d be totally clear because you’re like “What does this
mean?” G: It’s like really bad texting.
L: I think that’s a good parallel, yes. Then, the internet emerged, and texting is
so different now – and easy. We still can text, and then now we can add video texting.
We can add emojis. G: Gifs.
L: Yes, exactly. Oh, gifs – love my animated gifs.
G: I noticed you use a lot of gifs on Twitter. L: Yeah. Well, people do, too.
G: No, everyone does, yeah. L: I think what’s fascinating is that people
sometimes say, “How do I interpret that gif?” So, we talk about it. It’s the same
thing with emojis because I noticed that the iPhone is adding new emojis all the time.
I send something and my friend, regardless of hearing or deaf, would look at it and go
“What’s that? Are you cold or what? What does that mean?”
G: It’s like TTY, you’ll have to wait till you see them in order to find out.
L: Yeah. Yeah. The availability of the video – or rather for that kind of thing through
technology – is something that we cherish. We can communicate so easily now. If we can’t
physically meet a person face to face, then it’s much easier. Back then, we had to physically
get together to communicate with one another. G: It’s so great.
L: Yeah. The internet allows me to possibly research on a new level. I still love interacting
with deaf people in person. But it allows my research to be conducted easier. I don’t
have to bother deaf people in their daily life, ask them to come to the lab, and then
film them and feel like they’re staring at me or the camera. It’s artificial. At
the same time, I do tell people, “Oh, I love your video that I saw online. Do you
mind if I use it?” Sometimes, they’re like “Oh, yes! Thank you. You like my video?
That’s so exciting,” and they feel really good about themselves.
G: That’s so good. It’s so exciting to get to do this episode as a video because
we had a number of requests to say, “Can you do something about signed languages?”
We didn’t wanna do that in audio. That’s weird. I’m really happy that you were able
to join us. I think that pretty much brings us to the end of where we’re going, but
if there was one thing you could leave people knowing about linguistics or about signed
languages or anything you work on, what would that be?
L: Wow. I have so many messages. Let me pick one. Well, it is 2019. I think the world is
changing. Deaf children have, in some ways, more opportunities than they did before. Here,
at least in the United States, deaf children can go to any school. We have interpreters
available to them. They can also learn to speak and hear with technology sometimes,
more than they used to in the past. I wrote a book chapter about that.
G: We’ll link to it. L: Yeah. The opportunity for deaf children
to learn with cochlear implants, to speak and listen, is fine. I don’t think it means
that that should happen to preclude learning sign language because deaf people and the
deaf community want to tell the world we are not opposed to the concept of deaf children
learning to speak or to use any residual hearing. We love bilingualism. We love bimodal people
who can write, who can sign, who can talk. The more communication, the better! But to
learn sign language is vital. There is no harm in learning sign language as a child.
One argument that I’ve heard time and time again is people in the world don’t sign.
They say, “What should we learn for?” You can make the same argument for many spoken
languages that are not around the world. Why learn to speak Chatino? Well, if you think
about it, the argument breaks down so easily because at no point learning multiple language
will harm anyone. You can apply that to sign language. Maybe you don’t think about it
in that view, but if you think about it as a language that we can claim as ours and make
it special to us as deaf people, emergent sign languages represent a beautiful facet
of biodiversity. I love signing because it’s fun, but I feel that it’s something special
about me. It represents who I am. I want people to understand that it’s not about the language
that they need to know for living in the world or travelling to a specific society, but it
represents who you are. You can decide to use it or not. I think for deaf children at
large, they should have the opportunity to learn sign language. Then, it’s up to them
whether they use it or not. When you interview people about spoken language of various different
ones – a beautiful IPA scarf, I love. I had it. And weird symbols. It’s just beautiful.
But I would ask the audience to think for a moment what makes language a language that’s
not related to sound or sign. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a very, very
long time. [Music]
G: For more Lingthusiasm and links to all the things mentioned in this episode, go to or check out the show notes below. You can listen to us on iTunes, Google
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I can be found as @GretchenAMcC on Twitter and my blog is Lauren
tweets and blogs as Superlinguo. You can follow our guest Lina Hou on Twitter @Linasigns.
To listen to bonus episodes, ask us your linguistics questions, and help keep the show ad-free,
go to or follow the links from our website. Can’t afford to
pledge? That’s okay, too. We also really appreciate it if you can rate us on iTunes
or recommend Lingthusiasm to anyone who needs a little more linguistics in their life. Lingthusiasm
is created and produced by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Our audio and video producer
is Claire Gawne, and our editorial producers are Emily Gref, A. E. Prevost, and Sarah Dopierala,
our music is by The Triangles. Special thanks to the Linguistic Society of America for providing
a room for this interview, Daniel Midgley for filming, and Mala Poe for interpreting.
Stay lingthusiastic! [Music]

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