Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

CGSL Sign Language Identity Panel: Roots | Marie Coppola, PhD


(laughing) – [Voiceover] How does an individual. So now I want to turn back to
the question of this panel. How does sign language identity develop? And how does an individual’s experiences, especially their language experiences and their participation in a linguistic community contribute to the formation of that identity? So what you see here is a
very, very oversimplified schematic of how Deaf identity or sign language identity might develop
in an American context. So you start out with
a person who is Deaf, they experience the Deaf community. And American Sign Language,
the language of that community. And those experiences result in their identifying as an American Deaf person. So, along those same lines of identity development for a Deaf individual, a hearing person who has Deaf parents, also experiences the Deaf
community and experiences American Sign Language and as a result they form a CODA identity. Now I already talked about
how that CODA identity can sort of be in different
stages of emerging, versus more fully formed in
the context of other CODAs and with a more conscious awareness of the shared experience. But the experience itself already shapes the CODA identity without the benefit of that shared experience as well. And that’s what I think is also going on in the case of homesigners.
So I’ll lay that out in a little bit more detail now. Okay so now, turning to that
homesigner in Nicargaua, who doesn’t have the benefit of that linguistic community
that seems so important to achieve this more mature cultural ideal of a Deaf identity. How might they achieve that? Okay so now turning to that
home-signer in Nicaragua. So home sign is relatively
understudied in general the study of adult home
signer’s who continue using a homesign system into adulthood and for the rest of their lives is fairly limited and the
kinds of data we do have are focused on the structures that they’re able to develop linguistically. We don’t have anything resembling ethnic graphic data
available for homesigners. And I want to be clear here
that I am not a homesigner. I am not a family member of a homesigner but I’ve given what I and my colleague have learned about the quality
of their communication with their hearing family
members which is relatively poor, there are very few people
who are well positioned to offer any sort of commentary on this. So I feel that given the
lack of data available that I would rather offer
my imperfect perspective. than have this question
of identity formation for homesigners be
completely unaddressed. I’m gonna share one
particular anecdote with you that I feel really embodies
the assumptions that many people make about how Deaf
people achieve a Deaf identity, or a sign language identity. And one that really
speaks to the importance of individual experience and
the importance of context on the formation of an identity. The very first adult homesigner who I worked with in Managua in 1996 was a very gregarious
young man, he was 18 years old. And at the time I was traveling with Anne Senghas, my good friend
and colleague and collaborator. And we ran every possible elicitation task that we have with him. Because we felt we had met him in the context of the
Deaf Club in Managua. And it the was the first
time he had arrived there. And we were just very lucky that we happened to meet him then. And we assumed that once he got a taste of Deaf culture and
Nicaraguan Sign Language he would imitatively immerse
himself in that community, and that he would no longer
qualify as a homesigner. So we had to do whatever testing we wanted to do with him right now today. And that turned out not
to be the case at all. He was not following the
model of immediate immersion that’s very common in the
United States for Deaf people who haven’t felt that sense
of belonging and that ease of communication that
makes the Deaf community so attractive to them
once they discover it in early adulthood or
sometimes later in adulthood. So I think the point that I want to make with that story is that we tend to assume that Deaf identity
and Deaf culture is a target, an inevitable target once
contact has been made. But when I think that story
about this homesigner in Nicaragua shows is that a Deaf identity, a Sign Language identity
emerges in different ways and different people and it has a strong… Strongly related to their own experiences. It turned out that homesigner had a hard time understanding
the people around him. He really didn’t feel – he
understood that he was Deaf, that he was like them in some way. But he was not motivated to give up his homesign system which is
fairly elaborate and complex. And if you come to my presentation later this afternoon you will
get to see more of that. He was very happy with his homesign. And didn’t feel that it
was necessary to take on this new identity as a
Nicaraguan Sign Language signer. So what are some of those forces
shaping homesign identity? Clearly it’s shaped by
their experience of deafness itself and the consequent and central and daily issue of communication
that poses for them. Their identity is also going
to be shaped by the visible and accessible aspects of the
surroundings Spanish speaking Nicaraguan culture as that
also shapes the identities of both Deaf signing Nicaraguans as well as hearing Nicaraguans. I would like to show you a
few examples of those visible and accessible aspects
of Nicaraguan culture. So to wrap up these
ideas, and this position. I have experience myself of
being a close outsider both to the American Deaf community as well as to these homesigners
and their families. I’ve shared with you some of the parallels that I see between my perspectives
on each of these groups. And the parallels as
well between my own early emerging CODA identity with an
emerging homesign identity. that’s really based on
our individual experiences without the benefit of
participating in a community of people who have
shared those experiences and who share a language. In contrast to that mature,
strong, sign language identity. Either a CODA identity or
Deaf identity that is based on interactions with others in the context of that community that shares a language. So I hope that these
thoughts have given you some interesting ideas of your
own and I look forward to hearing more about
them in the discussion.

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