The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

Ben Bahan presented The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. His presentation examines the challenges in exposing sign language interpreters to academic ASL due to limited representation in journals and academic environments.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Ben’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Ben’s original presentation directly.]

The Whole Picture: Why Academic ASL Exposure Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

Why is exposure to academic ASL important for interpreters? Because when we talk about academic ASL, we’re talking about discourse, and discourse is your business. So, it has to be important. This talk will address how we can build a better understanding of ASL academic discourse.

What is Academic ASL?

Jim Gee is a sociolinguist, a linguist, and a literary theorist, among other things. He has examined academic discourse and what comprises academic language. So, what is academic ASL? It is a particular usage of the language. We can analyze discourse at two different levels: the primary level and the secondary level. There are other terms for these levels which are used in the Common Core State Standards: BICS and CALP. But for our purposes, we’ll call them primary and secondary levels.

Primary discourse is the way we use language in the home. It is conversational language. Secondary discourse is what we use in other settings such as school, court, hospitals, public media, and the like. In these settings we shift how we use language, tailoring it to the particular expectations of the setting. Secondary discourse is often used in places of power, which govern how we are to interact, so we have to abide by their expectations. If our primary discourse is very different from how we’re expected to communicate in these settings, we have to learn the secondary discourse like it’s a second language. If, on the other hand, our primary and secondary discourses are not so disparate, then it is easier to navigate between the two. Often, privilege is reflected in primary and secondary discourses which are similar to one another. People who have privilege can interact in domains of power more easily. They have greater fluency in the secondary discourse because it is closer to their primary discourse.

Rules of Engagement

When we analyze academic discourse, we look at its rules of engagement. We examine how we engage in discussion, argument, and disagreement. We examine how we build arguments and support them with data. One such rule is conducting an academic argument with disinterest, with an emotional removal from the discourse. One becomes more objective, setting aside personal opinion and emotion, and engages in a discourse of ideas, not feelings. The goal of removing the discourse from the heat of emotional, personal perceptions is to connect with others in the realm of ideas.

A particular choice of words is another rule of engagement. It’s imperative to choose words or signs which conform to the academic level of discourse rather than the commonplace, primary-level vocabulary. Back in 1996 I went to a conference on infant cochlear implantation with Harlan Lane. He began talking with an esteemed doctor who was an advocate for early implantation. I observed their conversation through an interpreter. They couldn’t have been at greater odds with one another in their discussion, yet their tone was cool and dispassionate. Harlan expertly cited evidence to make his points. Despite their radically opposing positions on the issue, they were able to maintain the discourse because they followed these rules of engagement. Otherwise, they might have had to take it outside. This particular etiquette enabled them to engage successfully in the discourse.

Academic Societies

People assume that the responsibility to develop and teach academic discourse lies with institutions of higher learning, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, the responsibility belongs to academic societies. Each discipline of study in the academy has its own approach to discourse. When you enter college, whether you go into history, science, interpreting, or psychology, you learn your field’s unique approach to citing sources and engaging in academic discourse. That knowledge is developed and embedded in each academic society. A society’s particular academic discourse evolves dependent upon three layers: the field itself, its ties to a professional organization, and the professional organization’s publishing of academic journals. The discourse learned in the course of study is then practiced at professional conferences — whether during formal talks or social discourse — which in turn leads to the ways academic writing is published in professional academic journals. All three of these layers contribute to the forming of a discipline’s academic discourse.

Academic Societies in the ASL field

One learns and develops academic discourse through these three layers. It doesn’t rest in the domain of schools alone. All three layers contribute to and create its meaning and form of expression in a given language. Now, we’ll turn our attention to ASL. ASL is our field. Within the field, we have the disciplines of ASL education, interpreting, linguistics, and we can include Deaf Studies, as well. Let’s examine the three layers as they pertain to the disciplines within our field.

Academic Societies: Interpreting and Linguistics

In interpreting, we confer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Conference of Interpreter Trainers function as our professional organizations. As for journals, we have the Journal of Interpretation, the International Journal of Interpreter Education, and there might be some other smaller journals in the field. In linguistics, we confer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Our organizations are limited to the Sign Language Linguistics Society and FEAST (Formal and Experimental Advances in Sign Language Theory), which is a European-based organization. The journals in this discipline are Sign Language Studies and Sign Language and Linguistics.

Academic Societies: ASL and Deaf Studies

Now, let’s look at ASL and Deaf Studies. We confer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ASL, but not the doctoral degree as of yet. For organizations, we have the ASLTA (American Sign Language Teachers Association), but we have no professional journal. In Deaf Studies we confer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but not the doctoral degree. We have no professional organizations, but we do have the Deaf Studies Digital Journal and the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. There are some interesting gaps here. Let’s look further.

Journal Languages in our Disciplines

The professional interpreting and linguistics journals are all published in English. Authors, therefore, submit work in written English. In the discipline of ASL Education, the ASLTA tends to submit work and get published in the Sign Language Studies Journal or in The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, both of which are published in English. The other journal in the discipline of Deaf Studies is the Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which we’ve tried to establish as an alternative to the English language journals, and which has some issues that I’ll discuss in a moment.

How to develop ASL academic discourse if it’s not represented in journals and conferences?

What do we do about academic ASL? It doesn’t exist in our journals, which means we have no opportunity to practice it, refine it, and build a common understanding of what it is. If English is the only language of publication, how can we develop ASL academic discourse? As for conferences, StreetLeverage is unique. Most conferences about sign languages are held in spoken English. Those about linguistics are held in spoken English. You may have someone co-presenting in sign, but where is the opportunity to practice and perfect ASL academic discourse at conferences? When working on my dissertation about ASL, everything I was learning, everything I engaged in discussion about, everything I was reading, was done through English. Conversations with my advisor were typed in English because she was not fluent in ASL. When it came time for me to defend my dissertation in ASL, it was really hard. I couldn’t convey my thoughts about conditional markers and feature spreading in ASL. It all came out in English structure. Because all of the discussion and development of my ideas had occurred in written English, it was nearly impossible to transfer those ideas into ASL. I hadn’t had the opportunity to practice it, discuss it, and cement it in ASL. So, how can we build academic discourse in ASL? We must link academic study, conferences, and journal publication in ASL and then bridge the gap between academic English and academic ASL.

The Deaf Studies Digital Journal

The Deaf Studies Digital Journal (DSDJ) was established in 2009, for the purpose of soliciting academic submissions in ASL. At first, it was hard to find people willing to contribute their work. They were willing to submit research in English, but when asked to submit in ASL too, they claimed that they were not proficient enough in academic ASL to do so. We encouraged them to find people to work with them on it, but it was hard to find people willing to produce the academic works in ASL. There was no system, no established formula for it. We didn’t have a ready-made format for them to follow, and to build one proved too daunting and time-consuming a task. Also, who then would review the works? Our professional peers in the larger academic societies can’t read works in ASL, so they dismiss them, and when the works go unreviewed, their academic worth automatically diminishes. So, how can we require submission in ASL? It’s been a struggle. DSDJ is still operating, but we only receive occasional submissions. In fact, it’s on hold now, because of a lack of funding.


The goal of ASLized is to publish academic works in ASL, and the journal’s efforts are laudable, but with which professional organization is it affiliated? As I said earlier, professional organizations are responsible for ensuring that the research published is conducted by scientists in the field whose work is reliable, valid, and will contribute to the scholarship of the field as a whole. They oversee this aspect of the academic society. These are among the several issues I see with academic ASL in professional journals today.

ASL in Academia

We’ve examined the realm of journals, and have found that, effectively, ASL is not represented. Now, what about institutions of higher education? Here I’m not referring to colleges that accept ASL as a foreign language. I’m addressing the fact that the language of academia in institutions across the country is English. Gallaudet University finally announced in 2007 that it was a bilingual institution. Remember that DSDJ began in 2009, two years later. Upon the announcement we should have gotten into the weeds to determine what it meant to be a bilingual institution. We grappled somewhat with definitions, and we had discussions, but nothing was formally established. Then, in January of 2016, President Cordano stated that our priority was to analyze and address what it means for us to be a bilingual institution. So, after several years of talking around the issue at Gallaudet, we’re now being pushed to do something.

Gallaudet University’s role

Gallaudet is developing a website for students that teaches them how to engage in academic ASL discourse. There are some drop-down menus which show examples of different types of ASL academic discourse, but there aren’t many to choose from, and it seems the website is still a work in progress. For instance, do we know what constitutes an ASL essay? No, because we don’t have a professional literary organization that defines and publishes these works. Instead, we draw from quality student work to inform our academic society. In reality, we should be drawing from the professional echelon to inform our students, not the other way around. This isn’t to say that we have no exemplars of academic work in ASL. Of course, we have a good number of scholars who have done outstanding research in ASL. Raychelle Harris, Laurene Simms, MJ Bienvenu, Maribel Garaté, and Trudy Suggs all are engaged in stellar ASL academic discourse, and we pull various features from their work to create standards and definitions, but we need broader representation in our field.

Efforts toward a definition

So, efforts are underway. We’re examining which ASL features are entailed in academic discourse, such as amount of fingerspelling and degree of grammatical and affective facial markers. We’re having fruitful discussions and attempting to build some basic guidelines.

Working together, accountable together

The different levels I’ve discussed here — institutions, organizations, and journals — need to work together to set standards before we can fully define what is involved and expected in academic ASL discourse. Each level needs to take accountability, as well — something that MJ  and others have talked about — and put in the thought required to establish best practices in their respective domains.

Why does ASL academic discourse matter to interpreters?

Yu are in the business of discourse, and most interpreters work in an academic setting. If your student is using conversational ASL, and you interpret that into academic English discourse, are you doing a service or a disservice? The professor needs to know that the student isn’t using academic discourse appropriately. You have to know your boundaries around this. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t have an easy answer, but I know that we must work together to grapple with it.

What can we do?

This afternoon we will continue the discussion, look at some examples of ASL text, and analyze the features and functions of ASL academic discourse. We’ll view video samples and draw comparisons between formal and informal discourse. I hope that this entices you to join the afternoon session.

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