Cue-Reading for Transliterators

One thing I have noticed among cued language transliterators: either they can cue very well expressively, but they struggle with receptive cueing (cuereading). Or, they struggle to cue, but they can cueread very well. I’ve encountered the former more often, and that lack of cuereading ability has always bothered me. I don’t blame my transliterators for this, by the way–  they do not get enough real-world practice with just one cuer (who often voices for herself).

However, as Cued Speech becomes more widespread, there definitely needs to be a set standard for transliterators being able to fluently cue both expressively and receptively. Right now, I would consider a transliterator who can comfortably do both worth her weight in gold, just because those kinds of transliterators are so, so rare.

I have had quite a few embarrassing situations where I was cueing a word correctly, but not pronouncing it correctly, and the transliterator struggled to voice for me. Often I’d switch over to sign language because that was what the transliterator knew, but that’s really not an ideal solution for several reasons.

First, you can’t assume that either the client or the transliterator will know sign language. Many deaf cuers and cued language transliterators do know at least a moderate amount of sign, but it cannot be a given. Second, even if the deaf cuer voices for himself, sometimes the transliterator may still need to voice for him because of a strong accent, a speech disability, or a mild illness that affects his ability to be understood clearly (like a cold). Third, some situations may call for the client to tell the transliterator something without voicing: perhaps an aside during a meeting or lecture.

Fundamentally, it’s an interpreter/transliterator’s responsibility to be able to communicate both ways in their chosen mode. I have always liked how so many sign language interpreting agencies and programs stress this, and I hope to see the same expectations in cued language transliteration programs as they expand.

Cueing Expressively as a Receptive Cuer

One thing about being the only cuer in the entire state: you get really, really good at cuereading. If you have only a few transliterators (or only one!), sometimes you get really, really good at reading their particular style of cueing. When I reconnect with other cuers in Illinois and Colorado, it takes me a while to adjust myself to reading their cues– partly because I see them only once, maybe twice a year. I don’t have that issue with my transliterators in Wisconsin.

Conversely, the transliterator gets used to your voice so you find that you don’t need to cue as much with them, or you don’t need to cue as accurately with them. As a matter of fact, I know many cuers who just voice for themselves without any cues whatsoever. I don’t know the ratio of cuers who cue expressively versus those who don’t, but I’ve seen more in the latter category. My guess is that for the majority of d/hh cuers, it’s just easier to drop the hands and talk.

The downside is that, well, these cuers don’t get to practice expressive cueing a lot, so either they can’t do it, or they do it sloppily. I was/am in the latter category, although I have been much more mindful of it over the past few years. By cueing sloppily, I mean we drop certain handshapes, or don’t put our hands in the right position (e.g., placing the hand on the cheek instead of at the corner of the mouth for “ee” and “ur” sounds). It usually doesn’t impact our overall comprehension, I think, but it’s not technically the correct way to cue.

I do suspect that part of it is probably just cuers co-opting the system to their own style, like how native signers or native speakers become a bit sloppier in everyday conversation. Part of it is due to cuers not getting enough exposure to correct cueing, and/or not being around other cuers. I imagine as cueing becomes more mainstream, and hopefully as we establish a stronger base of cued speech transliterators, we’ll have more good models to work off of. For now, this is a good issue to be aware of, especially with young d/hh cuers.

Video Relay Interpreting

I have a confession.

I am not a huge fan of using video relay interpreters.

This (usually) has nothing to do with their skill, and more to do with the whole set-up. Unlike an in-person interpreting appointment, the interpreter gets no context whatsoever. For standard calls to doctors’ offices, the DMV, department stores, and the like, this isn’t an issue. You can get up to speed quickly by explaining “I’m calling the doctor to schedule an appointment for back pain” or somesuch. (Although I have had a couple instances in which that wasn’t even enough, as it turned out the interpreter just nodded along without asking me to clarify my signs.)

But for anything more intensive, often names, terminology, and concepts will come up that the interpreter is not familiar with. This was actually a pretty big issue when I was looking for jobs after graduation and the hiring manager would ask for a phone interview first. That’s probably a blog for another time, but suffice to say, when I secured a phone interview, I’d call the interpreter five minutes beforehand to fill her in on the hiring manger’s name, the company name, the job description, my past places of employment, what I did there…

It was a lot of names to fingerspell, is what I’m saying. And fingerspelling is notoriously a weak suit for many interpreters. More than that, I was seeking a career in writing and editing, and that’s a field where you really, really need to be precise and have as much background knowledge on the topic as possible. For example, my previous work included editing and writing for a laboratory firm that specialized in thermal analysis of polymers and materials. In addition to standard industry terms like dilatometer, thermoplastics, and viscoelasticity, we had names like Dynamic Mechanical Analysis (DMA), Differential Thermal Analysis (DTA), Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), and Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA)– and yes, all those words need to be capitalized and arranged in that exact order; it’s not exactly something that an unfamiliar interpreter can conceptualize in sign language on the spot.

There’s also, in my opinion, the increased spectrum in interpreter quality. At least with a local agency, you can specifically request an interpreter that you’ve worked with before, who has proven herself to be a good fit for your signing style. You don’t get that option with video relay interpreting; you take whoever picks up your call. You can request to be switched in the middle of a call if you find that it’s not working out, but that’s a bit awkward.

Despite these issues, I do find video relay interpreting to be one of the better options out there for d/hh telecommunications. In the meantime, I’m hoping/watching for the day that a video relay service finally adds Cued Speech transliteration. Because so many of my issues with video relay interpreting (really, interpreting in general) relate to language and context, I’m hopeful that Cued Speech transliteration would mitigate some of them.

Hearing < Communication

The second time I went to China on a youth mission trip at a rural middle school near Xi’an, a woman from another American group came up to me in the cafeteria and asked me if she could pray for my hearing. Being used to requests like these, I said, “Sure, but can you pray for better communication instead? That’d help a lot more than just being able to hear.”

She repeated, “OK, I’ll pray for your hearing then.”

“Um. OK.”

And there went the most awkward praying-over session I’ve had thus far. Now, I don’t mind when people ask to pray for me. They mean well, and if my hearing is somehow miraculously restored someday, then sure, I’ll take it. This time, though, what bothered me was that despite what I’d told her about communication, she still fixated on my deafness.

Funny thing is, this was an American woman in the middle of China who spoke no Chinese whatsoever. Like nearly everyone else on that trip, she could hear perfectly, but relied on Chinese translators for communication (and even then, sometimes it got tricky because of their local accents). On the other hand, I probably knew more Chinese than 90% of the people on that trip– granted, most of it not being particularly helpful for talking with middle-schoolers, since our vocabulary in 2nd year Mandarin was largely limited to food, school, transportation, and setting up dates.

I think too many people, especially in religious circles, miss the larger picture when it comes to hearing. Yeah, being deaf in and of itself isn’t always a picnic, but what really inhibits us is that lack of communication. Hearing alone won’t fix that: communication’s a two-way street, and it takes effort and a shared language.