Ching-Chong Cued Speech Chang

The Deaf community takes up arms, and rightly so, when a celebrity or comedian mimics gibberish ASL. Latest offender: Jamie Foxx on the Jimmy Fallon show. Others include Chelsea Handler, Cecily Strong, and pretty much any SNL show to do with sign language.

Now, I consider myself a hard person to offend. Gibberish ASL has made the rounds so often by now that I just consider it a cheap shot, comparable to putting on horn-rimmed glasses, fake buck teeth, and chattering out a “chinky chinky Chinaman” routine. It’s been done to death, it’s connected to negative and insulting stereotypes, and it’s nothing like the original language or culture, so it doesn’t even make enough sense to be funny.

In other words, it’s pulling random gestures out of one’s ass. It’s lazy, tacky, and trite. Hearing comedians can be bad enough about this; you’d think Deaf comedians would know better.

You’d think. If you don’t have three minutes to spare, skip right on to 2:10.

Now, the joke itself starts out OK. The driver decides to weasel out of a speeding ticket by pretending that he knows Cued Speech– so of course, he bungles it up, thinking the cop won’t know better. The cop recognizes the driver’s attempts at Cued Speech, holds up his finger, and returns to his squad car…

…and takes out a paper with cue words printed on it, replying with his own version of cue gibberish.

OK. A few things to say here.

  1. Remember, this is at Gallaudet. The only university for the Deaf in the world, one that hosts a multitude of sign languages from all over the worlds. It is, in fact, the birthplace of Cued Speech, with a vibrant Cued Speech community in the DC, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland area. How hard would it have been to find someone who knew Cued Speech to play as the policeman, or even to have the policeman flag down someone who happened to know both ASL and Cued Speech?
  2. He couldn’t at least have mouthed with the cues? That’s how Cued Speech works– it clarifies lipreading. There is no Cued Speech without lipreading!
  3. What’s up with the paper? It’s not… you can’t just cue right off a sheet of paper without knowing Cued Speech already. Yes, I talk about how you can learn the system off a sheet of paper in a weekend… but that doesn’t mean you can start cueing fluently right off the bat. Again, I think the video would have worked much better if the policeman started cueing fluently, and/or called in someone who knew Cued Speech.

I don’t know if the original author intended to insult Cued Speech. I don’t think so; my impression is that Cued Speech was a handy option for tricking a policeman who most likely only knew sign language. To be honest, I was glad to see Cued Speech getting recognition at Gallaudet! Unfortunately, making up random cues, instead of taking the time to reproduce a reasonably accurate version, cheapened the humor for me.



On a more positive note, this is one of the very few sign language parody videos I actually liked. At risk of ruining the humor by overanalyzing it: first, her “signs” actually have some relation to what she’s trying to say, so part of the fun is seeing how she acts out several concepts. This requires effort and on-the-spot thinking. In fact, a lot of deaf comedy acts incorporate this element; they try to “sign” without actually signing. Second, while the video pokes fun at both the interpreter and the mayor– especially on the Spanish bit– it isn’t insulting or demeaning to the broader d/hh community (at least, I don’t think). While its execution isn’t perfect, I’d say they got the idea on this one right.

Those Oh-So-Cool Signing Gloves

You know a video’s going viral when at least three people ask or tell me about it in as many days. 

On one hand*, COOL. And surely a good starting foundation for more advanced technology. On the other hand*, you know there’s a but coming…

  1. It doesn’t seem to address facial expression or body language, which are two essential components of sign language. Those two don’t just add flavor; they add meaning. Not sure how you can track these things just yet.
  2. “Pure” sign languages (i.e., ones that haven’t been adapted for speech) also tend to be more spatial than linear, plus the grammar is typically wildly different from spoken language. Even sign systems designed to transliterate speech generally don’t catch all components of spoken language, so I’d expect the voicing to be piecemeal at best.
  3. There’s no reverse translation; it’s sign-to-voice only, so it doesn’t make spoken language visually accessible for d/hh people.
  4.  The translation would probably be akin to running something through Google Translate– if not worse.

More than that, not all d/hh people know, use, or even prefer sign language. Even among signers, quite a few prefer to use transliteration rather than interpretation. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of captioning gaining far more popularity in colleges than sign language interpreting. Personally, while I have no qualms about using sign language to converse directly with other signers, I’ve had way too many interpreting mishaps to trust it for anything beyond basic conversation with English speakers. It’s far too much reliance on a third party’s understanding and expertise for my liking. I’m not that much more optimistic about a machine.

On the other other hand*, I could see these gloves working better for straight fingerspelling or Cued Speech, especially if they were combined with an automated transcription software. Unlike sign languages, cued speech has a finite set of eight handshapes that can be matched with a similarly finite selection of phonemes to produce words. I expect it’d sound incredibly robotic– which would certainly add an extra twist to the blog name, A Croaking Dalek— but there would likely be less potential for word jumble like what you’d get with ASL or Signed English. 

 * I promise these puns are completely unintentional.

Why Not Both?

Growing up, I never really saw a conflict between sign language and Cued Speech. Even if I couldn’t quite articulate it yet at four years old, I could tell they were different and didn’t see any reason to pick one over the other. As I got older, people asked me about the difference, so I’d tell them that signs are based on words and cues are based on sounds. Sometimes they’d ask me which I liked better, and I couldn’t really answer because, well, it was like comparing apples and oranges. Later on, when I connected with other deaf adult cuers, I found that we’d often code-switch between Cued Speech and American Sign Language.

All of this, by the way, mirrors my experiences with other languages– notably, Mandarin and my 2011 study abroad in Beijing with other international students. We jumped between languages a lot, depending on what was most appropriate for the context. (One of these days, I need to post my story about having a conversation in ASL with the one other hard-of-hearing guy in the program, after a semester of full immersion in Mandarin.)

Personally, I find ASL useful for expressing emotions that may not have an appropriate English equivalent, whereas Cued English helps me articulate concepts in a precise, orderly manner. Sometimes I’ll combine the two– for example, I may use a classifier on my left hand to show spatial placement or shape while cueing a description with my right hand. That’s just me, though; others will almost certainly differ.

Some people seem to think using both will “confuse” deaf children. Thing is, I know people in Europe who grew up speaking as many as five, six different languages. Why can’t deaf kids achieve the same thing through ASL and Cued English? We’ve got reams and reams of research out there supporting bilingual education. Personally, I think Cued English would tie in perfectly with the Bilingual-Bicultural educational model in residential schools now, and I’ve spoken to several educators who feel the same way.

That said, I do understand the concern about Cued Speech taking precedence over ASL, or favoring a purely auditory-oral/”fixing deaf people” approach reminiscent of the days of Bell (as well-intentioned as he was). No matter how good our technological and educational approaches become, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution; and we will probably always have a varying spectrum of deaf people in terms of language and speech production.

A fellow cuer, Aaron Rose, recently said of American Sign Language and Cued Speech, “You’re comparing apples and oranges, but at the same time both are used to nourish the body.” And that’s really probably the best way to look at it.