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.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Spoken Language Accommodation

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

For spoken language accommodation, my personal preference is Cued Speech, hands down. Not ASL, not Signed English, not CASE, not LOVE.

Since leaving college, I’ve usually used sign language interpreters because that is what is available here in TX, but it really is not my preferred method. Captioning is fine for lecture-based presentations, but a bit slow for discussion-type forums.

It’s my opinion that signed language cannot accurately represent all of the nuances of spoken language on the hands alone. Or if it can be done, it’ll be difficult and cumbersome. That’s why Dr. Cornett designed Cued Speech the way he did: half of the information on the lips, half on the hands, and all based in phonemes, not meaning.

With Signed English, if you already know English and/or have enough hearing or enough context, or you happen to be a superb lipreader/prolific reader… basically, if you have extra support, you can fill in the gaps. Somewhat.

I have had some less-than-ideal experiences with interpreters because my native language is English, and the other person voicing in English, but we have to communicate through a sign language medium, and it’s quite challenging to be precise… especially when the interpreter is used to interpretation rather than transliteration. It’s worse when the interpreter does not have any background information, especially in specialized fields like medicine or engineering. Often (but not always), she can relay that information to me– even if I have to mentally translate it back into English– but if I try to feed it back through her, it falls apart.

Knowing the context is, I think, more essential for sign language interpretation because you are working with vocabulary and semantics. Context does help cued language transliterators too, but I think there is less demand for it, because CLT is word-for-word (well, really, cue-for-sound) and not concept-to-concept. With a CLT, I usually feel like I have a much solider grasp of the other person’s message than I do with a sign language interpreter; there is far less reliance on her understanding of the subject matter or the context.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Establishing an L1 Language

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

As a complete language, from fluent users, I believe both ASL and Cued Speech are equally viable.

The most important thing for literacy is establishing a complete L1 language, in any language. ASL, English, French, Chinese, Spanish, whatever, it doesn’t matter; just get that L1 language down. The best-performing ASL signers whom I met, at least in academia, usually came from a Deaf signing family, or had great access to complete language models in their educational system.

The big drawback with ASL (or any other sign system) is that most hearing parents have little to no knowledge of sign language, and most never become fluent in ASL. We won’t even get into the morass of all the variants of signed English (or pidgin signed English). For parents, I think Cued Speech’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it enables hearing parents to use their native spoken language, no matter what that language is, so they can act as a complete language model right away.

Another of Cued Speech’s benefits is that it has a much shorter learning curve compared to ASL. Generally speaking, CS takes weeks or months to attain fluency, compared to years for any sign language system. Plus, once you know the system and develop a good knack for thinking of English phonemically, you can cue pretty much anything without needing (much) instruction. I think the mental shift to phonemic English, as opposed to written English, is the hardest for most people to get past. It often trips me up too, and I’m a native cuer!

Earlier this year, I started working with a Vietnamese mother on developing Cued Vietnamese for her deaf daughter. English is her third language, and she wants her daughter to have access to the language of her heritage. Chances are her little girl won’t get that through sign language exposure within the US; how many deaf Vietnamese in the US are there who also know Vietnamese sign language– if there’s even a standardized Vietnamese Sign Language?

Cued Vietnamese, on the other hand, would give her access to spoken Vietnamese– and by extension, all the cultural nuances that language carries.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Availability of Services

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

American Sign Language beats Cued Speech in terms of availability, especially for socialization and finding real-time accommodations. Most everyone knows of sign language or some variant of it (Signed English, LOVE, CASE, etc.). Although a lot of cuers, particularly those affiliated with the NCSA, are trying to expand resources so it’s more available, Cued Speech is still very much in the minority.

Hence, you can find sign language interpreters in just about every sizable city. Cued Speech… it depends on the area. That said, Daily Cues is working on this nifty Cue Connector that will show you a geographical concentration of cuers all around the world so you can see what the availability is in various areas.

For sure, I know that Chicago, Minnesota, central Colorado, the East Coast, and maybe California and Seattle, have a sizable population of cuers and cueing service providers. Austin, TX, also has a small cue community.

I am the only cuer in DFW that I know of, and was the only known cuer in Milwaukee– maybe the entire state, since I first learned it in 1994 or thereabouts. That isn’t an unusual scenario for cuers, incidentally: being the only one in the school, or even the entire state, that uses Cued Speech– although it’s getting better as we develop more cue communities around the nation.

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.


One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was study abroad in Beijing for four months, with no accommodations for most of the semester. I’d enrolled into the full immersion track, which meant five straight days of class every week from 9 to 4, tutoring until 6, and homework until 10pm. Oh, and it was all in Mandarin; we weren’t allowed to speak in English except on weekends. The details elude me, but I remember we’d study between 20-50 vocabulary words every other day, usually in a deadline-induced panic to pass the next test.

Most of us had a meltdown at least once that semester. Mine came when I volunteered to be the class representative for our end-of-semester speech contest (seriously, I swear every Chinese course has a speech contest).

Early in the semester, I’d noticed that one other guy in the program had hearing aids, but I thought he didn’t sign. He’d seen my cochlear implant, but he thought I didn’t sign, either. We didn’t run into each other a lot since he was on the non-immersion track, which focused on non-language courses and allowed for about 500% more free time than the immersion students got, so of course they spent that time touring the city and interacting more with natives in one week than we got in an entire semester because we were holed up in our rooms doing homework.

So, we went on like that, hanging out with our own groups, not signing, until one day just before Thanksgiving. We were in the hallway together, and when he caught my eye, he tentatively moved his hands: “do you sign?” I responded, “Yes, I do!” And we made brief, hurried plans to sit together at the program’s Thanksgiving dinner just to have a conversation in ASL after nearly three months of spoken Mandarin and English.

Lest this sounds like the beginning to an epic love story: the guy was gay. Just to get that out of the way. Anyhoo, we did indeed grab a seat next to each other at the Thanksgiving dinner, and started signing while also speaking in Mandarin and English to the others, and oh my gosh. I can’t begin to describe what an absolute mindwarp that was.

Both of us had forgotten vocabulary in English and ASL. “There was the red… umm… red… oh geez, I forgot the sign for red. What’s the sign for red?!” Our grammar was all screwed up. Looking back on it, I’m amazed I maintained any semblance of coherency, shifting between three languages at the same time.

It didn’t stop there. At the end of the semester, I had a sign language interpreter and a cued language transliterator for our two-week study trip, because the other CLT broke her leg and couldn’t make it. We had several instances where I ended up translating for them (or trying to) because they didn’t know a word of Chinese beyond the basic pleasantries.

Language. It does funny things to the brain.

That Inner Voice

Every language has an underlying rhythm, a cadence that ebbs and flows. The vocabulary and basic grammar can be taught, but you’ve got to ride the current to develop a feel for it.

When I write, I have a “voice” in my head that tells me the rhythm, how it should “sound.” I’m putting all these words in quotes because I don’t really physically hear them. It’s just… flashes of words that zip across my mind, faster than I can catch them, because I’m too focused on the message to really think about each word that comes out.

I rely a lot on this “voice” when I study other languages, especially when I can mentally match it with facial expression, body language, and emotion. I’ve had it since I was little.

I have some hazy childhood memories from before I picked up Cued Speech, and while learning it at the AGBM school in Mount Prospect, Illinois. I saw things, and I pictured them, but I didn’t have words for them. I’m sure I had signs for them, but I don’t remember “seeing” print or spoken words for them like I do now.

This makes me wonder about my Deaf and CODA[*] friends, some of whom can pull out entire ASL poems and compositions at the drop of a hat. And once it’s out there, I see how everything merges. I’d wonder how the hell they thought of it, but I already know. Their inner voice is in ASL.

I did have one happy moment in an advanced ASL class on classifiers, though. Our instructor challenged us to show a meteor crashing into Earth with classifiers only. Either she picked me, or I volunteered– I don’t remember which– but either way, I went to the front of the class, held up two hands as if I were holding a ball, then jabbed my index finger into the center of that “ball” and spread my hands apart to mime an explosion. The whole thing took less than two seconds, and I honestly didn’t think twice about it; I just did what seemed most natural and effective for that particular concept. As soon as  I finished, there was a brief silence, then a light round of clapping and nodding, and I saw that familiar look on my classmates’ faces, the same one I’d had so many times. The one that said, “ah-ha! So THAT’S how you say it!”

[*] Child of Deaf Adults. I have hearing CODA friends who sign far better than I could ever hope to achieve. Yes, I will hate them forever for it.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.

Choosing Your Cultural & Linguistic Identity

Cherokee blood runs strong in my dad’s side of the family. Both my grandparents spoke Cherokee, and my grandfather won awards for his work teaching the Cherokee language. My siblings and I are registered members of the Cherokee Nation, with tribal cards to prove our ancestry. Yes, we have literal, honest-to-God race cards, and I’m playing mine here.

The thing is, I don’t speak nor read a lick of Cherokee, although I’d love to change that this year. I was just not exposed to it growing up. Hence, it’s not my natural nor native language. My physical makeup—other than the neurons in my brain that drive language development—had nothing to do with that. My dad tried to expose us to Cherokee history and culture as much as he could during our annual visits to Oklahoma, and we picked up on some Cherokee mannerisms from his side of the family, but for the most part, I was raised in working/middle-class settings, with predominantly German/Irish/Polish Americans. I live in the South now, and people here can often tell that I’m from the North; that’s closer to my cultural norm. So I think I can safely say that Cherokee is not my “natural” culture. I could learn a lot more about Cherokee, and grow to identify with the culture, but it would still be a learning curve, about as much as if I moved to China and tried to immerse with the natives there.

In that same strain, I am biologically deaf. But I don’t consider myself predisposed to ASL or Deaf Culture, especially Deaf Culture from those more than 2-3 generations before me. My native language is English, and I’m much more familiar with hearing culture than I am with Deaf culture. And I’m not the only one. Due to cochlear implantation and mainstreaming, the d/hh community (including the Deaf subset) has seen much more diversity in the past 20 or so years.

Another thing to consider is that, had the Cherokee Nation required that every one of its members speak Cherokee and live in Cherokee communities, regardless of any other considerations like the living standards of these communities, our access to resources, our interactions with non-Cherokee, our personal preferences, etc… I am quite certain they would have met with strong resistance, especially from my dad’s family. Not because their members don’t value Cherokee language and culture, but because people generally don’t like being told what to do.

I’m grateful that I learned ASL and studied Deaf history and culture. It helped me solidify an integral part of my identity in my early 20s, a time when I think pretty much everyone struggles with that kind of thing. I’m also grateful that Dad took us to Cherokee museums and re-enactments, and had us read books on our ancestors, and told us stories about his childhood in rural Oklahoma. But the thing is, it was all a gift. It wasn’t forced on me, and I didn’t have to trade off one culture for another.

Times are changing, as they always have and always will. I think most of us would like the freedom to determine our own cultural identities, not according to someone else’s cultural ideal.

“Natural” Language for the Deaf?

Sometimes I see articles and social media posts that imply, or flat-out declare that American Sign Language is deaf children’s “natural” language. This isn’t the case for me, nor for the majority of cuers that I know.

Language isn’t innate, and it doesn’t develop in isolation. Your L1 language is whatever you were consistently exposed to during the critical period of language development. You can also grow up with more than one L1 language simultaneously– that’s not uncommon outside of the United States. In fact, multilingualism’s demonstrable benefits for cognitive function is a big reason why I strongly advocate for learning both Cued Speech and sign language.

That said, as much as I love ASL, it is not my natural language. English is. I grew up with Cued English, and although I used some Signed English, I did not start learning full-fledged ASL until I entered college. I’m not an outlier here; I know several d/hh people who prefer English over sign, or are more fluent in English than sign, or learned English well before they learned sign. In fact, I don’t see very many “pure” ASL users outside of the residential school communities (most likely due to mainstreaming). The majority of d/hh people I know tend to use a mixture of spoken/Signed English and ASL.

This isn’t meant to be a value judgement; it’s just how things turned out. We were exposed to English growing up, so that became our L1 language– not American Sign language.