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.

Cued Mandarin Transliteration

I took Mandarin on a lark in Fall 2009. I’d been fascinated with Chinese history, culture, art– everything– ever since I was little, and I’d been wanting to formally study Mandarin for a long time. In college, I finally had that chance, so I signed up for the next semester, and then had a whole bunch of meetings with my school’s student accessibility center, the Chinese instructors, and the head of the Chinese language department.

The long and short of it was that we all agreed: why not give it a try and see what happens?

I ended up studying Mandarin for four years and minoring in it.

Of course I went with cued language transliterators. My transliterator, Rosie, didn’t know a word of Mandarin, and never really got beyond the first class’s vocabulary, to my knowledge. She didn’t need to. I lucked out a bit: Mandarin is phonemically pretty finite, and it doesn’t have insane vowel/consonant combinations like we do with English. Much of the language’s semantic variation comes from the tones and syllabic pairings. I’m sure that explanation makes professional linguists want to stab me, but it’s close enough for our purposes.

In addition to that, pinyin (the most commonly-used system of romanizing Chinese characters and pronunciation) is very, very consistent. For example, “z” is always pronounced “dz”; “c” is “ts,” and “o” is always “oh” (unless it was the final after b, f, m, or w, in which it’d carry a weird “uoh” sound before, like “wuooah” or “froouaaah”), and “a” is a hard “a.” This, incidentally, may explain why I think I “see” a bit of a British accent when I lipread Chinese ESL speakers.

The Cued English system ended up being a great fit, actually, even though it isn’t designed to show tones. I’m sure it would have been even better with Cued Mandarin, but we didn’t have the resources nor the time to take it up– plus I’m not aware of any real-life examples with Cued Mandarin that we could have learned from (it’s one thing to develop a Cued language system; it’s another to put it into practice so you can refine it. Cornett spent at least a year or two on the system, I believe).

More than once, someone in class would make a joke in Mandarin and I’d laugh with the others because I understood what they were referring to; it just went over my transliterator’s head. On the few occasions that Rosie couldn’t make it, we’d have someone else substitute– always someone with no prior knowledge of Mandarin. They were usually nervous as hell about cueing everything right– but they did! I’d tell them, “Yes, that’s the right way to cue it. I understand it. You’re doing good; just keep cueing what you hear and I’ll get it.”

In one case, I had a woman who’d learned Cued Speech to communicate with a childhood deaf friend in DC, and had no formal transliterator training. She got it down too, albeit slower.

To me, that’s one of the most amazing things about Cued Speech: the transliterator doesn’t even need to know the language; she just needs to cue what she hears in order to give her deaf client full visual access.


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.