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.

The Bilingual-Bicultural Dilemma

I’ve studied at least five languages. I majored in English, and minored in American Sign Language and Mandarin, including a four-month study abroad in Beijing. In high school, I dabbled in a semester or two of Latin and Spanish. (I highly recommend Latin as a starter language, by the way; it’s an incredibly useful key for any Romance language.)

The one constant in all my language studies was that at some point, you must immerse. Bar none, that’s the best way to improve your proficiency. Even my ASL instructors stressed this, and mandated that we had to attend at least one Deaf event per semester.

Yet, the one glaring exception seems to be deaf children learning English. Most bilingual-bicultural (Bi-Bi) programs I’ve seen address this by establishing ASL as a base language, and teaching all or most classes– including reading and writing– in ASL with written support.

There is some truth to this. Even with hearing aids and cochlear implants, deaf children don’t have the same access to spoken language that hearing children do. The bulk of our language proficiency comes through incidental learning, and for most people, it’s via auditory means. For deaf children, though, their primary mode is usually visual.

Hence, establishing English proficiency for deaf children is a toss-up between two general routes: either some variant of Signed English, which is much more faithful to English structuring, but tends to be functionally less complete as a language support; or American Sign Language, which is a complete language in and of itself, and as a result does not follow English structure.

The paramount objective is to establish a complete first language, ideally from fluent speakers. It’s much easier to pick up on other languages when you have a solid foundation in a base language. However, multilingual speakers will also tell you that the best way to increase your proficiency is full immersion– not just reading and writing, but also daily conversation with other native speakers. You can go only so far in studying a second language through your first language before you hit a roadblock. While proficiency is still very much doable– I’ve seen it several times, especially among prolific readers– it does get much harder. In my experience, you have to reverse-engineer. A lot.

How, then, do you reconcile these two paradigms in deaf education? By now, you know my answer is Cued Speech. It’s an 100% visual mode of communication that accurately represents spoken language in real-time, so hearing parents can act as complete language models for their deaf children without butchering ASL to fit English structure. And on the flip side, deaf children can attain full immersion in English, whether that is their L1 or L2+ language.

I’ve stated several times that Cued Speech would be the perfect addition to any Bi-Bi program. ASL would stay ASL, and English would stay English, and students would get the benefit of learning how to think in not only two languages, but also two different modalities.

Changing Perspectives: A New World

For as long as I can remember, I grew up with the impression that deafness was a disability, and that I was the one who had to change—to work harder than everyone else—in order to “integrate” into the mainstream hearing world. I had to take years of speech therapy, one to three times a week, and go to mainstreamed schools, and wear my implant all the time. I remember having my mom as a transliterator in church and at youth group events. For many years, I just didn’t think much of it.

I mean, it was all I’d known, and the biggest things I had to worry about in middle school were squabbling with the boys I found annoying– which, in retrospect, were all of them. When I turned 13, things started to shift. I kept telling myself I was just a loner and preferred to go my own way, and to some degree, that was true. Over time, though, the feeling of isolation just got worse and worse. It got a little better in high school thanks to Emily, who opened my world just by being this shining example of kindness and grace. More than anyone else, she showed me how to be a friend.

Even so, the friends I’d made in middle school started finding new circles in high school, and while we still hung out, I had no idea where or how to find new ones. More than that, I couldn’t deny my growing identity crisis. On one hand, I was becoming more painfully aware of how my deafness bled into everything, even with people I loved. There was always, always this gap, and I didn’t know how to close it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be shunted into this “deaf box,” where everything I did and became was all about deafness.

Before I entered college, I was skeptical about Deaf Culture, especially since I was hardly the “ideal” Deaf person: I grew up with an emphasis on spoken and auditory communication, I have a cochlear implant, I used Cued Speech rather than American Sign Language, and I saw deafness as more of a nuisance than anything else.

And then I took ASL classes at UWM, and met many Deaf people, and gradually my perspective changed. It wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first. For the first time since I left the Montessori school in Mount Prospect, I was on equal footing. For once, deafness didn’t factor in communication at all. I didn’t have to work so hard at it, and if I didn’t join in on a conversation, it was of my own volition. I didn’t have to “default” to a passive listening role out of fear of embarrassing myself because I couldn’t follow the entire conversation. I understood everything—or close to it—and chose to not participate. And to be honest, I found the Deaf
Culture’s perspective of deafness– as a variation in the human condition rather than solely a medical deficiency– to be quite redeeming.

I still cue. I still talk. I still use my cochlear implant. I still use American Sign Language (or, really, a Signed English variant, but I try to get as close to pure ASL as I can). I have a pretty even mix of deaf and hearing friends with a wide range of communication styles, but that doesn’t matter; we find a way to make it work, and we learn things from each other. In the end, I decided that I’m Hannah, I’m me, and while deafness and all the issues contained therein are a part of me, they don’t have to be all there is to me. Life’s too short to think about deaf or hearing, ASL or English. There’s a whole world out there, and I wanted to go see it.

A Croaking Dalek with Laryngitis.

What’s up with the name?

Long story short, I am deaf. I got a cochlear implant when I was ten. No, my parents didn’t ask me for my input. No, I didn’t and don’t resent them for it. No, it’s not a cure, and yes, it does help.

The title comes from a late-deafened British member of Parliament, Jack Ashley, who got a cochlear implant in his 70’s. He described the sound as “a croaking dalek with laryngitis,” and the phrase stuck with me. Coming up with unique URL names is ridiculously difficult, so I’m copping this one while it lasts.

No, I haven’t seen Dr. Who yet, and yes, I plan to watch the series.

OK, so what’s up with this blog? 

Well. Most deaf kids are raised with sign language or spoken language– which are often referred to as manualism or oralism respectively (quit snickering)– or a combination of both. Now me, I grew up with Cued Speech. Because it’s not terribly commonplace, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about it, so this blog is my attempt at sorting it out.

Cued Speech? What’s that?

Cued Speech is one of those things that is just difficult to explain because nobody has a frame of reference for it; it doesn’t neatly fit into any one box. The way I try to explain it, whilst floundering all over myself (“no, it’s not sign language, yes, it uses the hands but it’s not sign language, no, it’s not visual phonics, I don’t know why they’re different, they just are, no, you don’t need to voice it, yes, it represents sound but you don’t need to SAY it…”), is this:

Cued Speech is a system of visually representing the sounds of spoken language in conjunction with lipreading. It’s got eight handshapes, with about three consonants per handshape, and four movements/placements with three or four vowels per movement/placement. They’re arranged so that sounds that look the same on the lips are assigned to different handshapes– for example, /m/ goes on handshape 5, while /b/ goes with handshape 4 and /p/ with handshape 1. As you mouth/voice the words, you put the cues together like a puzzle, and presto! Cued Speech.

There are plenty of sites out there that explain it far better than I ever could, and they have video too. The National Cued Speech Association is a good place to start: www.cuedspeech.org. CueEverything has an excellent collection of damn near every Cued Speech video out there, at www.cueeverything.com.

What I’ll be doing here is sharing my experiences and observations with Cued Speech, as well as forwarding research or news related to it, on a regular basis (approximately once a week is my plan) until… I run out of things to say, I suppose. Down the road, I’d like to publish brief vlogs in both Cued and sign language. Whichever way it goes, I’ll post all about it right here.