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.

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.

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.

“Do you still use Cued Speech?”

For the most part, I get this question in good faith and don’t mind answering.

Once in a while, however, I get the vibe that the asker is hunting for “weak points” in Cued Speech, especially when they see me using sign language to communicate. Needless to say, this makes me a bit uncomfortable since I don’t want my statements to be taken out of context.

On a pragmatic level, it’s like asking if I still use Mandarin. Most of the time I don’t, but if I visit China or a Chinatown, then yes, of course I’m going to use Mandarin– at least as best as I can, while utterly butchering the tones. Likewise, when I visit cueing friends, I’ll use Cued English with them. If I’m with deaf or signing friends, I’ll use sign language. The environment determines what I use. It’s as simple as that.

So rest assured, I’m not going to ever give up Cued Speech. English is my native language, and Cued Speech is my most accurate and reliable way of visually conveying that language in real time.