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.

Transitions, Part II

One thing to understand: my parents had clashed with the local school district for years to ensure that I got cued language transliteration instead of sign language interpretation, as well as speech therapy services– particularly since there was no way they could have afforded those services on their own. From what I gather, there were several reasons for the district’s resistance:

  • I went to school in another district (first, the one near Chicago, then the ones in Racine while we lived in a neighboring district).
  • I attended private instead of public schools.
  • Possible underfunding and understaffing in the district, from what local educators told me years later.

I’m not saying these reasons were right or wrong; that’s just what we had to work with. Ultimately, it came down to this: as residents of our particular district, we were legally entitled to the best services for me, whether we got it directly from the district, or elsewhere. This did not stop them from throwing my parents curveballs, though. I think at least a couple times, it came down to hiring a lawyer and having him send mean letters to city hall.

So, when I enrolled in University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, my parents and I were expecting another similar fight. Much to our pleasant surprise, they just asked if we knew of any transliterators in the area whom they could hire. We gave them Rosie’s number, and they hired her immediately. Over that next year, they would proceed to train four or five of their staff– interpreters and captionists– in cued language transliteration. By the end of my second year or so, UWM had three transliterators who could cue fluently.

Transitions, Part I

In fourth grade, I was mainstreamed into a small parochial school in Racine, Wisconsin. My homeroom teacher learned Cued Speech so she could teach me directly alongside the other hearing children. She’d teach in English and cue what she said. When I took classes in other subjects like music or art, she’d cue for me there as well. This worked well for our situation because our school combined several grades and subjects into one class; I started in 4th grade, in that teacher’s 3rd-4th grade class, then we both moved to the 5th-8th grade class.

I would continue to use this model for most of my school years with one exception in my freshman year, when I had formal transliterators for the first time. Two sisters from my church, Rosie and Emily, took up Cued Speech in order to transliterate for me. In fact, Emily borrowed Rosie’s handouts from the workshops she had attended, and went for a walk to study the system. It took her a while to become fluent, but it worked. Even several years later without cueing, she still remembers how to do it– although she will tell you she’s bad at it.

During my freshman year, Emily also started a homeschooling group with her two youngest siblings (twins, both my age) and two of their friends. Over time, a few more students joined the group. When my parochial school closed at the end of my freshman year, Emily got accreditation to turn her homeschooling group into a certified school, and I transferred to it for the rest of my high school years. We did the same teaching/transliteration deal as before, and it worked beautifully.

The most students we ever had at any one time was 15, evenly divided between boys and girls. We had structured classes in the lower apartment of the house that my teacher lived in; outside of that, we could study upstairs or outside, take extracurricular subjects like Latin, start independent studies, and go on field trips. That turned out to be the best school I’d ever attended. I graduated valedictorian in 2008, which is rather less impressive when you take into account the fact that I was the resident nerd and bookworm out of four graduating students, and enrolled in UW-Milwaukee for the following semester.