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.