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.

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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.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Availability of Services

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.

American Sign Language beats Cued Speech in terms of availability, especially for socialization and finding real-time accommodations. Most everyone knows of sign language or some variant of it (Signed English, LOVE, CASE, etc.). Although a lot of cuers, particularly those affiliated with the NCSA, are trying to expand resources so it’s more available, Cued Speech is still very much in the minority.

Hence, you can find sign language interpreters in just about every sizable city. Cued Speech… it depends on the area. That said, Daily Cues is working on this nifty Cue Connector that will show you a geographical concentration of cuers all around the world so you can see what the availability is in various areas.

For sure, I know that Chicago, Minnesota, central Colorado, the East Coast, and maybe California and Seattle, have a sizable population of cuers and cueing service providers. Austin, TX, also has a small cue community.

I am the only cuer in DFW that I know of, and was the only known cuer in Milwaukee– maybe the entire state, since I first learned it in 1994 or thereabouts. That isn’t an unusual scenario for cuers, incidentally: being the only one in the school, or even the entire state, that uses Cued Speech– although it’s getting better as we develop more cue communities around the nation.

Video Relay Interpreting

I have a confession.

I am not a huge fan of using video relay interpreters.

This (usually) has nothing to do with their skill, and more to do with the whole set-up. Unlike an in-person interpreting appointment, the interpreter gets no context whatsoever. For standard calls to doctors’ offices, the DMV, department stores, and the like, this isn’t an issue. You can get up to speed quickly by explaining “I’m calling the doctor to schedule an appointment for back pain” or somesuch. (Although I have had a couple instances in which that wasn’t even enough, as it turned out the interpreter just nodded along without asking me to clarify my signs.)

But for anything more intensive, often names, terminology, and concepts will come up that the interpreter is not familiar with. This was actually a pretty big issue when I was looking for jobs after graduation and the hiring manager would ask for a phone interview first. That’s probably a blog for another time, but suffice to say, when I secured a phone interview, I’d call the interpreter five minutes beforehand to fill her in on the hiring manger’s name, the company name, the job description, my past places of employment, what I did there…

It was a lot of names to fingerspell, is what I’m saying. And fingerspelling is notoriously a weak suit for many interpreters. More than that, I was seeking a career in writing and editing, and that’s a field where you really, really need to be precise and have as much background knowledge on the topic as possible. For example, my previous work included editing and writing for a laboratory firm that specialized in thermal analysis of polymers and materials. In addition to standard industry terms like dilatometer, thermoplastics, and viscoelasticity, we had names like Dynamic Mechanical Analysis (DMA), Differential Thermal Analysis (DTA), Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), and Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA)– and yes, all those words need to be capitalized and arranged in that exact order; it’s not exactly something that an unfamiliar interpreter can conceptualize in sign language on the spot.

There’s also, in my opinion, the increased spectrum in interpreter quality. At least with a local agency, you can specifically request an interpreter that you’ve worked with before, who has proven herself to be a good fit for your signing style. You don’t get that option with video relay interpreting; you take whoever picks up your call. You can request to be switched in the middle of a call if you find that it’s not working out, but that’s a bit awkward.

Despite these issues, I do find video relay interpreting to be one of the better options out there for d/hh telecommunications. In the meantime, I’m hoping/watching for the day that a video relay service finally adds Cued Speech transliteration. Because so many of my issues with video relay interpreting (really, interpreting in general) relate to language and context, I’m hopeful that Cued Speech transliteration would mitigate some of them.

Fractured

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.

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.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.