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Many hearing people are surprised to learn that American Sign Language is a real language, as Spanish, Russian, or Chinese. Most languages are interpreted consecutively, that is, the first language speaker must pause while the interpretation is given in the second language. However, since ASL is a “silent” language, it is possible to interpret simultaneously. (Note: There has been disagreement about the success of simultaneous interpretation.)

True story: While interpreting at a doctor’s office, I heard the doctor give complicated instructions to the Deaf patient. I asked the doctor for a minute to sign what he just said. Perplexed, he paused and watched me sign (and roughly transliterate into English) his instructions. I restructured the time and word order, used ASL expansion, and asked questions to make the message clear. Finally, the Deaf patient’s face lit up with understanding. The doctor could only say, “Huh,” as he understood the language work needed to clearly communicate to that particular patient.

How can you help a hearing person understand the difference between ASL and English? Ask the hearing person to let you voice only the signs used by a Deaf person. Your “English” voicing will sound like a different language to the hearing person. That’s it! He just heard you speak ASL. In much the same way, ASL students can learn to “hear” ASL in their head. Simply watch a Deaf person using ASL and voice (aloud) only the signs that are seen. Do not add interpretation or other English words that are not actually present in the Deaf person’s signs. The result will help strengthen the student’s ASL skills. Since hearing people think in spoken English (or some other language), they can use their spoken language to help them memorize the structure of ASL.

Try this exercise yourself. Use a video or live Deaf person. Practice alone. Later speak ASL in the presence of other non-signers to help them understand the value of interpretation. Do this ONLY for practice. Resume clear interpretation and the oddness will go away. However, you will learn ASL structure and others around you will have a newfound appreciation for interpreting!

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