Sign Language: It's Not Just About The Hands


Anna Witter-Merithew, assistant director, Interpreter Training Center at the University of Northern Colorado

After Superstorm Sandy, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sign language interpreter became a pop culture phenomenon. Lydia Callis' energy and facial expressions drew wide attention and even a spoof on "Saturday Night Live." Some members of the deaf community took offense to some reactions.

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Over the past few weeks at news conferences and speeches, we've seen sign language interpreters who appear far more animated than the politicians in front of the microphones - Lydia Callis, for example, who stood beside New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg before, during and after Superstorm Sandy. The gestures and facial expressions she used to relay the mayor's remarks to the deaf and hard of hearing drew wide attention. And some of the deaf community took offense at exaggerated spoofs they saw on "Saturday Night Live," "The Daily Show," and on "Chelsea Lately."

If you use ASL, what do you look for in an interpreter? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're providing live captioning of this segment at We'd love to take your calls via TTY or video relay if you'd like to weigh on what you look for in an interpreter.

Anna Witter-Merithew joins via Skype from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina. She's assistant director for the distance opportunities for Interpreter Training Center at the University of Northern Colorado. She has 35 years experience in the field of interpretation as both a practitioner and an educator. Good to have you with us today.

ANNA WITTER-MERITHEW: Well, thank you, Neal. I'm happy to be here.

CONAN: And one of the things that those of us who are unfamiliar with ASL have to realize is that it's not letter for letter by shaping your hands.

WITTER-MERITHEW: That's absolutely correct. Sign language is a unique language that has its own grammar, its own structure. And because it utilizes space and movement, it's very unique, very complex.

CONAN: And the face and the body play as important a part as the fingers.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes, absolutely. And it has a dual function of conveying grammatical features as well as affect. And so some of what is being observed and may appear exaggerated is because it has a very specific grammatical purpose as well as then conveying the mood and intent of the speaker.

CONAN: Can you give us an example?

WITTER-MERITHEW: Sure. It's really pretty complex and of course we're talking about it in spoken language and I'm unable to actually show you what I'm speaking of, but hopefully my descriptions will be sufficient. Let's just say - let's just take eyes, for example, the role of eye gaze. It has a wide range of functions such as indicating the location of something in space. So someone who is signing might use their eyes to actually look at the area of space in front of their body where a person, a place or a thing has been set up with signs. And then as that location of the person, place or thing changes or moves, the eye gaze will follow.

Also let's say that I was recording a conversation between a couple of people. I would use eye gaze to show a shift in the speaker so that as I was speaking the remarks made by one person, my eyes would shift perhaps to the left or to the right. And then as I shifted to become the other person, I would shift my eyes in the other direction. And those eye gazes might also indicate where the speaker is standing or talking to someone who is sitting, or when there's a difference in age, such an adult speaking to a child, or the child looking up because they're speaking to an adult. So eye gaze plays an important part. Do you want some additional examples?

CONAN: Well, I was going to ask, would, for example, a sign interpreters' gestures get bigger if they were addressing a large, roomful of people in the same way that an English speaker's voice might get louder to project to a whole room?

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes. I do think that one of the ways that people who are familiar with sign language can relate to the role of these facial movements and body movements, is to think about vocal inflection and his idea, as you just mentioned, the projection. So if I'm on a platform and the audience - the individuals that are depending on my interpretation are sitting a significant distance away from me, it's not unlike what happens in acting. It may be that I have to project my facial expression or my movements in such a way that they can easily be seen at a distance. So certainly, we're on position in relationship to the person I'm speaking through may impact the degree to which I'm using my face and my body. And that could appear exaggerated to someone who's unfamiliar with how the language works.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you who use a cell, what do you look for in an interpreter. We'd especially like to hear from those of you who are deaf and hard of hearing, and following us via closed captioning provided by NPR Labs, in partnership with Towson University today. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: And is interpretation, Anna Witter-Merithew, is it - that's a special skill?

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes, and absolutely, it is. It's a complex skill and it's very different than just having the ability to use foreign language, for example. You know, when someone speaks a language, or maybe they're learning a language, they have varying degrees of fluency and competency in that language. And so if you're a signer, someone who can use sign language, you're focused on expressing your own ideas, and you have control over how that information is expressed, how you pace yourself, your pausing. And, again, people can have varying degrees of fluency because you could control what it was that you wanted to say, or what subject matter you would talk about.

But as an interpreter, you're going to be working in all different kinds of situations, and you need a broad range of subject matter expertise. Often, the topics that you're interpreting are very technical. And you will be working with a lot - a broad range of language users who speak in ways that you, as an individual, might never speak. Also, often, our work is done simultaneously. And so who - the individual who is an interpreter has to be someone who's highly fluent already, you know, very near-native in their use of sign language and considered bi-lingual and bi-cultural in order to be successful as an interpreter.

CONAN: And would you - as someone who - interpreting for the deaf from English, would you - how would you communicate that somebody was speaking in a Southern accent or a New York accent for that matter?


WITTER-MERITHEW: Well, that's a great question. And so it's - there may be the need - because, of course, those things don't necessarily translate very well, there may be the need to provide some type of cultural notation. Like this person has a very strong accent. And you might include some notation of what that - like if vowels are elongated or, you know, there are - subtle way to convey that, visually, you would attempt to do that. Maybe by drawing out a sign, for example, extending the sign over a longer period of time.

CONAN: And would there be equivalents, with the deaf or hard of hearing from area, or one class have slightly different gestures or dialects than others?

WITTER-MERITHEW: Well, sure, there certainly are regional variations, and that usually shows up in, you know, particular signs, ways that certain concepts are communicated will vary from one part of the country to another. For example, there's probably seven or eight different regional signs for the word hospital. Picnic is another example. The word picnic could be communicated in very different ways in different regions of the country. And there are many other regional variations from one part of the United States to another.

Here in the South, for example, you will find many more signs that involved touching around the lower part of the face and in the chest region than you might find in other parts of the United States.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Aaron in Des Moines. It's probably important for many listeners to point out the difference between ASL and signed American English. So what's the difference?

WITTER-MERITHEW: Well, yes, there certainly is a difference. As I mentioned earlier, American Sign Language is the naturally developed language of the deaf community. And it has - it possesses its own syntax and its own grammar, it's own lexicon, and it is a language that utilizes space and movement to convey information.

The reference to signing in a more English manner is really the effort of those of us who can hear to try to communicate with deaf people prior to having proficiency in American Sign Language or, perhaps, through some educational efforts to try to increase the fluency that deaf people have in English. It is - although it is used in some educational settings, the use of signed English, or signing in a more English manner, is not broadly use among deaf people or within the deaf community.

CONAN: Here's an email from Tim, who describes himself as a certified ASL interpreter in the Boston area. He says: While Lydia Callis is quite capable as an interpreter, deaf people knowledgeable of the interpreting process and profession have been calling for the use of certified deaf interpreters for emergency announcements. Deaf people themselves formally trained in the art of interpretation and certified by the National Registry of Interpreters are the best to convey the message of such life-critical announcements and alerts.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes. So (technical difficulty)

CONAN: We seemed to have lost the Skype connection with Anna Witter-Merithew. We'll try to get it back to her in just a moment. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're going to get Anna Witter-Merithew up on the regular phone. She's the assistant director for Distance Opportunities for Interpreter Training Center at the University of Northern Colorado, and director of the Mid-America Regional Interpreter Education at the University of Northern Colorado. She has 35 years experience both as an interpreter and as an educator/trainer of interpreters. In the meantime, let's see if we can get Ron on the phone. Ron's on the line with us from San Francisco.

RON: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Ron. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

RON: OK. Yeah. I had a deaf parents. I grew up speaking sign language. I consider it my native language, and I was a professional interpreter for many years, certified. My mother went to the - was born and raised - went to the school for the deaf in Austin, Texas. And so she and her sister, who is also deaf, kind of had a Southern accent. It's - I'm kind of prejudice, in favor of the more Southern style of signing. It's a subtle thing and it's not always true, but I tend to see Southern signing as a little slower paced, more graceful and somehow more - I don't want to say more expressive, because there's another kind of East Coast signing that's centered around Connecticut and New York and those places that seems much faster, more - I don't know - more - just more speedy and just less what I consider graceful. And so I'm kind of prejudice, in favor of the Southern accent.

CONAN: Anna Witter-Merithew's, I think, back with us on phone.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes, I am. I'm so sorry.

CONAN: Oh, that's quite all right. We have technical problems. Live radio, it happens.


CONAN: But would you agree with Ron, at least do sort of fall within our broad interpretations of Southern speech and English, and New York's rather more, quicker in pace.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes, Neal, but I want to reply - if I might be able to go back in respond to the comments by the person about the use of deaf interpreters? I think that it's an important topic.

CONAN: Oh, for emergency announcements. That's what you were talking about when we got cut off. Go ahead, please.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes, thank you. I wanted to agree with that caller, that I think that that would be an excellent solution. What that would require is one of two things possibly. For example, you could - there was a script that was available that could be studied by the individual who themselves is deaf but is very fluent in the use of the language, then they could read that script and translate. And then while someone is speaking, they could simultaneously render their translation. Or they could work in conjunction with a hearing person who can interpret and could feed them the general ideas that are being communicated, and then they could express the interpretation.

So certainly, in terms of fluency and, you know, overall cultural awareness and the appropriate use of facial grammar, body language, et cetera, the use of deaf interpreters in that capacity would work very well.

Now, onto your - the question of the current caller and...

CONAN: And let's keep it quick because I want - there's one other caller we'd like to get in.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Oh, yes, OK. About - yes, I do think that, perhaps, some of those stylistic differences may exist between Southern signing and, you know, East Coast signing or West Coast signing. But it's probably equally influenced by just the general way people communicate in those regions of the United States. So if you're watching an interpreter who's interpreting for a Southern pastor, for example, or Southern speaker, who might pace themselves slower, then certainly, that's going to show up in the signing style as well.

CONAN: Ron, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

RON: Thank you.

CONAN: And we just do have a minute left. I wanted to ask you - we know that are sign interpreters at dramatic productions and plays and whatnot, are there interpreters - I think there are - at concerts for music?

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes, yes. Jimmy Buffett is someone who comes to mind...


WITTER-MERITHEW: ...who, in my own career, is someone that I interpreted for, for quite a while because he had a following of deaf individuals who would go from one area to another, following his tour. So, yes, for sure.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Yes. And can I just mention that folks that are interested might want to go - to learn more about interpreting might want to go to It's a great website.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

WITTER-MERITHEW: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: That is Anna Witter-Merithew, assistant director for the Distance Opportunities for Interpreter Training Center at the University of Northern Colorado. She joined us from her home in Charlotte. Today's closed captioning was provided by NPR Labs, in partnership with Towson University.

Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Join them for a chat with James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered that DNA is a double helix. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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