Translanguaging and the senses: the case of deaf signers

by Maartje De Meulder, Annelies Kusters, Joseph Murray and Erin Moriarty

Note: this is a blog post about a longer article which is Open Access:
Maartje De Meulder, Annelies Kusters, Erin Moriarty & Joseph J. Murray (2019) “Describe, don’t prescribe. The practice and politics of translanguaging in the context of deaf signers,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, DOI:
10.1080/01434632.2019.1592181

Translanguaging is a well-established concept in sociolinguistics and applied linguistics and one of the new buzz words in these fields. In June 2016 we (four deaf academics) attended a symposium on translanguaging organised by Annelies at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. (On the symposium’s website you can access all presentations in IS). The purpose of the symposium was to bring together researchers focusing on sign and spoken language translanguaging. Fellow deaf academics attending the symposium found the translanguaging concept useful for analysis and foregrounding deaf signers’ language practices. However, as we explain in this blog, we also quickly realised that it could be used in counterproductive ways. For us, this was not a mere theoretical concern, since for many deaf people, theoretical applications of translanguaging, especially in educational and legal contexts, have effective, real-life consequences.

Translanguaging essentially refers to the mixing and blending of different languages (spoken languages, sign languages, or both) and/or modalities (for example signing, speaking, writing). People use these languages and modalities – what we call a ‘semiotic repertoire’ – when communicating. Semiotic repertoires can include both linguistic and non-linguistic means of communication such as body language, pointing, and reference to the surrounding environment.

With this quick definition in mind, let’s consider the following interactions involving deaf and hearing signers in a variety of situations:

  1. Deaf people from different countries use International Sign or a blend of different sign languages and fingerspelling alphabets when meeting at a conference.
  2. A mixed deaf/hearing family communicates at the dinner table using mouthing, sign-speaking, voice, and signs.
  3. Deaf and deafblind people communicate with hearing sellers or customers at markets and shops using a combination of notes, tapping or holding objects, speech, gestures and signs.
  4. A hearing non-fluent signing teacher uses spoken English in a classroom of deaf children, while supporting some of her English words with signs.

While the dynamics in each of these situations vary, they all show deaf and hearing people use a broad range of resources to communicate – a broad semiotic repertoire. These resources include combining and rapid switching between eg. signing, gesturing, speaking, mouthing, writing (in the air, on paper, on hands or arms), typing (on mobile phones, on calculators, on computers), fingerspelling in different (named) languages, pointing at text, and so on. Recent research has demonstrated how adept deaf people are in using and combining various linguistic resources in different contexts, and some of these researchers used the translanguaging concept to frame their investigations.

Sometimes the above-mentioned communication strategies are successful, sometimes not, but all of the above examples could in principle be called ‘translanguaging’. However, in each of the situations above, translanguaging involves sensorial differences. Put simply: while hearing people do hear, deaf people do not, or have various levels of access to auditory information. These sensorial differences mean that not all deaf people have the same access to communicative resources, such as elements of spoken languages. This means that in each of the situations, when calling this ‘translanguaging’, different issues are at stake, related to power, embodied difference, and investment in working towards mutual understanding.

Example number four, about a hearing non-sign language fluent teacher using spoken English with some signs in a classroom with deaf children, concerns us. Imagine this teacher supports their language practice by claiming it is ‘translanguaging’. This possible scenario raises concerns over how we should use the term ‘translanguaging’. Here we can see how the application of the concept, without taking into account different sensorial access to linguistic input, has risks. It can become an idealized pedagogical approach divorced fro the historical reality that deaf children have long struggled to understand their teacher’s signing.

Currently, ‘translanguaging’ is used in both descriptive and prescriptive ways: as a lens to look at what people actually do (= descriptive), or as a policy outlining what people should do (= prescriptive). A prescriptive use of the concept of translanguaging raises concerns since it is easily perceived as the validation of sign systems such as Total Communication or Signed English, which are forms of mixing signed and spoken language with the aim to use or teach spoken languages. These mixed forms are ultimately inaccessible for most deaf people, and the opposite of what scholars and advocates for the use of sign language(s) in the classroom are trying to achieve. A careless use of the label translanguaging could end up legitimising pedagogical practices that have resulted in deaf people growing up with limited natural language input and perpetuating the use of non-fluent signers in deaf education settings.

Our work thus uncovers a hidden presumption made by most translanguaging scholars: that people have unrestricted sensorial access to linguistic input. This assumption cannot be made for all deaf people. The use of multiple communicative tools is not necessarily something to be valorised, when it is an attempt to create meaning from an impoverished and incomplete set of linguistic tools.

Another question our article raises is whether the concept of translanguaging and attention to deaf signers’ fluid language practices (eg. communicating in gesture-based interactions, in International Sign, or mixing English and American Sign Language) is compatible with efforts to maintain and promote sign languages as distinct, bounded, named languages. Until fifty years ago, signed languages were seen more as mimicry and gestures than as ‘real’ languages. Changing this misperception has been the core task of generations of deaf and hearing scholars and advocates, and one of the main rationales to seek legal recognition of sign languages.   

So here is a question: could translanguaging as the promotion of fluid language practices possibly threaten the political discourse for sign language rights in education and beyond? Indeed, it can be a threat to the integrity and maintenance of language varieties important for minoritized language groups such as deaf people. This is why there is a need for ‘breathing spaces’ or ‘safe spaces’ for minoritised languages – spaces where one particular language is (expected to be) used, rather than multilingual language practices where languages are mixed. A form of this idea of ‘breathing space’ actually has been around for a very long time in deaf communities: e.g. meetings where only a signed language is used, or in spaces like deaf clubs. Usually, in these spaces sign languages are used alongside one or more written languages and other resources, so they are rarely monolingual spaces, but usually speech is implicitly or explicitly not dominant.  

In short, there is a tension between the study of and attention for daily fluid communicative practices of deaf signers, which are by definition messy, and the portrayal of and advocacy for sign languages as minority languages, which does not leave much room for ‘messiness’.

Translanguaging is useful for describing the rich, multimodal and multilingual nature of deaf people’s communicative practices; therefore translanguaging in the context of deaf signers is useful as a descriptive concept. However, it should not be a prescriptive framework. A prescriptive use of translanguaging, namely seeing all multimodal communication as equally accessible, or emancipating, overlooks sensorial asymmetries and differential access to semiotic resources but also and crucially, might threaten the vitality and maintenance of sign languages as minority languages.

Deaf people are potentially very adept at languaging in an increasingly diverse world, as demonstrated by examples 1 to 3. As deaf scholars interested in deaf lives, as well as in the creative use of communicative strategies by human beings, we have an interest and an obligation to explore these strategies. We will go so far as to say that translanguaging is central to the deaf experience. Importantly, studying translanguaging among deaf people, with different sensory experiences, requires attention to sensory access, the differentiated power relations structuring this access, and to ideologies applied to their sensory orientations.

One comment

  1. Extremely important research. You are detecting fine points that are normally unnoticed: where others say “everything is fine” but individuals feel isolated, excluded. I look forward to reading more.

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