The evolution of personal sign ideologies in a small Canadian deaf community

by Joanne Weber

This is a blog based on a book chapter: Weber, J. (2020). Interrogating sign language ideologies in the Saskatchewan deaf community: An autoethnography. In A. Kusters, M. Green, E. Moriarty Harrelson, & K. Snoddon (Eds.), Sign language ideologies in practice. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

[Featured image cover artist: Susan Dupor]

This post is part of the special issue on sign language ideologies. See the introduction to the special issue to learn more.

My chapter provides an autoethnographic account of my late acquisition of American Sign Language (ASL) in the context of diminished access to native ASL signers due to the closure of the RJD Provincial School for the Deaf in 1991. I will focus on selected periods of intense ASL acquisition and language ideological conflicts which propelled me into a translanguaging orientation (Garcia, Otheguy, & Reid, 2015). My adherence to bilingual frameworks for language learning (ASL and English), built upon monolingual language ideologies (Garcia, 2009; Canagarajah, 2013) over a 27 year period, distorted my understanding of my own second-language acquisition. To tell this story, I examined my journals written over a 27 year period beginning in 1987.  I also consulted my creative non-fiction memoir, 2013 book, The Deaf House, to excavate a history of sign language ideologies that I held, dropped and eventually integrated. During those periods, my sign language ideology evolved from a deficit perspective that places ASL as a minority language, inferior in status and having lesser relevance than English for deaf education. 

Early Monolingual Bilingualism

In the first stage, “Early Monolingual Bilingualism” for nearly five years, I had mixed feelings about ASL. In this chapter, I identified a confluence of beliefs about bilingual education that stemmed from my own upbringing, having been educated in spoken language environments and my teacher training at Gallaudet University. My desire to learn ASL was ironically circumvented at Gallaudet University.  I had considered Gallaudet to be the primary source of ASL language acquisition and Deaf culture in 1987. Upon arrival, I discovered that I was not allowed to take ASL as a credit-bearing course toward my Master’s degree in deaf education. Rather, I was required to take Signing Exact English (SEE)  classes. There, I absorbed the belief that acquisition of English would be the primary goal in the classroom and that ASL would be the minority language. There I learned to keep the two languages separate for instructional purposes despite the paucity of materials for bilingual education at that time.  I also learned to respect the gatekeepers of both languages. In 1988, I arrived back from Gallaudet University, pumped by the Deaf President Now movement to begin teaching at the provincial school for the deaf. In 1989, I became quickly embroiled in the deaf community’s fight to save the school for the deaf from closure.  As a non-native ASL user who was working with people who had ASL as a first language, I was grateful to find an environment where I felt safe and supported in my ASL acquisition.  This supportive environment coalesced around a fight to keep the school for the deaf open.  But the school closed two years later.

Emergent Deaf Spaces for Translanguaging

The second stage, “Emergent Deaf Spaces for Translanguaging” lasted for another five years. I felt bereft and alone when my deaf colleagues moved to other provinces for work after the closure of the school. I took on a job as a community service worker for a local agency providing support to deaf people. I learned more ASL from my deaf clientele and was able to transition from signing structured according to English syntax to using a native sign language incorporating classifiers and non-manual markers. Despite the variation in sign languages  and spoken languages, we were still able to communicate effectively through signing, role play, and writing. I realized that my ability to connect and communicate with clientele who demonstrated individual repertoires in English and ASL came from the deaf space which we created and maintained.  In that deaf space, I was able to work with and value the linguistic repertoires of each client rather than imposing the hegemony of English. I  realize now that we deaf people produced our deaf spaces and that we deaf were translanguaging in deaf spaces.

Full Translanguaging

The last stage, “Full Translanguaging” was about translanguaging in a deaf diaspora.  I became a resource room teacher in a deaf program in a hearing school in another small city in western Canada in 2003. The deaf community in this city is very small. Because I worked with deaf, hard of hearing and oral deaf students, I communicated with my students using oral English, signed English and ASL. The higher numbers of hard of hearing and oral deaf often marginalized the signing deaf students. I realized that I needed to establish a deaf space in which ASL would be the dominant language. There were enough people in the room who could translate for  he hard of hearing and oral deaf. In doing this, my ASL skills improved further. I found myself becoming freer and loser in my signing, more experimental as I began to compose ASL poetry.

 My shift in language use found its way into the classroom where I found myself freely negotiating meanings with all students in the classroom. The deaf students who had been educated in spoken language environments began to learn sign language to communicate with me. I began to establish linkages between deaf spaces and sign language ideologies. I realized that my practices in those deaf spaces eventually changed my beliefs about sign language. Whenever I was in any deaf space, I could communicate with individuals who had a variety of linguistic skills. In doing so,  I was able to eliminate a deficit perspective toward those who did not sign or speak in standard ways established by linguistic gatekeepers. I began to adopt a “translanguaging ideology” which is inclusive, expansive and openly accepts all signers regardless of their level of signing proficiency and cultural affiliations. 


Joanne Weber is the artistic director of Deaf Crows Collective. She’s on Twitter as @weber_jc

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