Click here to see British Sign Language version of this post
You may have seen earlier blog posts from me where I discuss the research that I am currently leading on language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. In that research I am replicating the work that has been done on child language brokering with spoken language brokering to explore how, when, where and why it happens in the Deaf community, and the experiences language brokers in mediating information for their family members.
The term brokering “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285), and language brokering is typically conducted by children and young people that are more adept at a particular language than their parents, for example in migrant families where children may learn to speak the language of their new country more quickly than their parents. Child language brokering literature has identified that the typical age for children to begin brokering is 7 or 8 years old, once they have sufficiently acquired proficiency in the new language to mediate for their parents; and that children broker in a range of contexts, including medical, educational, retail and legal situations (Tse, 1996; Wiesskirch & Alva, 2002).
In the Deaf community, brokering is performed by children with deaf parents. As they are exposed to both spoken and signed languages from birth, however, it seems that these children begin to broker as early as age 4 or 5 (Napier, in press).
Children who are hearing that have deaf parents are typically referred to as Codas (Children of Deaf Adults), and there are organisations to support these people as kids and as adults to share their experiences (e.g., CODA UK &Ireland, CODA Australia, CODA International). Research has been conducted with Codas to explore their identity and describe their struggles with how they felt being ‘hearing in a deaf world’ (Preston, 1994; Adams, 2008).
But it’s not a struggle for everybody. I am a ‘Coda’, but I have never felt comfortable with the term, as I have written elsewhere (Napier, 2008). Firstly, I am not a child, and my parents are not just ‘adults’, they are my parents. I don’t mind being identified as someone who grew up in the Deaf community, in fact I am proud of my language and cultural heritage, but the term ‘Coda’ conjures up too many pejorative connotations about kids taking on responsibilities to ‘take care’ of their parents from a young age through brokering. I also resist labelling of this kind as I believe that we all have multiple identities. Not only am I a daughter, but I am also a wife, a mother, an interpreter, a researcher, a teacher. My ‘Coda’ inheritance is only one part of my identity.
Another reason that I am not comfortable with the ‘Coda’ label is the assumption that it is only hearing people that grow up with deaf parents that take on a brokering role. My research has shown that deaf people with deaf parents also broker – often because their language skills are better, or they can speak better than their parents, or are just more confident (Napier, in press, 2014).
There is a term to refer to these people – as ‘Dodas’ (Deaf of Deaf Adults), and there is a closed group on Facebook, but it’s not a particularly popular term. And these people are typically excluded from Coda events and organisations. But they may well have similar experiences to share.
I think it is important that both hearing and deaf people who have grown up with deaf parents should have their language and cultural heritage acknowledged, especially in relation to what they bring to the sign language interpreting profession, given that there is increasing recognition of the work of deaf interpreters (Adam, Stone, Collins & Metzger, 2014).
I believe that, to quote a participant at the recent Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK (ASLI) conference where I presented, the term ‘Coda’ is “outdated and outmoded” (Jennifer Smith, Twitter [@jennifersmithuk], 28 September 2014). We also need to think more broadly about people who have grown up with sign language – not only with parents, but also siblings and extended family.
So I suggest a new, more all encompassing, convention – to refer to “People from Deaf Families” (PDFs), which includes deaf or hearing people that have grown up using sign language regularly with one or more deaf members of their family.
This term includes both deaf and hearing people, and also does not distinguish between children or adults, and does not focus only on people that have deaf parents.
In the same way that it’s difficult to make changes to a pdf document, we can’t change who we are. Being a PDF should not be taboo. The professionalisation of sign language interpreting has meant more focus for training on recruiting L2 sign language learners in to the profession, which has been invaluable to the Deaf community. But we shouldn’t forget the deaf and hearing people that grow up in the community have a wealth of experience to bring (Williamson, 2012). Various authors (e.g., Stone, 2008) have discussed how the Deaf community are less engaged with selecting people to become interpreters, and many interpreter education programmes are trying to re-engage with the community through service learning (see Shaw, 2012). The swing to professionalism has led to a situation where it seems that PDFs are almost apologising for having sign language heritage. It could be seen that this is a form of intangible cultural heritage.
I don’t want to be divisive. We all have the same goal in mind – let’s work together to provide the highest quality interpreting and translation services for the Deaf community. So let’s embrace deaf and hearing PDFs, recognise and value their heritage; in the same way we should recognise and value the life experiences of others who have chosen to learn our language and be a part of our community – they chose us.
After holding a discussion group at the ASLI conference in September 2014 with sign language interpreters about the topic of language brokering, the majority of whom did not have sign language heritage, I first suggested this PDF term. Comments from the group were very positive and people responded well to this more all-encompassing term.
What are your thoughts…?