View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

Hearing, Mother Father Deaf: Hearing People in Deaf Families

Previous Page

Next Page


According to Bloomfield (1942), I am a balanced bilingual, as I do have equal fluency in both BSL and English. However, when considering Myers-Scotton’s (2006) point, I would say that I am more dominant in English in some contexts and more dominant in sign language in others. For example, I am more comfortable using sign language when talking about how I feel or when telling a story, as that is how I learned to do those things. Alternatively, when discussing politics or linguistics, I prefer to use English, as I learned about these topics at school or university by reading and listening to English. Therefore in sociolinguistic terms, my language use is influenced by context.

My bilingual status is further complicated by the fact that after moving to Australia in 1998, I learned Australian Sign Language (Auslan). Auslan has its roots in BSL, and research has shown that there is a high level of grammatical and lexical similarity between the two languages (Johnston, 2002; Johnston & Schembri, 2007; McKee & Kennedy, 2000). In fact, Johnston (2002) has questioned whether BSL and Auslan are separate signed languages or dialects of the same language. Thus, I have developed a level of proficiency in Auslan which is equivalent to my competency in BSL, and I feel as comfortable conversing in Auslan as I do in BSL. Furthermore, I have also learned American Sign Language (ASL) through attending conferences in the United States. However, my ASL proficiency is more limited due to the nature of acquisition. I can watch conference presentations and participate in conversations and discussions concerning linguistics and related topics in ASL, but I cannot describe my favorite TV program or detail a shopping list, as I have never been exposed to using ASL when talking about those everyday topics. While at school, I studied French for six years and still have basic competence, although my comprehension surpasses my production. Additionally, I studied Spanish for two years and have retained a smattering of conversational phrases. Therefore, technically, I can be defined as multilingual (Cenoz & Genesee, 1998) rather than bilingual, as I can use several languages: three at high levels of receptive and productive proficiency, and three with basic competence. The language that I choose to use is influenced by the context that I am in, as well as the people with whom I am conversing. I can also be described as a polyglot—a person who uses several languages (Hudson, 1984).

The bilingual status of hearing people with deaf parents is an interesting issue to consider, as many state that their first language is a signed language and go on to become interpreters because they sign well and are bilingual. However, just because someone grows up signing does not mean that he or she is a good interpreter. Grosjean (1997) stated that few bilinguals are proficient interpreters and listed several factors that can influence a person’s ability to perform as an interpreter. These factors may include unequal fluency in both languages, an accent in one’s second language, late acquisition or learning of the second language, lack of stylistic varieties in each language, undeveloped transfer skills, or lack of pragmatic competence or cultural knowledge about the two distinct groups. Grosjean makes the distinction between the regular bilingual and the interpreter bilingual by clearly stating the following:

Interpreter bilinguals, unlike regular bilinguals, will have to learn to use their languages (and the underlying skills that they have in them) for similar purposes, in similar domains of life, with similar people. This is something that regular bilinguals do not often need to do. (p. 168)
Therefore, although balanced fluency in at least two languages is desirable, interpreters are also required to have a wide range of knowledge and skills in order to effectively transfer messages between two different languages. Baetens Beardsmore (1986) made a similar statement:
Rapid translation from one language to another need not come spontaneously to the bilingual. Indeed many bilinguals who can function extremely well in two languages in clearly demarcated situational contexts often find it difficult to translate spontaneously between their languages without heavy interference. This is one reason why professional interpreters require special training for a task that does not necessarily come naturally, even if they were childhood bilinguals. (p. 106)
Hearing bilinguals who are fluent in both a signed and a spoken language may not automatically have the linguistic skills to effectively interpret between those two languages. Their skills in the majority spoken language may be inadequate, or they may only have ever used a signed language conversationally in the home and do not have the sign language vocabulary to cope with more formal contexts. Or perhaps they do not have the cognitive processing ability to quickly and accurately transfer a message from one language to another. Many people from deaf families comment that they interpreted for their parents regularly during interactions with hearing people, and have been effectively interpreting all their lives (Preston, 1994, 1996). But can they necessarily function as professional interpreters?
Previous Page

Next Page