sign language or Sign Language?

Those of you who have been following our #DidYouKnowThat campaign already know that we frequently stress the importance of using appropriate language when talking about the Deaf community and sign languages. On August 11, 2021, we looked into the differences between the terms ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’. Today, we will cover the term ‘sign language’. We will also look into the reasons why saying ‘sign language interpreter’ is not correct.

The general term ‘sign language(s)’ should always be lowercase but when referring to a specific sign language, you should capitalize it, e.g., British Sign Language (BSL). The reason is very simple. When you capitalize and write ‘Sign Language,’ it perpetuates the misconception that there is only one sign language in the world, making it look like the name of a language. Now, let’s look at the issues with using the terms ‘sign language interpreter’ or ‘interpreter for the deaf’.

Firstly, these terms fail to specify which sign language is in question (once again, the misconception that there is only one sign language). Therefore, we should always specify which language we are talking about, give it a name. But that is not the only issue that needs to be addressed. For example, saying ‘BSL interpreter’ makes it seem like all of the interpreter’s work is one-way, that they only interpret into BSL. Finally, when saying ‘BSL interpreters,’ we also perpetuate the misconception that signing deaf people do not present to hearing audiences. They do, of course, and when that happens the interpreter is not interpreting into BSL, they are interpreting into English. It is, therefore, better to say BSL/English interpreter. Moreover, there are interpreters who provide interpretation from one sign language to another, for example BSL/LSF. These interpreters are usually deaf themselves.

As you can see, even small changes to our wording are of great importance; not only to avoid confusion but also possible discrimination. Making such adjustments and using appropriate language when referring to sign languages will hopefully result in more language parity.

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This article is inspired by a Twitter thread initiated by Dr. Leah Geer.

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