A student at Gallaudet, James Steingieser’s recent tweets (above) sparked a lot of thoughts that I must address. Take your time to really think about what James is questioning. When a deaf person ridicules another for having imperfect English grammar, it stems from internalized oppression. This action can be seen anywhere in the deaf community- on social media, from a parent to a child, in the classroom, around friends, or even on the job to name a few examples. Some deaf people inflict criticism. Some receive criticism. It is rare for a deaf individual to be neither person—and that must stop. What we need to do is start discussing this problematic tendency in our community and recognizing why it is extremely unhealthy to us.
Growing up, my English learning progress was always on level. I read and wrote a lot. I don’t ever remember the elementary-me feeling bashful about showing people my creative writing. My love was writing cute animal stories (I’d base many of my characters off the stuffed animals on display in my old bedroom). Some of these documents I still have to this day.
Reading back at some of them again recently (I went through a LOT of boxes), I recognized that my grammar was never even that great until I reached high school. I recognized a lot of egocentric commentaries in some parts of my writing (normal in young children). I would talk about things only I could understand and neglect explaining these things to my readers. I saw mistakes and flaws in my writing, things that I never received criticism on. After reading all of my saved work from elementary and middle school, I reached the conclusion that I never felt fear or embarrassment when it came to my grammar and general writing skills because I never received unhealthy criticism from my parents or teachers.
Now, comparing my experience with English at an early age with my two younger brothers (currently 12 and 13 years old), my claim above is further proven. Both my brothers are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and very capable of critical thinking and holding intellectual discussions using ASL. However, it remains a struggle for them when it comes to using English. Both of them were never fond of reading or writing. I remember years ago I would try to be the big sister and help them with their homework or observe their English and try to “tutor” them. What I didn’t know was that I was actually belittling them rather than constructively teaching them. I would tell them that a sentence they wrote, “Didn’t make sense,” or that “It’s wrong. You’re supposed to use ‘are’ instead of ‘is.’” Those can be perfectly good straight up feedback, but my brothers were so young. I remember even being embarrassed that they weren’t as good with English as I was.
Now, I see things differently. What I should have done instead was praise them on whatever it was they were writing about, regardless of their mistakes. I should ask them questions about their writing in order to make them think even more critically about the message they are trying to give. These kinds of approaches encourage confidence and motivation in young deaf children rather than cause them to grow afraid about making too many “embarrassing” mistakes.
I think this idea must be encouraged towards deaf people of all ages, not only young children. Many deaf adults struggle with poor English. Many adults dread writing e-mails, sending out flyers, developing a document, writing a paper, creating student IEPs, and so much more because they are very conscious of their “so & so” English. This cannot continue to the next group of adults. This cannot be inflicted on our kids. If we promote all deaf people to just WRITE, regardless of their grammatical skills, many more of us would get even better at it with judgment-free practice. Many more of us would be less afraid to communicate via both worlds, the deaf and the hearing, therefore providing us with even more opportunities. It’s okay to not be good at English. It was never meant to be our first language. Of course, learning a second language takes time, and every deaf person should be able to do so liberally. It starts with you, me, and every one of us by reassuring all our friends of their English, perfect or not. We should never make fun of anyone for their errors- that promotes absolutely zero growth to our community.
This is my message to all deaf writers out there—write fearlessly.