Language teaching

Sign language teaching and ethics

Teaching sign language as a second language (L2) come in all forms, ranging from academically formal to informally casual: credit courses at high schools and post-secondary institutions, non-credit courses at community colleges, workshops at work, private/personal interactions (e.g., friend, co-worker, life partner, etc.).

Teaching sign language is a crucial and sensitive issue concerning hearing people broadcasting sign language, whether online or offline. Sign language is intertwined with the culture and history of the Deaf people, who have long been oppressed. It's crucial that hearing people are aware of the teaching ethics and cultural sensitivity surrounding audism and cultural appropriation.

Some primary issues underlying hearing learners teaching sign language are 1) spreading misconceptions and misrepresentations, 2) showing incorrect productions (pronunciations) and/or semantics (contexts) of the signed words, 3) systemic oppression, and 4) taking away Deaf people's economic space (regardless of free or not).

We appreciate (and love <3 <3) that hearing people learn ASL (or any other signed language) to communicate, chat, or talk with Deaf people or simply explore them. Still, it's inappropriate for hearing people to teach it online or offline, sing a song, or meddle with it or lingually/culturally appropriate it. How can allyship be done (more on that down the page)?

Linguistic-cultural Identity

ASL (or any other signed language) is the spirit of Deaf people, a cultural-linguistic minority. It's the core of our identity, culture, history, Deafhood, and pride that we highly value in the face of the hearing systemic oppression which has destroyed many Deaf people's lives.

Systemic oppression and cultural appropriation

Hearing oppression has long impacted our lives over the past hundreds of years, especially in education, by depriving our (sign) languages and coercing us into oralism. In defense of our language-modality rights and human rights, we have been long tirelessly fighting against hearing oppression, audism, linguicism, phonocentrism, cultural appropriation, signoclasm, eugenics, hearing privilege, hearing supremacy, hearing colonialism, the infamous Milan of 1880, and so on within this phonocentric society that spans over the past thousands of years.

Scenario: During the premiere of "The Bachelor" on TV, hearing contestant Cassie, a speech pathologist, taught the bachelor (and knowingly, millions of viewers) a few ASL words/signs. Like other Deaf noticed, "DWTS" champion Nyle DiMarco tweeted to point out incorrect signs that the contestant mispronounced "YOUR" for "YOU", "ROSE" for "RESTAURANT", and one error of the two signs for "kiss". (Ref) This is not just one scenario, but the same is true for many cases on YouTube and other sources.

Scenario: Sign language was lingual-culturally appropriated into baby sign language, submerged with prevalent myths and misconceptions distorting sign language's true nature that linguistics and neuroscience studies show otherwise.

Scenario: "... many of them (hearing instructors) are obtaining ASL teaching jobs traditionally held by Deaf people. Despite the fact many Deaf ASL instructors are masters in ASL, they are often replaced by hearing people, many of whom are not as fluent in ASL and Deaf Culture. ..." -- Ref

Within the systemic hearing oppression and discrimination in employment, while ASL teaching positions are not abundant, if not scarce, spoken-language/signed-language interpreting jobs out there are plentiful as well as demanding.

Interpreters are not teachers

An interpreter should be aware that it's not their job to teach sign language (except for interpreting related courses taught by both Deaf and hearing instructors). They are no more qualified than Deaf bilinguals who use both languages on a daily basis from kindergarten.

Bee Vicars wrote in her FB post: "If you are an interpreter, and ASL student ask for tutoring - you are part of the problem in perpetuating the belief that 'certified' interpreters are better and more qualified in teaching ASL than native Deaf.
"You are also part of the issue of not supporting the local Deaf ecosystem. You already have a stream of income. Many Deaf do not. Many of us are under-employed. Tutoring is one of the means of income.
"When you get approached, recommend Deaf tutors. Disabuse ASL students of that notion that hearing are better. Direct tutoring traffic to local Deaf. Do your part as an ally."

Deaf native signers and instructors

Scenario: From time to time, disturbing stories have been reported that some codas (children of Deaf parents), Deaf families, Deaf ASL teachers, and such whose signed language (ASL) is their native language were criticized by a few hearing colleagues as well as hearing strangers/learners. "Wrong sign." "No, it's a wrong sign." "It should be this way." To be frank, no matter how many years hearing signers and interpreters they have practiced, hearing signers remain lifetime learners of the second language.

In addition to their native language, Deaf signer's plasticity in the brain is largely visual-spatial and linguistically sensitive. Even, there is a critical period of language-related region in the brain (right angular gyrus) among native signers that non-signers and late signers after the first years of life lost. Deaf perceptions are unique, that they are sensitive to slight modifications of grammar, vocabulary, and intonation that convey a rich continuum of meanings that learners overlook on a regular basis.

Allyship: If you're taking an ASL course taught by a qualified Deaf instructor, it's a blessing. They not only teach ASL, but also they encompass Deafhood, Deaf experience, Deaf culture, history, Deaf humor, even language accent, and all on the cellular level. With a few exceptions, few codas (hearing children of Deaf parents) may be also ASL instructors accepted by Deaf community.

Deaf masters are in the minority due to many deaf children being deprived of language acquisition and mainstreamed and isolated in public schools. Grab to learn directly from Deaf signers and Deaf instructors available online. Check their credentials. Support Deaf-owned, Deaf-run websites, books, etc.

Audism sleepers

"On the first day of ASL 102/112 class at a university, after talking about the syllabus, we reviewed a bit about audism via an interpreter that the students learned from 101/111. I knew that the students understood audism but I doubted they really looked within themselves deeply. Just before the clock ticked, I asked the ASL students, 'If you were taking a language course in Native Americans/First Nations, such as Cree or Dene, would you expect a white instructor teaching the indigenous language?'

Virtually all students shook their heads. Apparently, the students were more educated about the history of First Nations and the white oppression. A white teacher teaching an indigenous language is absolutely no-no. Right next, I asked the students, "How many of you have expected a hearing instructor prior to the first day of your ASL 111 last semester? Raise your hands." Many students shyly or slowly raised their hands with a guilty giggle, just in time before the clock ticked." -- Deaf ASL instructor, J.L.

A non-native teacher teaching French, German, Spanish, English, and such colonial languages is even controversial. However, a non-native language instructor teaching these languages is not the same as non-native teachers teaching languages of the oppressed groups. A white non-native person teaching Native Americans or First Nations' languages is absolutely unacceptable. Likewise for Deaf people's languages.

Learning a language comes with its culture, history, and people -- inseparable. Teaching ASL questions teachers' understanding of the ethical and moral practice, Deafhood, Deaf history, culture, and socio-political issues of the Deaf community, within their position of systemic power of phonocentrism and hearing privilege.

-ism unpacking and hearing fragility

Many hearing ASL teachers defend themselves in the community, saying that there were not enough Deaf ASL instructors. Some of them reasoned that they teach sign language and Deaf culture as part of their advocacy for Deaf people. Speaking of "advocacy", would a hearing ASL teacher readily hand over their position immediately to an available qualified Deaf instructor? Hearing privilege is part of their package.

Allyship: Retrospection with a vigorous honesty is a good step. Embrace hearing fragility.

Practice allyship; unpack hearing privilege, tokenism, cultural appropriation, audism, etc. Become aware of them.

"Hearing friends ask me to perform certain words or phrases in BSL and it makes me uncomfortable, I will not enable parroting of this language without an understanding of the deaf community, I encourage people to learn properly, from a deaf teacher." [Ref]


We Deaf people are always delighted that hearing people are interested in learning our language and culture as long as their primary purpose is to communicate with Deaf people. Or, simply learn about our language and culture. We are always happy that hearing people can talk with us in ASL (or other signed languages) as much as we've learned your written (sometimes plus spoken) English.

Refer a hearing person to Deaf resources, Deaf instructors, Deaf-run/Deaf-owned businesses, organizations, services, and materials including websites. Be aware of tokenism (e.g. a hearing-owned website using Deaf signers).

To find Deaf tutors and instructors in person or offline, do ask around, contact deaf organizations, schools of the deaf, or recruit out of state. As for online, there's plenty of Deaf-owned materials. Just check their credentials.

Thank you for learning more and making this world a better place with diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Posted 2015, updated 2019-2022.

Related posts

Learn more about the related topics on cultural appropriation and hearing privilege.

Unpack -isms to become an ally.

Explore a broad -ism topic on audism.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.