Teaching Sign Language and Ethics

Teaching sign language as a second language (L2) come in all forms, ranging from academically formal to informally casual such as: 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 ASL teaching (cultural appropriation). It's crucial that hearing people are aware of the ethics and cultural sensitivity.

There has been a long-time general consensus in the Deaf world that teaching ASL belongs to the Deaf people, period. There are a few exceptions, especially with a few codas who are school teachers of deaf children.

While we appreciate hearing people learning ASL to communicate, chat, or talk with Deaf people, but it's not for hearing people teaching, singing a song, or meddling with it. The signed language is our identity.

Linguistic-cultural Identity

Deaf people are a cultural-linguistic minority. A language of our Deaf people is the core of our identity, culture, and pride that we highly value. Our language, culture, history, and Deafhood are deeply interweaved, where our language is not external but within us, the Deaf people. Signed language is our identity and psyche.

You may come across a few deaf enablers who say they don't see any wrong with hearing teachers teaching sign language based on their discussion or rationale. They are entitled to their beliefs and opinions. However, keep in mind that deaf people come with various backgrounds, experiences, views, vocal-speaking abilities, etc. Many of them are not aware of their dysconscious audism (internalized audism).

Systemic Oppression and Discrimination

Hearing oppression has long impacted our lives over the past thousands of years in many aspects of life, especially in education and employment. 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.

How do Deaf people feel when they see a hearing person teaching ASL, running an ASL website, etc.? Trigger. It generally brings Deaf to a feeling of heart-shrinking, stomach-wrenching, and/or boiling up inside. "Disgusted." This experience cannot be denied nor dismissed.

Video: "ASL Teaching: On Behalf of the Deaf Community" posted by the "ASL Teaching" channel.

"... 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. ..." -- Video above.

Along with a high rate unemployment and underemployment of deaf people within the systemic hearing oppression and discrimination, a hearing person teaching sign language represents and reinforces a hearing privilege, systemic power and oppression, ignorance, insensitivity, and disrespect. It reduces job opportunities for qualified Deaf, given that ASL teaching positions given are not abundant, if not scarce, compared to plentiful spoken-language/signed-language interpreting jobs out there.

A non-native teacher teaching French, German or such may be a controversy. However, a non-native language instructor teaching these languages is not the same as a non-native instructor teaching signed languages, Native Americans' languages, and such. For a Caucasian/white non-native teacher teaching Native Americans or First Nations' languages, it is absolutely unacceptable. Same for Deaf people's languages, because of a long painful history and systemic oppression.

It questions their understanding of the ethical and moral practice, Deafhood, Deaf history, Deaf culture, and socio-political issues of the Deaf community, within their position of systemic power of phonocentrism and hearing privilege.

Language, culture, and history are inseparable.

Audism sleepers

"On the first day of the ASL level 1 class at a university, after talking about the syllabus, we reviewed a bit about audism via an interpreter. I knew that the students generally 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 of 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. It was a good learning opportunity for them to see audism of their own what they overlooked themselves despite knowing what audism was." -- Deaf ASL instructor, J.L.

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 embraced by Deaf community.

Hearing Privilege 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.

Would a hearing ASL teacher readily hand over their position to an available qualified Deaf instructor immediately?

A hearing ASL instructor doesn't get it, no matter how they defend or rationalize. They just don't get it, period. A hearing privilege is part of their package.

Many horrifying stories have been reported that some codas (children of Deaf parents), Deaf families, Deaf ASL teachers, and such whose signed language is their native and fluent levels were criticized by other hearing teachers. "Wrong sign." "No, it's a wrong sign." Unfortunately, sometimes, they think their signing skills are better or they should deserve a higher rate than they actually are.

To be blunt, no matter how many years hearing signers and even interpreters they have signed, hearing signers remain lifetime learners. Deaf people'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 in the first years of life lost.

Interpreters are not teachers

An interpreter should be aware that it's not their job to teach sign language (except for interpreting related courses). Regardless of their experience or 20+ years of interpreting, they are far from a native level, still easily recognized by Deaf native signers.

"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." - Bee Vicars


We Deaf people are always delighted that hearing people are interested in learning about our language and culture as long as their primary purpose is to communicate with Deaf people. Or, simply learn more 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 (and sometimes spoken) English (or other languages).

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

"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]

Refer a hearing person to Deaf resources, Deaf instructors, Deaf-run/Deaf-owned businesses, organizations, services, and materials including websites.

To find Deaf tutors and instructors, do ask around, contact deaf organizations, or recruit out of state. Contact Gallaudet University's Masters in Sign Language Education department and recruit.

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

Posted 2015, updated 2019.

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