When Gov. Walz of Minnesota and Gov. Evers of Wisconsin appear on TV to give their reports on the status of COVID-19 in their respective states, a second person is on the screen with them -- an American Sign Language interpreter.
With the frequency of the virus updates, most viewers have seen more sign language presentations in the past two months than they have seen in years, and seeing the presentations has caused many to ask questions about sign language.
How do people learn to do that? Why do the interpreters move their faces, too, instead of just their hands? Are the words in sign language the same as in English?
Jennifer Lohman, a sign language interpreter with Hiawatha Home Care in Red Wing, has heard all these questions, and she is quick to note that communicating with sign language is a complex process, and learning it is a challenge.
“If you are going to learn Spanish, you can go to Spain,” Lohman said. “You can immerse yourself in a country that speaks that language, but there isn’t a deaf country where you can go for sign language immersion.”
Lohman, who has been practicing sign language since 2004, became interested when she had a friend in high school who could hear but could not speak. Lohman got a book called “The Joy of Signing” and learned the alphabet, numbers, and many common words and phrases. She became more interested in sign language, and after she finished college, she entered the sign language program at St. Paul College.
One part of the program involved a weekend immersion in sign language. Lohman and her classmates spent three days at Villa Maria south of Red Wing and were not allowed to speak.
“Any communication we had, any activities we did, any food we wanted for dinner -- all of it was done in sign language, so that we could get a feel for what it was like and force ourselves to use the language,” she said. “It was a big challenge.”
To make learning sign language more difficult, there are several different styles. Lohman learned finger spelling, as well as transliterating, which means keeping the signed words in the same order as in spoken English. She also learned American Sign Language, which is based more on meaning.
“American Sign Language is not word for word,” she explained. “For example, if I want to say ‘I am going to take my dog for a walk,’ the first thing I sign is ‘dog’ and then I sign ‘me walk.’ You need to sign the topic first and then you sign the rest of it.”
On the TV reports, the speaker may start, but the interpreter might not make any signs for several seconds.
“They are waiting for the topic before they elaborate on it,” Lohman explained. “Once they get the topic, they go back and interpret the other things that were said. At the same time, they are listening for the new information coming in and trying to figure out how to sign that next. This is why interpreters at larger events often switch off. An hour is usually the maximum for an interpreter. It is exhausting.”
Sign language, like spoken language, has different dialects and slang, according to Lohman. She said there are some signs she uses that are identified with Minnesota, and there would be other signs that might be identified with California or another location.
“Often people think sign language is universal, that no matter where you go in any country, you could use sign language,” she said. “That’s not the case.”
Spain has a Spanish sign language. Germany has a German sign language. Even England and the U.K., where English is spoken, have a different sign language than in the United States.
“There is only one universal sign,” Lohman said. “That’s the sign for ‘I love you.’ Your thumb, index finger, and pinky finger are up and your middle finger and ring finger are down. It is the I and the L and the Y all put together. That is one sign that is understood in other countries.”
Another challenge for sign language users is when words have multiple meanings or when they are used in idioms. She gave the example of a person saying, “It is raining cats and dogs.”
“You are not going to sign cats, dogs, raining,” she said. “A deaf person would look outside and wonder what that means. What we do is inflect the word rain to show that it is raining really hard. There are a lot of facial expressions to get that meaning across. Facial expressions change the meaning just like the tone of your voice can change the meaning of what you are saying.”
Lohman said that interpreters have to be aware of what they are wearing. Shirts with designs, rings, bracelets, necklaces, and large earrings can create what deaf people refer to as “visual noise.” The color of the shirt is also important.
“For me, being fair-skinned, I need to wear solid black, Navy blue, or dark brown,” she said. “If the color is close to your hand color, it is hard to see the hand movement clearly.”
Interpreters on TV often wear long sleeves, Lohman said, so that their arms don’t distract from their hands.
Interpreters who specialize in medical or legal settings often have additional training to allow them to sign the terminology involved in such technical subjects.
“I wonder if those interpreters with Governor Walz have a good idea of what he is going to talk about beforehand,” Lohman said, “because to go in there and be blindsided would be really hard. The question-and-answer stuff you can’t possibly know. That is going to be on the fly. I hope they get an agenda that gives them ideas about the numbers and topics he is going to discuss.”