Being Polite in Other Languages

July 26, 2011 Comments Off on Being Polite in Other Languages

Every time you learn a new language, you also have to learn manners in that language. It can be a big difference or not, depending, but it’s not usually stuff you can figure out a priori. Right now I’m taking an American Sign Language class, though, and I’m appalled by how little some of the class members think about what’s going on.

It’s taught by a deaf woman, and we use an interpreter, and it’s surprising how difficult it is not to talk to the interpreter. When I’m listening respectfully, I make eye contact with whoever’s talking, but in this case that means the deaf professor, not the woman at the back of the room I can hear, even though hearing someone talk is usually the cue I use to make eye contact with them. The same goes for asking questions, although in that case I’m sometimes curious to see the signs the interpreter uses, so I do look at her. But these are things you have to remember: there is only one interpreter; sometimes you have to wait your turn; you’re really talking to the professor.

Lots of people talk to each other over the interpreter—mostly kosher subjects, like “What’s the sign for ‘arrogant,’ again?”—but they seem to forget that if the interpreter is talking, that means the professor’s talking. STFU, please. Many people forget to look at a student who is asking a question in ASL, and later want to know what the question was—although that’s easy to do; it’s surprising how hard it is to remember that you won’t ever hear anything. One woman who is having a hard time learning sign NEVER repeats a sign back when she is corrected. The professor will sign a vocab word and, instead of fingerspelling it as instructed, she’ll just say it and look at the interpreter. She is the WORST. She talks exclusively to the interpreter, and instead of raising her hand to attract the attention of both the interpreter and the professor, she just starts asking her question, even over the interpreter’s speaking or signing. I don’t think she realizes she’s being rude, she just doesn’t register that the interpreter is working. Plus there aren’t a whole gaggle of interpreters in the back of the room, just Talia, so you have to wait your turn.

Every time I’m in that classroom I’m conscious of how much information I get from sounds. I can tell how big the room is, how many people there are in it, I can register multiple conversations at once, and it’s very easy to get my attention. Plus I can listen to something while I do something else, which is HUGE if you think about it. Everyone should be required to take four weeks of ASL, if for no other reason than that it really puts you in someone else’s shoes. But only if you think about it.

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