‘A beautiful language’: As world tunes into COVID-19 updates, attention turns to ASL interpreters

By | April 4, 2020

As the world tunes in to politicians and public health officials delivering daily COVID-19 updates, viewers may notice someone standing just on the edge of their screen, gesturing with their hands.

Those are interpreters, relaying the news to the deaf community through American Sign Language — and they’re garnering the public’s attention.

“I think the fascination is with the language itself,” Bonnie Heath, a registered ASL interpreter in Winnipeg, told CBC Radio’s Up To Speed host Ismaila Alfa on Friday.

“It’s a very visual language. It’s not based on sound, it’s a beautiful language,” said Heath, who is also executive director of Winnipeg’s E-quality Communication Centre of Excellence (ECCOE), which provides various interpreter and intervenor services.

“And when we’re watching the interpreters we’ll see things like a very stern warning about staying home, and you can see the facial expression on the part of the interpreter.”

See Friday’s Manitoba COVID-19 update from public health officials, with ASL interpretation:

Heath believes people are increasingly calling on ASL interpreters as a way of making things more accessible for deaf Canadians — whether that’s the latest COVID-19 information, or a song being performed at an outdoor music festival.

“For years, we were seeing captioning, which is provided in English, which would be the second language for deaf Canadians,” said Heath.

“What’s really important is that the interpreters are there to make sure the English message is provided equally in American Sign Language.”

ASL is its own language, with its own rules and grammar, and it evolves like any other language, said Heath. But it is also a global language, which means for each spoken language, there is an accompanying sign language.

So signing in German is different than in English, and there are local dialects of ASL, just as Canadian French is different from French spoken in France or Haiti, she said.

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That also means as new words come up, new signs have to be determined — a sign for “COVID-19,” for example.

That sign, agreed upon in China at the start of the pandemic, is an example of an “iconic” sign, Heath says — one that tries to literally depict the thing it describes.

“If you look at the actual picture of the virus, you’ll see that the sign very much depicts how that looks…. So around the world, the deaf community have decided that, collectively, this is the sign they’re going to use for COVID-19.”

As ASL interpreters garner more attention during the pandemic, though, Heath says there are some mixed feelings in the community. 

“Our role very much is to bring the English message to deaf Canadians,” she said. “I know interpreters are getting a lot of attention, [but] they’re feeling a little awkward about it, because it kind of makes them step outside their role.”

But at the same time, it’s also an opportunity to bring ASL to a broader audience, she says.

“I talked with a couple of my deaf colleagues this morning, and we’re really pleased that Canadians are getting to see the language in its true form.”

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