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Preference for style over substance helps no one

By Li Lei | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-03-29 09:06
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"Sign language is a combination of signs-the shape, location, orientation and movement of the hands-facial expressions and body gestures," said Zheng Xuan, an expert on Chinese Sign Language, during a recent phone call.

One of a small number of deaf linguists in China, she paired her Bluetooth hearing aid and her phone so she would be comfortable during our hourlong conversation.

"Audism has undermined how sign language is presented via the media," she said.

The term "Audism" is used to describe the discriminatory belief that the ability to hear makes a person superior to someone with a hearing impairment.

During my years as a civil affairs reporter, I've spoken with and messaged deaf livestreamers and artists, sign language interpreters, researchers drafting the CSL dictionary and the nongovernmental groups promoting its application.

In all those exchanges, one complaint has been ubiquitous.

While the presence of sign interpretation is expanding in the media and at venues ranging from central government news conferences to national legislative gatherings, as required by law, it is not as comprehensible as it may seem.

That fact prompted Sun Yan'e, a deaf influencer in Dalian, Liaoning province, to make videos early last year featuring the "natural" sign language, or dialect, used by the deaf community and show them on the video-streaming platform Kuaishou.

The videos were aimed at guiding deaf people through the vortex of misinformation related to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Unlike sign language interpreters on television, who maintain a solemn face and upright posture, Sun used flamboyant gestures and dramatic facial expressions as she explained the correct use of face masks and the way the virus is transmitted.

In one viral video, the 54-year-old cleverly compared her messy hair to the spikes protruding from the novel coronavirus in an effort to explain the epidemic's basics.

When asked about her inspiration, Sun said such advice is badly needed, given the deaf community's poor access to information.

National system

For the past five years, the Communist Party of China has used the establishment of a unified national system for sign language and Braille as a crucial pillar in efforts to build a "moderately prosperous society in all respects" by this year, the Party's centenary.

That's benefited cross-regional communication for the estimated 27 million hearing-impaired people scattered across China's more than 30 provincial-level regions and 56 ethnic groups.

Despite that progress, there is still much to do. The sad truth is that well-intentioned sign language-interpreted news programs on China Central Television, the State broadcaster, have failed to get through to many deaf people.

These programs are brimming with abstract terms, ranging from "socialism" to "economic construction", and words coined to describe recent trends.

However, no extra time is given for interpreters to explain them fully, so to keep up with the anchor's speech interpreters usually condense or omit information.

Some render the terms in Pinyin-the phonetic system used to write Chinese words in the Roman alphabet-but the practice is not popular among most sign language users.

Gu Dingqian, a specialist in deaf education who was involved in the drafting process of the dictionary of Chinese Sign Language, said some interpreters even "make up vocabulary" on the spot to keep the flow smooth.

In contrast with the robotic interpretations seen on television, Sun's unorthodox style of signing has its own glamour: the power, beauty and richness of feelings.

That led me to contemplate how mainstream aesthetics have eroded the function of this very different language system, which relies solely on visual signals to convey meaning as well as emotion.

To please mainstream audiences, sign interpreters have been instructed to act in a graceful and serious manner, even at the expense of some of the most informative parts of the signing process.

To make matters worse, interpreters are confined to a palm-sized window, which hovers lonely at the lower left corner of the TV screen, straining the viewer's eyesight.

Zheng, who learned American Sign Language during an exchange program to the United States in 2016, said the space reserved for interpreters can account for one-third or even half the screen in the US.

Many insiders have told me that, despite repeated calls, the TV industry is reluctant to make more room for fear of damaging the "normal presentation of pictures".

You don't need to be deaf to recognize the condescending stance the hearing culture has taken on its deaf counterpart, usually unnoticed by people without such problems.

One recent example is the "finger dance", a genre trending on video-streaming platforms in which chic young influencers-always people with unimpaired hearing-"sign" as they lip-sync to a background melody.

The videos contain sign language elements, but the way they are rendered has been tweaked to make the process look better, according to Chen Qian, a junior at Renmin University of China in Beijing. Chen heads a student group that promotes deaf culture among hearing people like herself.

"The videos are made by hearing people for hearing people and the culture they embody is the mainstream one," she said.

"However, I would still say the genre's popularity is a form of progress in itself, because it shows that sign language is entering mainstream culture."


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