Let’s be honest: Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.
As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe wehappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.
Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf. Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.
Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much. The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects. Like this one:
But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views. The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf. They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.
Many mention Koe No Katachi (“A Silent Voice”), an anime film about a deaf girl.
And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.
And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star: Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.
Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man. He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won. He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.
He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human. But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist? In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why. He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties
Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.
He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.
One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention. He replies, “No. Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened. Because I have always loved being deaf.” He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”
Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths. Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit. He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM. He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.
In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.
Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action. When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie. He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:
And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:
“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”
Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English. And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point: Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?
But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism. Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.
He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:
The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):
How did Nyle respond? This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general. According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”
I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives. Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign. Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:
The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign. While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:
So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco. Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back. His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity. Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.