By Caroline Zola
A few days ago, a good friend and fellow linguaphile posted a video on my Facebook wall of Shelby Mitchusson, a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter translating Eminem’s anthemic “Lose Yourself,” signing with dramatic facial expression and full body motion as she attempts to convey the essence of Slim Shady. The video now has more than 3 million views.
In the fall of 2013, Amber Galloway Gallego became a YouTube sensation after video of her signing a Kendrick Lamar concert also garnered millions of views. Countless articles (here, here, here, and here, to cite a few) lauded Gallego’s signing as “epic” and called her “a true inspiration.” Of course, what she’s doing is a service to the Deaf community. Music is something that all people, regardless of their hearing status, should be able to appreciate and understand, and to convey the rhythm and spirit of Kendrick Lamar into a form of expression the deaf and hard of hearing can process is inherently valuable. Mitchusson and Gallego went viral because their videos are not simply a detached interpretation. They’re excitingly interpretive.
But what are we really doing when we label ASL with words like “epic” or “cool”? We are exoticizing and trivializing it. ASL (and all sign languages—remember, there isn’t just one!) is a language every bit as much as English, with its own rules of grammar, its own syntax, morphology, phonology, and semantics. It is not “cool” or “interesting” or “awesome,” but rather a practical and evolving way of communicating that deserves as much respect as any spoken language. To share a video of someone signing with the caption “look how cool this is!” perpetuates the misconception that sign languages are somehow different, a kind of sideshow novelty at which to marvel.