When an elementary school last week parodied a COVID-19 pandemic news conference as part of its online graduation ceremony, the media praised it as “creative” and “eye-catching,” while parents lauded the teachers’ efforts to bring some humor to a stressful and unfortunate situation, and the school called it a ceremony that the students would never forget.
The parody included a teacher posing as a sign-language interpreter, and most media reported in a light-hearted tone that she did not know sign language, but was just imitating the motions.
Imitating a pandemic news briefing is harmless — people have been doing it since May last year — but mocking sign language can be offensive to those who rely on it daily to communicate, which is why the briefing team includes an interpreter.
Many such spoofs over the past year have featured mock interpreters and the school was likely just following the trend, but sensitivity is needed.
It might not seem important, but how would Taiwanese feel if a Western person faked speaking Mandarin on YouTube? It would be just as offensive if a Han Taiwanese mocked an Aboriginal language.
While a witch hunt is not what is needed, such gaffes need to be pointed out so that people can learn from them.
On Friday, the League of Persons with Disabilities, along with other groups, declared that they had reached their limit.
“Using incorrect sign language for humorous effect is offensive to people who use it as their main mode of communicating,” it said, noting the complexities of the language, which has its own syntax and structure. To obtain a certificate, interpreters study and train for hundreds of hours, it said, adding that the skill is not something that should be made light of.
The groups would have been happy with how graduating seniors at Liugui High School in Kaohsiung used sign language in their graduation activities — the students had written a graduation song and learned to sign words of encouragement in a music video they had made for those affected by the pandemic.
Sign language has been brought to the forefront of people’s consciousness by the pandemic news conferences, and there has been a lot of discussion about the interpreters over the past year, which creates an opportunity to learn about a community that people might not encounter otherwise.
For example, after a nationwide level 3 COVID-19 alert was announced last month, people began asking why the interpreters at the news briefings did not wear masks, only to find out that facial expressions play a crucial part in sign language. Before learning this, some Internet users had made fun of the interpreters’ vivid facial expressions, calling them “funny” and “show-stealing.”
National Chung Cheng University linguistics professor Chang Jung-hsing (張榮興) lamented over the public’s misconceptions regarding sign language during a recruitment drive for interpreters earlier this month. He said that common misconceptions include: “Sign language is just a set of gestures,” “Sign language is universal” and “Sign language can be transcribed just like a spoken language.” It was only after 2019, when Taiwan Sign Language was included in the Development of National Languages Act (國家語言發展法), and through the pandemic news briefings that many people realized that it is a fully developed language that is unique to Taiwan, Chang said.
“Sign language and spoken language should enjoy equal respect and protection,” he added.
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