by: Fran Whiteside, M.Ed., NIC/CI/CT, ASL<>English VRI interpreter

When one thinks about being an interpreter between two languages, the first thing that comes to mind is listening and speaking. The definition of “bilingual” is a person that can speak two languages fluently. But that simple definition doesn’t fit the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. The more precise definition for ASL interpreters would be the one involving or using two languages fluently. Using American Sign Language is bilingual, bicultural, and bimodal because of the way sign language is communicated and the relationship it forms between people.

Many ASL interpreters grew up in homes learning American Sign Language as their first language and English as their second. They were depended upon to interpret in a myriad of situations, at times way beyond what they were capable of, because there was just nothing else. This practice of “family/friend” interpreting was routinely used before interpreting for the Deaf became a profession but in some instances continues today. These individuals are typically called CODAs, short for Children of Deaf Adults.

Like other interpreters, ASL interpreters are also Bicultural. “Having or combining the cultural attitudes and customs of two nations, peoples, or ethnic groups.” Where the ASL interpreter is distinguished from other spoken language interpreters is in the “mode” that is used to carrying out the dialogue. Unimodal interpreters hear one language and speak another, therefore using two spoken languages. Bimodal interpreters are also spoken language interpreters, speaking in English, but they have the added change in mode from understanding not only speech but also sign language.

How does bimodal differ from unimodal? Bimodal ASL interpreters use spoken language that is perceived by the ears and produced by the vocal tract and also sign language which is perceived by the eyes and produced by the vocal tract. So let’s look at this definition—Visual language interpreting is the practice of deciphering communication in sign languages, which use gestures, body language, and facial expressions to convey meaning. But using visual cues for the process of interpretation is still bimodal using two different forms of processing.

There are other ways that ASL interpreters process communication. It might be from a written document that in not understandable to the Deaf client. It may be through tactile interpreting (hand over hand) for a DeafBlind client. Regardless of how it is done, ASL interpreters are still considered bimodal.

In addition to the way we communicate with individuals, there is also a continuum of language “types” that Deaf people use. To understand this language continuum a little history is required. American Sign Language was brought over from France to the US back in early 1800s by Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet. Before this time there was no education of Deaf children and therefore most signs were made up or considered “home signs.”

But along the way many hearing teachers felt the only way for Deaf children to learn English was either by trying to sign in English word order or not being allowed to sign at all using what is known as the “oral method.” Even today there are schools across the United States that don’t allow children to sign, accepting only the use of their voice for communication.

As you can gather, the way a child is taught language can have a major impact on their language use as an adult. ASL interpreters must be prepared in all situations to match the “language” that the consumer is using. From those that were raised with the fluidity of American Sign Language to those that use their voices and “sign” in English world order including everything in between.

American Sign language is also referred to as a visual-gestural language. It not only incorporates signs but also uses facial expressions and body movements as part of the grammar and vocabulary of the language.

The most popular Manually Coded English (MCE) sign systems are as follows:

  • Pidgin signed English is a combination of English and American Sign Language. While using American Sign Language, signage it more closely follows English syntax.
  • Signed English is simplified English-based code with grammatical markers added.
  • SEE, or Signing Exact English, uses English word order but uses more “signs” than signed English. This system has invented signs that are not used in American Sign Language.
  • These are sometimes referred to as speech-supported sign.
  • The Rochester method is comprised solely of fingerspelling.
  • Cued Speech, while used infrequently, is not a signed language but a system to use lip reading combining handshapes and locations around the face to phonetically represent English.

And while all of these methods are bimodal they are not all specifically bilingual since they do not involved two languages but some are between a “system” and a language.

With the complexities of the language itself, numerous sign systems, varieties within the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Deaf individuals that use American Sign Language and the ever changing and growing technological and medical advancements being introduced being a sign language interpreter is a constantly evolving profession.

So maybe our exact description should be Bilingual/Bicultural/Bimodal/Visual Interpreter!

Selected References

Oxford Living Dictionary, Bicultural definition, 2017 Oxford University Press,

Emmorey, Karen, Borinstein, Helsa B., #ompson, Robin and Gollan, Tamar H. 2008. “Bimodal bilingualism.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11 (1): 43–61.

Swabey & Nicodemus, Bimodal bilingual interpreting in the U.S. healthcare system, 2011.

Schofield & Mapson, Dynamics in interpreted interactions: An insight into the perceptions of healthcare professionals, 2014.

Sign Language Continuum,

Greene, Daniel, Bimodal interpreters, not just sign language interpreters, 2014.