Lydia Callis and The Politics of Language

A hearing second grader I know signs “America” with two fists stacked and stirring. This is how he remembers learning it in his public school. Though most American Sign Language users sign “America” with interlaced fingers that look like the corner of a log cabin instead of like they’re gripping a giant spoon, the message is clear: We think of the U.S. as a melting pot.

Only who we call to melt with us isn’t consistent. This became clear with the star-spangled rise to fame of Lydia Callis, an American Sign Language interpreter for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during press conferences last week. As Teresa Blankmeyer Burke writes in

Lydia Callis…is getting a lot of attention these days for her interpreting during Hurricane Sandy. She’s been spoofed on Chelsea Handler’s show, she has Tumblrs dedicated to her, and she’s even been named  Hot Slut of the Day by Dlisted.

Each of these media hits was trailed by effusive comments. Okay, some pointed out that facial expression is part of ASL grammar and that she was just signing like anyone else would. But most commenters couldn’t glow enough. Parents said their toddlers were inspired to learn sign language; nonsigners claimed they understood Bloomberg’s message better thanks to her work.

Finally, Callis won the ultimate hat tip: A spoof in the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live. In this one, Fred Armisen as Bloomberg gives a spiel with an expressive “Callis” (Cecily Strong) at his side.

But something is off. Did you watch all the way to the 3:30 mark, where Armisen-as-Bloomberg delivers “a message to our Spanish speakers,” sixty seconds of the most disastrous, hilarious white guy accent you’ll hear this side of an overzealous Taco Bell order? If not, go back and watch all the way to there. Then consider how your average American might react to each non-English section.

As Election Day 2012 dawns, I can’t help thinking about the politics of language.  If Bloomberg had really taken so much time for a Spanish language message, stolen precious seconds for a Spanish language interpreter to speak, or had run Spanish subtitles, do you think the response would have been the same as to the ASL? Would viewers have swooned, saying, “that translator rolls those ‘R’s so beautifully!” or rejoiced when their kids begged to go to a bilingual school? I doubt it. Because in my experience, responses to ASL and Spanish are about as similar as… well, as a spoon and a log cabin.

Americans love to take umbrage with the attention and accommodations we give to Spanish speakers and other immigrants who speak English as a second language. I’ve seen political stumping or outright disgust over communities slow to learn English, over bilingual forms, over the need to press ‘1’ in a customer service phone call.  Meanwhile, many of those who watched Callis during press conferences felt it was a beautiful expression for a deserving (or is it noble? pitied?) population.

Today, while D.C. is relegated to determining just how many votes it will take to disqualify a corrupt politician, Marylanders will make a decision about the Dream Act, a.k.a. Question 4.  This referendum affects thousands of first-generation native or near-native English speakers.  Their parents, who came to the U.S. with another language on their tongues, must have paid income tax for three years prior to in-state tuition being granted to their children at state schools. This measure will not push out other deserving Maryland students because the immigrant undergrads will be considered under another column altogether. These are just a few of the solid arguments (PDF) for supporting the measure. Yet enough Marylanders hated on this bill to put a referendum on the ballot.

Though I am not deaf myself, I grew up with a deaf sister and work and socialize every day within the d/Deaf and hard of hearing community. So I will take a leap here. I’ll say that American Sign Language represents a community that the hearing world by turns takes care of, respects, is fascinated by, and pities. As a citizen of a linguistically diverse city, I’ll say that Spanish (or Amharic, Hmong, Haitian Creole) evokes a completely different public tone. Yet to me communication access should stack up for all populations equally.

When the presidential election smoke clears, we will still have this swirling pot to reconcile.


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2 responses to “Lydia Callis and The Politics of Language

  1. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

    Nice post, Rhea! Love the spoon/log cabin visuals — clever sideways move into silver spoon/log cabin politics…

  2. Peter St. Onge

    Coming from somebody who’s been a “foreigner” most of my life, it’s possible that the different reactions come not from racism vs pity (quite an uncharitable interpretation!), rather that people are offended when they think foreigners are not making an effort to learn the local language. ASL would be seen as a necessity so nobody takes offense.

    In most countries on earth, foreigners’ insistence on living their lives in their own language is often seen as arrogant or disdainful. I’m not saying it’s the right reaction, and I prefer multilingual America to sameness, but if I go to a foreign country and expect everything in English I shouldn’t be surprised by negative reactions.

    One counter is that the US doesn’t have a national language. That’s true, but then neither does Japan and I don’t feel any more entitled to English in Japan than I would in official-languaged Korea.

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