What’s in a name?

Click here to see British Sign Language version of this post

You may have seen earlier blog posts from me where I discuss the research that I am currently leading on language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. In that research I am replicating the work that has been done on child language brokering with spoken language brokering to explore how, when, where and why it happens in the Deaf community, and the experiences language brokers in mediating information for their family members.

The term brokering “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285), and language brokering is typically conducted by children and young people that are more adept at a particular language than their parents, for example in migrant families where children may learn to speak the language of their new country more quickly than their parents. Child language brokering literature has identified that the typical age for children to begin brokering is 7 or 8 years old, once they have sufficiently acquired proficiency in the new language to mediate for their parents; and that children broker in a range of contexts, including medical, educational, retail and legal situations (Tse, 1996; Wiesskirch & Alva, 2002).

In the Deaf community, brokering is performed by children with deaf parents. As they are exposed to both spoken and signed languages from birth, however, it seems that these children begin to broker as early as age 4 or 5 (Napier, in press).

Children who are hearing that have deaf parents are typically referred to as Codas (Children of Deaf Adults), and there are organisations to support these people as kids and as adults to share their experiences (e.g., CODA UK &Ireland, CODA Australia, CODA International). Research has been conducted with Codas to explore their identity and describe their struggles with how they felt being ‘hearing in a deaf world’ (Preston, 1994; Adams, 2008).

But it’s not a struggle for everybody. I am a ‘Coda’, but I have never felt comfortable with the term, as I have written elsewhere (Napier, 2008). Firstly, I am not a child, and my parents are not just ‘adults’, they are my parents. I don’t mind being identified as someone who grew up in the Deaf community, in fact I am proud of my language and cultural heritage, but the term ‘Coda’ conjures up too many pejorative connotations about kids taking on responsibilities to ‘take care’ of their parents from a young age through brokering. I also resist labelling of this kind as I believe that we all have multiple identities. Not only am I a daughter, but I am also a wife, a mother, an interpreter, a researcher, a teacher. My ‘Coda’ inheritance is only one part of my identity.

Another reason that I am not comfortable with the ‘Coda’ label is the assumption that it is only hearing people that grow up with deaf parents that take on a brokering role. My research has shown that deaf people with deaf parents also broker – often because their language skills are better, or they can speak better than their parents, or are just more confident (Napier, in press, 2014).

There is a term to refer to these people – as ‘Dodas’ (Deaf of Deaf Adults), and there is a closed group on Facebook, but it’s not a particularly popular term. And these people are typically excluded from Coda events and organisations. But they may well have similar experiences to share.

I think it is important that both hearing and deaf people who have grown up with deaf parents should have their language and cultural heritage acknowledged, especially in relation to what they bring to the sign language interpreting profession, given that there is increasing recognition of the work of deaf interpreters (Adam, Stone, Collins & Metzger, 2014).

I believe that, to quote a participant at the recent Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK (ASLI) conference where I presented, the term ‘Coda’ is “outdated and outmoded” (Jennifer Smith, Twitter [@jennifersmithuk], 28 September 2014). We also need to think more broadly about people who have grown up with sign language – not only with parents, but also siblings and extended family.

So I suggest a new, more all encompassing, convention – to refer to “People from Deaf Families” (PDFs), which includes deaf or hearing people that have grown up using sign language regularly with one or more deaf members of their family.

This term includes both deaf and hearing people, and also does not distinguish between children or adults, and does not focus only on people that have deaf parents.

In the same way that it’s difficult to make changes to a pdf document, we can’t change who we are. Being a PDF should not be taboo. The professionalisation of sign language interpreting has meant more focus for training on recruiting L2 sign language learners in to the profession, which has been invaluable to the Deaf community. But we shouldn’t forget the deaf and hearing people that grow up in the community have a wealth of experience to bring (Williamson, 2012). Various authors (e.g., Stone, 2008) have discussed how the Deaf community are less engaged with selecting people to become interpreters, and many interpreter education programmes are trying to re-engage with the community through service learning (see Shaw, 2012). The swing to professionalism has led to a situation where it seems that PDFs are almost apologising for having sign language heritage. It could be seen that this is a form of intangible cultural heritage.

I don’t want to be divisive. We all have the same goal in mind – let’s work together to provide the highest quality interpreting and translation services for the Deaf community. So let’s embrace deaf and hearing PDFs, recognise and value their heritage; in the same way we should recognise and value the life experiences of others who have chosen to learn our language and be a part of our community – they chose us.

After holding a discussion group at the ASLI conference in September 2014 with sign language interpreters about the topic of language brokering, the majority of whom did not have sign language heritage, I first suggested this PDF term. Comments from the group were very positive and people responded well to this more all-encompassing term.

What are your thoughts…?

0 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Very interesting post, Jemina. We`ve discussed this before, now we can discuss online. Here are some thoughts from a Norwegian CODA, PDF – from me :).

    I believe that what`s in a name is much about what your own references and experiences are. To me being a “CODA” – or a hearing child (after all my parents will always think me as their child, even though I´m now an adult) of deaf parents, is all about being proud of my linguistic and cultural heritage. And I agree that we all have multiple identities, and what comes to the front at any given time, will depend on context, for me that`s a given.

    It`s also very important to say that from the Norwegian association for hearing children of deaf parents`perspective, we aim to make children proud of their heritage, and through camps, we accomplish that. Parents tell us about children who used to be embarrassed, but now are proud.

    I also agree that only talking about hearing children of deaf people can sometimes be excluding, and for me, being a fluent signer, I would welcome deaf “codas” in to our association. But, then you have all those hearing children/youth/adults who don`t know how to sign, who might broker for their parents, but who don`t understand other deaf people. Many of them are frustrated and feel ashamed that they don`t know sign language. When we talk about hearing children of deaf parents, we often claim that they will automatically become bilingual and thereby fluent signers – that is not the case. Not until very recently, no one has fought for their rights to, for example, to learn sign language in school, in the same way that many other children of minorities do. And as long as that is the case, we still need to focus on the hearing children particularly. We all have a right to develop and learn all our languages as fluently as possible, but that doesn`t happen automatically. So if we can be more open about these issues, and do something about it, then we really have the potential for many excellent interpreters in the future.

    What`s in a name? Should we ditch “coda”? Perhaps, if it`s mostly negative, but for a lot of the kids I have met, it has become a way of naming a positive part in their set of identities.

    Thanks for raising the issue!

    • Thanks Torrill for your insightful response. You are right that I had been thinking primarily of people who have grown up signing and we need to acknowledge those that have deaf family members but don’t necessarily sign. Interesting too what you say about the positive aspects of identifying with the term Coda. I know many others that would say the same. Ultimately it’s about identity and choice. There are many PDFs that choose to have no contact with the Deaf community – personally or professionally – so they may have no need to identify themselves as a Coda or PDF. And others who are very much included need to have some form of identity to position themselves in the community. My suggestion is an attempt to recognise the broader identities of people who contribute to our sign language translation and interpreting profession so we can be more inclusive. Sarah’s also made a good point about people who have deaf partners. Ultimately it’s about being positive about our identity, whichever way we choose to describe ourselves.

      • Positioning is always “interesting” in the sense, that it can come across as a need to state your right to be a part of the community, which is kind of sad. On that note, I think your term opens up for many others to be “rightfully” a part of “our” community, and agree totally with Obed. I have a very good friend, who I most definitely would call a member of the Deaf community, and we have jokingly called her a NERDA (not even related to deaf adults!). This need to identify and position ourselves can be quite tiresome; and to quote another NERDA: “why can`t I just be a citizen of the world”..

        About the positive identity for “our” kids; it`s all in the framing of the term. We started our association with a positive perspective; to provide information about growing up in a bilingual/bicultural family, with focus on the positives. The parents and kids have taking this message, and it has caused a positive discourse about our families. That said; because we have been able to raise a positive awareness, we can now be more open about the vulnurabilities; for example the problems that can arise in a family who lack good communication..

        I might use your term for a conference in 1,5 weeks, Jemina. Just thought of another way of framing my talk, thanks. I`ll be sure to cite you 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed reading this entry, as a Deaf person from a Deaf family who uses two different sign languages. I grew up interpreting for my parents when going out and I still do this from time to time. I translate letters/emails and help my parents to write emails, letters and make phone calls for them via text relay. I find when trying to share my experiences with hearing CODAs, I am often told that their experiences is ‘worse’ because they are hearing and struggle with their identity of being between the two worlds- I have the same issues but it is not recognised because I am Deaf. I am really pleased to see that this area is being addressed and I look forward to reading more of your research.

    • Thanks Deirdre. I think many deaf PDFs may also struggle with a sense of responsibility – especially as the next generation are often better educated and certainly have more access to professional communication support than their parents did, so there are more opportunities.

  3. Throughout my life socialising and working in the Deaf community, regardless of whether it’s ISL, BSL, ASL, I have always been referred to as Mother, Father, Deaf? The only time I am referred to as CODA is when I’m in a CODA environment.

    I agree we need to have more descriptions to reflect the wider membership within the Deaf community/ Deaf families.

    • Good point Willie. I have always referred to myself that way – and in fact the organisation in the uk used to be called ‘HMFD’. Interesting now though that I have seen two different established signs for ‘Coda’ – one in International Sign which is the ‘c’ handshape moving up from stomach to chest. And the other in BSL, which is a compound sign ‘deaf-heart’. So Deaf people themselves are starting to use this expression.

  4. I grew up in a monolingual hearing family. I married a Deaf BSL person. Our kids are bilingual (but their teachers cannot sign so they are denied education in BSL unless we can supply it ourselves) but I do all the language brokering including translating every time the NHS fails to book an interpreter or the interpreter leaves early and we are left with no other choice. I also translate all the interface with written English at home. It is not only people ‘born’ into Deaf families – it is those who for other reasons have no choice but to translate for the hearing people with no sign language who we meet. We would not allow the kids to translate: it is a recognised burden they should not face.

    At times I resent interpreters getting paid for their services while I am expected to do this for free all the time…. Some of the interpreters we have had have made numerous mistakes in really important medical appointments but they still get paid…… I can see and hear their mistranslations. (There are also some very good ones whose support and skills are genuinely appreciated). However, there is a presumption in the hearing world that I will translate for free whenever they wish and whenever the interpreters fail to turn up, leave early, or have not been booked. Since when did forced unpaid interpreting form part of the marriage contract in the eyes of society? But I wonder do people really think only those ‘born’ into signing families have this role?

    The situation many Deaf people face is unjust and they do not receive equal human rights, nor linguistic human rights nor equal citizenship. While the interpreting profession is valued and essential, it is only a minor part of the day to day language brokering that takes place – it barely touches the surface.

    • That’s a very good point Sarah, and the term PDF could certainly include people who are in any kind of deaf family. I was just talking to someone yesterday who has a deaf partner and was talking about interpreting for his partner’s parents. From the perspective of heritage, then I do think that people who are born in to signing families have a rich experience to bring to the sign language interpreting and translation profession. But as I said in my post I believe we need to embrace the wealth of experiences that everybody brings to our community.

      • I agree there is possibly a distinct intangible culturo-linguistic heritage for those born into Deaf families. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they will these days grow up having to bear the burden of familial interpreting – the research is strong that this is damaging to children in Deaf families so we do all we can to ensure this does not happen.

        The problem with HMFD is that where only one of the parents is Deaf and you have a mixed family HMFD is wholly inaccurate.

        Deaf families are all different of course, not homogenous and Deaf people themselves may also have hybrid identities. This is not unique to the Deaf situation, many families are hybrid and have many layers of identity and cultures. What is clear though is that being located within Deaf families has a permanent effect on the hearing members – if latecomers it still introduces fundamental changes in outlook and cognitive processing but not a total transformation it is a partial one. Children however grow up bicultural and possibly bilingual and in this respect differ significantly from hearing children in hearing families and intrinsically perhaps also from their latecomer hearing relatives and well as from their Deaf relatives (I am not aware any research has ever been done on this point though so it is just a hunch).

        The key thing though is that we all cherish each other’s uniqueness. But as your topic is language brokering my point is that (speaking from experience) most language brokering is not done by interpreters whose contact with Deaf clients is not a daily 24/7 thing when most language brokering happens.

  5. Good reading Jemina, thanks for the artile.

    If we are to have CODAs, and what about PODAs (Parents of Deaf Adults)? SODAs (Siblings of Deaf Adults)? CODAs (Cousins of Deaf Adults)? SODAs (Spouses of Deaf Adults)? FODAs (Friends of Deaf Adults)?

    They (we) all have different experiences and identities growing up in the Deaf community. I agree with Torril, the term CODA has a positive effect on children/adults with Deaf parents. But if we are to embrace all people who grow up with Deaf people or in the Deaf community, then I go with Jemina: PDFs.

    I do appreciate CODA term has a long celebrated and cherished history, and we may keep it that way when we are talking about growing up hearing in a Deaf family. But to accommodate PODAs, SODAs, FODAs, etc, then PDF is appropriate.

    So PDFs it is!

    • Thanks Obed. The PDF term could encompass anyone who is in a family with deaf people, so yes this too could include parents with deaf children. Like Sarah’s point about having a deaf partner. But I do think that there is a form of ‘intangible heritage’ that we should not overlook for people who are born into signing families.

  6. Hi Jemina. I’m a CODA too – in fact I’m sure we’ve met (haven’t all CODAs met at one point or another?) as I think we were both in the Sign and Say books as children? My mother is Carole Tweedy, she knows your mum. I’ve been language brokering for as long as I can remember, certainly from way earlier than 7/8. I agree that I feel uncomfortable with the term CODA – particularly as I generally have to say “I *was* a CODA” rather than “I am a CODA” because, as I am no longer a child, the term doesn’t apply. But I am still a person from a Deaf family, proud of my heritage and language.

    Can I ask if your child(ren?) sign? My daughter just turned 4, sees my mum every couple of weeks or so and and is picking up bits and pieces (and fully understands communication needs like shoulder-tapping, needing to be seen, over-emphasised speech (sticking her tongue out for the “L” sound etc)), and she loves to sign but obviously she is not nearly as immersed in the Deaf world as we were and so isn’t picking up the grammar/syntax. I would really love for her to be able to sign because it’s always been such an important part of my world.

  7. I’d be very interested in being part of your research on language brokering in CODAs, by the way. If it’s not too late?

    Although I have been language brokering for as long as I can remember 9and still do it all the time), I have also been refusing to language broker all my life too! As a child I would always tell anyone who addressed me instead of my parents to speak to them instead. Only then, after they had made the effort, would I step in. This was no doubt due to my parents’ influence and insistence that they not be ignored/bypassed, and also just my desire to make people feel a bit awkward about the fact that they’d clearly been afraid to speak directly to a deaf person (!).

  8. I do remember you Francesca! My daughter (6 y.o) is bilingual. We made sure to sign with her from being a baby as she has four deaf grand parents and other deaf family members (my husband is a sign language interpreter) and have a lot of deaf friends so we felt it was essential. It was actually some brokering that she did for my mother that piqued my interest in this research! Send me an email and I’ll add you to my contact list for the research project. All the best.

  9. Hi Jemina,
    When first read this, it struck a chord with me because that is what I have been feeling also – quite a long time as a deaf child of deaf parents. Similarly to Deidre’s earlier comment, whereas in my experience, I have oftentimes felt alienated by some CODAs because they strongly believe we are not the same [but really almost the same!!]. Language brokering, being a child of deaf parents – indeed, we may have our differences but this difference is ‘hearing’. Any child will experience some challenges, frustrations and barriers particularly children from an ethnic and linguistic background regardless of parents being deaf or not. ‘Hearing’ itself is another layer of challenge, and that is not being able to hear/understand. I won’t preach the converted here about that 🙂

    Today, hearing children of deaf parents experiences are different to children from the 80s, 70s, 60s etc. The term ‘PDF’ struck me as an ‘inclusive’ terminology. I love it. Still, to this day I am sad how divided my hearing brothers and I are because of this terminology. There is no blaming game here but when I was growing up, my parents told my brothers that I am Deaf and that they are CODAs and said that I am like them, and they’re not. Lighting has struck the ground and divided my brothers and I – not by fault but by default. ‘PDF’ in my view is warm, levelled, inclusive, empowering and universal. Not all CODA, DODA, NERDA and the whatnot experience the same in their lives – you, my deaf son, your husband, your beautiful daughter, my other son, my partner and many others will never have the exact same experience but all of us can relate to eachother, one way or another. This does not mean I do not appreciate or recognise the pain and challenges hearing children of deaf parents have gone through, but so have I – as an individual growing up being deaf. Labels. Sometimes they can be so detoriating like it has for me in my relationship with my brothers. It a psychological damage on our relationship, unforunately.

    I am really looking forward to further research on this one and to explore how the community respond to this inclusive terminology. You always make me proud, Jemina. Thank you.


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