Tag Archives: sign language

Toronto the Good and Bad

Three things I really appreciate are live jazz, modern languages, and descent people. Toronto has all three in abundance.

Jazz at Massey Hall "The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever"

Jazz at Massey Hall “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”

On Friday, I was thrilled by the “Molly Johnson and Friends” jazz concert at Massey Hall, which is a splendid and venerable concert hall. Molly Johnson, who was delightful as always, is one of my favourite singers. One of her many fine guests was Denzal Sinclaire, whom I well knew would be worth the price of admission on his own. Her pianist for the evening was the outstanding Robi Botos. What a show!

On Saturday I met with a local international group a couple of blocks from home and spoke in Portuguese for two hours. On Sunday I went to a cafe a couple of blocks in the other direction and signed in ASL for two hours. On Wednesday I am going across the street to a Spanish/French evening where people from a dozen countries will switch from one language to the other every 30 minutes. Fun!

Today I heard a woman at the health food shop checkout say, “Last time I was here, the cashier undercharged me by two dollars. I hope it won’t screw up your accounts if I pay that back now.” Good!

What’s not to like about Toronto? Maybe it is just this: Toronto is a place where you hear great musicians giving a dazzling performance at a terrific venue, and the audience conducts itself as if it is trying not to get noticed, as if everyone snuck in on a school night and they are afraid they’ll get caught if they make too much noise. Decades ago, my mother saw the one and only Louis Armstrong play at [Massey Hall] the O’Keefe Centre, (which later became the Hummingbird Centre) and she says that the audience was so reserved he rolled his eyes and grumbled, “What a swingin’ crowd.” Same thing when I saw Ray Charles at the venue formerly known as the Hummingbird Centre; I wanted to shout at the audience “Come on, everybody; it’s Ray freaking Charles!” and I would have been heard without needing to shout.

Toronto has all kinds of good stuff, from the world’s greatest public library system to North America’s most comprehensive municipal recycling program, and of course endless opportunities to immerse yourself in food, music and languages from every corner of the globe. But somehow, Hogtown has no personality. Toronto is less than the sum of its parts.

It is said that Toronto looks down on the rest of Canada, and that the rest of Canada hates Toronto. From both sides, this is unfortunate and uncalled for. For better or worse, Canada and Toronto are not so different from one another. Both could and should be so much greater than they are. If only more parts of Canada had some of the stupendous resources Toronto has. If only Toronto had some of the personality that other parts of Canada have.

Sorry if I sound ungrateful, but I have to be honest about how I feel. I’m glad you’re here, Toronto, and I definitely don’t hate you, but you make me feel like a Toronto audience.


Filed under geography, languages and communication, music

Deaf Jam: the Poetry of ASL

Deaf Jam

Deaf Jam documentary (USA 2011)

Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.

Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:

  1. Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
  2. Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
  3. Hand shape(s)
  4. Movement (of hands/head/body)
  5. Facial expression

By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.

ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.

Remembering the observation that, Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.

In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.

When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:

A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.

There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.

*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.

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Filed under cross cultural understanding, documentary, language, languages and communication

ASL Comedy at Yuk Yuk’s – A Silent Celebration of an Unwritten Language

ASL Comedy at Yuk Yuk’s Toronto 26 November

Whereas stand-up comedy shows are ubiquitous in the English speaking world, a comedy show performed entirely in American Sign Language (ASL) is a rare event in Toronto, almost unheard of, despite the fact that about six percent of people living in the Greater Toronto Area are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing. That is why Mike Cyr and Andrea Kraus of Silent Voice Canada, (a charitable organization offering support to deaf children and adults in ASL in the GTA), decided to put together an ASL Comedy Show as a celebration of what is said to be the fourth most-used language in North America.

Christopher Welsh, one of the half dozen comedians who will perform on Saturday, sat with me recently at the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf (BRCD) to talk about comedy and Deaf culture. I wouldn’t have had the nerve even to think about interviewing someone in ASL – which I have only begun to learn – except that Christopher Welsh was my group leader at this summer’s Ontario Camp for the Deaf, and I know him to be a gifted communicator and a man of generous spirit.

comedian Christopher Welsh

comedian Christopher Welsh

A number of years ago, Welsh was the first Deaf comedian to perform at Yuk Yuk’s for a hearing audience. His training in mime and clowning contributes to his ability to entertain people not fluent in sign language. He might perform again for a hearing audience at Yuk Yuk’s “but,” he says, “I’d want to prepare some new material first.”

Humour differs from one culture to another (Saturday Night Live is not Monty Python) and from one language to another (try convincing high school students in Japan that Far Side cartoons are funny). Welsh, who has studied at the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut, at Second City in Toronto, and with Shakespeare Link in Wales, says, “Some jokes don’t translate.” Different groups might laugh at the same thing but express it differently. And some stories may be funny for one culture and not another, no matter how you tell it.

And for a comedian, the same joke might kill one night and die the next. Welsh says that holds true whether the audience is Deaf or hearing. Either way, “it’s the same. Some audiences are good, some are difficult.” For a hearing comedian with a hearing audience, a heckler can completely disrupt a performance. For a Deaf comedian with a Deaf audience, Welsh says, “It’s the same.” But he is not worried about hecklers on November 26th. “When I was younger, yes. But now I’m experienced.”

And it seems likely that everyone in the audience will be thoroughly appreciative on Saturday. ASL entertainment programming is in short supply. There are virtually no TV shows in ASL (although Welsh has appeared on TVO’s Deaf Planet). According to Welsh, films produced in California are the main form of entertainment available in ASL, such as the comedy Versa Effect (2011) which was given a single screening at BRCD in September. It’s great to see short-form entertainment in ASL becoming increasingly available on the Internet but nothing is more fun than getting a crowd together for a live show.

The complete list of performers for ASL Comedy at Yuk Yuk’s:

  • Christopher Welsh
  • Gord Dadalt
  • Teresa Fleming
  • Michelle Bourgeois
  • Lisa Faria
  • Regent Gendron
  • And the MC will be Mike Cyr

Hearing people are welcome to attend the ASL Comedy Show on Saturday, of course, but there will be no interpretation of ASL into English, as the aim of this event is to revel in the beautiful language of ASL.

Information about the show is available in ASL at


Tickets are $15

For your tickets, contact Andrea Kraus at aslforall@live.ca today before they are sold out!

ASL at Yuk Yuk’s

Saturday November 26th

1:00pm – 4:00pm

Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club
224 Richmond Street, Toronto ON


Filed under cross cultural understanding, language, languages and communication

American Sign Language Immersion Camp

In my quest to learn to speak with every person on the planet, I just spent a week immersed in American Sign Language (ASL) at the Bob Rumball Ontario Camp for the Deaf (OCD) 2011″ in Parry Sound.

Since my return, many people have asked me the following questions:

“Did you have fun?”

                                          Yeah, it was fantastic!

“What was it like not to use your voice for a week?”

                                                 You get used to it pretty fast.

“But how much can a person really say in American Sign Language?”

                                                          The short answer is everything and anything,

but I’m going to give you the long answer.

The difference between spoken languages and signed languages is that one is auditory and the other is visual. One is stereo, the other is 3D.

How much can a person really say in French or Japanese or Inuktitut? Everything and anything.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a language. So is Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ), as well as Langue des Signes Française (LSF), Japanese Sign Language (JSL, 日本手話 or Nihon Shyuwa), Inuit Sign Language (ISL) and many, many other signed languages around the world. These are natural languages, and they are every bit as expressive as spoken languages.

Phillip's class Level 1B,C,D at Ontario Camp for the Deaf 2011

Phillip's class Level 1B,C,D at Ontario Camp for the Deaf 2011

There are numerous forms of signed communication that are not natural languages. Here are some examples:

Native-American Sign Language, now disappearing, was used for millennia as a lingua franca to enable tribes all over North America to communicate without having to learn one another’s languages. But it never served as anyone’s first language and could not be used to express an unlimited range of ideas.

Likewise, International Sign (IS) can be used to facilitate communication between people who are native speakers of different signed languages, but there is a limit to how much it can express and it is not a language used natively by anyone.

Signed Exact English (SEE) converts each word of an English sentence, even suffixes, into signs. People do not learn SEE as a mother tongue*; it is not a language of the deaf, it is English expressed with signs.

ASL is not English. It makes use of many English words, just as English makes use of many French words. I got to know my teacher Phillip and everyone in his class using only ASL. There was no talking even outside of our classes.

Now that I’ve started to get the hang of the basics, I want to learn more of this beautiful language!

After evening class at ASL immersion camp
After evening class at ASL immersion camp

*Yes, ASL can be called a “mother tongue”, and not just metaphorically. Whereas SEE expresses every English word with the hands, ASL uses non-manual elements (facial expression, body position and so on) in conjunction with signs to express, amongst other things, various aspects of grammar. In ASL, tongue placement can carry meaning, but it is visual rather than auditory.


Filed under cross cultural understanding, language, languages and communication

Chomsky vs Chimpsky

What do you do when Professor Noam Chomsky is in town shortly before the premiere of a documentary about his hairy namesake Nim Chimpsky, and neither of them can make time for you to interview them? To be fair, Dr. Chomsky is very busy and more than a decade past retirement age and Nim Chimpsky, not busy at all, is more than a decade past expiry.

Meaning no disrespect to either, I wanted to draw attention to both and found it expedient to deal with both in one piece.

Please leave comments on the article at Post City or on this blog.

Chomsky vs. Chimpsky: comparing a famous professor — coming to Toronto tonight — and a famous chimpanzee

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Filed under communication and media, languages and communication, life not human