Yesterday, I learnt of a YouTube channel called Dirty Signs with Kristin. Basically, what Kristin does is post short videos every once in a while, teaching people how to sign very, um… naughty things in ASL.
There are a few issues here. First of all, her ASL is wrong in some (many?) cases; grammar-wise, and in terms of getting signs plain wrong, too. But, I think the more critical issue is how offensive it is to the Deaf community. There have been videos posted by Deaf who are expressing their abhorrence of the project, and correcting her ASL (e.g. here and here), as well as numerous comments on the videos themselves expressing these thoughts.
The second video, as I understand it, says that Kristin’s channel lowers ASL to simply humour, not respecting it as a legitimate language of communication, which is still something that the Deaf community is fighting to achieve.
I respect Kristin’s right to freedom of expression, but I have to admit: if someone from Japan, Russia, Ethiopia, or any such country come to Jamaica and the only words they can say to me are “Show me your genitals” (or, to bring it to a more Jamaican context, “Ar p*si tait, mi tingk a mada Mary”) or some other smutty expression, obviously laughing in their heads, if not overtly… I’d be annoyed, if not offended. I would feel that my language is not respected by him or her. My culture, as well.
It’s something that people do all the time, though. What I call “church sign” is, I believe, an example. A language is taken as entertainment, learnt with a specific entertainment (or ministry, as church people would call it) purpose, with little organised structure in relation to actually learning to use it to communicate (as, it would seem, might be the case with Kristin). And people do that to me, too, ask me how to say or sign something dirty in JSL or Japanese. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the same in some way, at some point in my life.
Language and culture are inextricably connected. While I don’t think I have the right to say that what Kristin (or ‘church signers’, or any one else) is doing is wrong, I think it’s wise to ensure we do show (and feel) respect to the people and cultures that are associated with the languages we choose to learn.