Sim-Com | Signing in Media

You can imagine than when I see signing on TV, it draws in me like a magnet.

That’s actually the main reason I started watching Switched at Birth, and probably why I still watch it. And then, there’s shows that have CODAs like NCIS and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

It was CSI that first let me know that hearing signers sometimes speak while they sign. (This is called sim-com; simultaneous communication.) Actually, if I remember correctly, it was a woman in the documentary Sound and Fury, which features a hearing woman who uses sim-com in a conversation with her Deaf son, his hearing father, and other family members.

CSI‘s Gil Grissom and Switched at Birth‘s many hearing signers are more prominent in my memory, though. Even the novel I’m reading, The Elf Queen of Shanarra, has a hearing signer who uses sim-com with her deaf companion.  Sim-com seems fairly common in the media. Personally, I don’t like it. As I read on a the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf’s site:

Any form of Simcom distorts both English and American Sign Language (ASL) as languages. Imagine trying to speak French and Italian simultaneously. Every language has its own grammatical structure, words evolve through use, and social rules develop for the use of this language.


Although individuals intuitively think that Simcom can be helpful for Deaf children and their families because it encompasses both sign and spoken language, research does not support this.
“What is simcom? Should we use it with our Deaf child?”

In a study about mothers who use sim-com with their children, “It was found that the mothers deleted an average of 40.5 percent of the signs from their utterances when they spoke while they signed.” [ibid] That’s one major problem with sim-com. And it’s only natural that this happen.

I would imagine people who have no experience with ASL would be less able to see when Bay or John Kennish (from SAB) use disjointed ASL signs to match their speech. It’s sort of frustrating to me to watch it, actually. I fear it gives people the wrong idea about sign language. With sim-com, at least one of the languages suffers.*

And, of course, when I see the Switched at Birth hearing signers, I keep thinking that the characters’ sim-com can only slow their learning progress by having them rely on the spoken words. Of course, it also serves the oh, so important function of allowing the viewership to hear and understand the communication without the need for subtitles, which can be a pain to add.

But as a hearing signer with respect for language itself, I dislike sim-com. It’s useful in some situations, of course. I’ve used it with some success when in conversation with both hearing a Deaf people. But I always cringe inside when I have to butcher one of the languages; and for some reason, it’s usually JSL. It takes so much effort and thought, and I usually end up just separating the languages at the end anyway, expressing what I want to twice so all parties understand. Yes, that is actually a lot easier.

As my JSL teacher once said with a sigh, “Me and talking-and-signing.”

*The Elf Queen of Shannara‘s Wren Ohmsford uses sim-com, but it is a fantasy novel, so we probably will never know if her friend Garth’s signing is a natural Deaf sign language or artificial one made to correspond to spoken language, so the exact workings of Wren’s sim-com are sort of a mystery. We aren’t even told (at least where I am in the book and series) how Garth learnt this sign language, or anything about any other deaf people in the world of the Four Lands. I would guess that the author probably had the same assumptions about signing and sim-com that people tend to have, though.

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2 Responses to Sim-Com | Signing in Media

  1. read.robin says:

    I LOVE your analyses of language use. They’re always so eye-opening and you’re always so thorough with your commentary. I feel so smart after I read them. x)


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