Spotlight on Sign Language: Song Signing

One common way in which hearing people are first exposed to sign language is through the popular phenomenon of ‘song signing’ videos. If you do an online search for the name of virtually any popular song followed by “sign language,” you’ll find dozens of videos in which people sign lyrics to the camera while the song plays in the background. To someone with limited exposure to ASL, these videos look fascinating and impressive. However, the reality is complex, as song signing is a much more controversial topic than it may initially seem.

The main issue with song signing relates to appropriation and misrepresentation. A large percentage of the song signing videos on YouTube are posted by people who have either taken an introductory ASL class or who have not received any official instruction. As a result, videos which are labelled as “ASL covers” do not involve anything resembling true ASL. Because the signers do not grasp the grammar rules and unique conventions which make ASL a language entirely separate from spoken English, they often impose English rules on ASL vocabulary, resulting in a final product which would be confusing or meaningless to a fluent signer. As Deaf blogger Faith Georgia expresses in her post on the subject, this practice isn’t just disrespectful, it also perpetuates serious misconceptions. Because the majority of viewers have no way of judging how accurate the videos are, they tend to accept what they see as proper ASL and celebrate the hearing signers as skilled artists. As a result, false impressions of sign language spread easily and amateur performers with no involvement in Deaf culture receive exposure and acclaim which could be directed towards Deaf performers.

To further illustrate the issues with irresponsible practices in song signing, consider the work of Amber Galloway Gallego, a talented interpreter who has spent most of her life immersed in Deaf culture and studied ASL interpretation at the post-secondary level. She specializes in concert interpretation and has expressed her frustration with a lack of accessibility for Deaf individuals; even when an interpreter is hired, venues often select the cheapest option, resulting in an interpretation which communicates the song’s lyrics but does not replicate the experience of listening. Because Galloway Gallego believes that “music is more than words,” she makes an effort to express elements like rhythm and melody through her body.

For a demonstration of the ASL interpretation techniques used by Galloway Gallego and other qualified interpreters, check out a video in which she covers “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. If you turn on the closed captions, you can see Galloway Gallego’s interpretation recorded in a gloss, which is a direct transcription of the signs used. A person with a limited understanding of ASL grammar and the difference between spoken and signed languages might translate a line like “Starting right now, I’ll be strong; I’ll play my fight song” as “START NOW BECOME STRONG, WILL PLAY FIGHT SONG,” so they’d be surprised to see that Galloway Gallego signs this phrase as “NOW FROM-NOW-ON TOUGH ME CAN, ME HANDLE++” while incorporating movement and facial expressions into her signing. However, Galloway Gallego’s version captures the meaning of the line — that the narrator has learned to believe in herself and respond assertively to challenges — while the first version becomes almost meaningless when translated. If you were interpreting a German speech and encountered an idiom such as “es is mir Wurst,” you would not say “it’s sausage to me” and trust your audience to know what you meant. Instead, you would translate the meaning, “I don’t understand any part of it,” or else choose an equivalent English idiom like “it’s all Greek to me.” Given how obvious this approach seems in a scenario where a spoken language is interpreted, it’s shocking to see how many online “Fight Song” covers exist where the signer simply translates each word of the English lyrics and labels the final product as ASL. The proliferation of online ASL covers by people with no apparent interest in learning the language suggests that many people view ASL exclusively as a party trick or an “exotic” mode of expression rather than a fully functional, independent language that millions of people rely upon for day-to-day communication. Furthermore, as described in this excellent essay by former song signer Stephen Torrence, hearing people from outside the Deaf community who profit from these inaccurate videos can be perceived as exploiting Deaf culture and using their privilege to dominate the work of marginalized artists.

However, although the world of song signing is one in which hearing people must tread carefully, there are plenty of ways to appreciate the breathtaking art that can be produced using ASL, particularly when the creators are members of the Deaf community. As discussed above, concert signing is an incredibly exciting medium, and there are plenty of fluent signers who release song signing videos online. Taking the fusion of sign language and music to an even greater extreme, Los Angeles-based theatre company Deaf West recently mounted a Broadway production of the musical Spring Awakening using both Deaf and hearing actors. If you want to participate yourself, there are many websites and apps produced by Deaf individuals which can help you learn, and looking for local classes will give you an even more immersive ASL learning experience.