d/Deaf Culture and Translingualism in the Writing Center

Margaret Winton
Wagner College


d/Deaf students face a unique set of problems in the education system. Most of these struggles stem from their use of Signed language systems, such as American Sign Language. However, the current education system is also Problematic, as it promotes an Audist-centric learning environment. Additionally, many educators do not understand That signed language systems are completely different from spoken or written English and thus do not treat their d/Deaf pupils as multilingual learners. College writing centers, while heavily influenced by the current education System, have an ability to be incredibly flexible with their methods when working with students. This flexibility that Writing centers allow can be used in tandem with the translingual theory of writing when working with d/Deaf Students to revolutionize the way d/Deaf writers and students are taught in the education system.

Keywords: d/Deaf students, signed language systems, Writing Centers, Translingualism


The influence of Standard Written English and how it proliferates into writing center practices is extremely nuanced. It Has created a monolinguistic mindset within writing center education, resulting in the conception of literacy as an acquisition of competence rather than a complex hierarchy of outside influences (Canagarajah, 2006). This misleading assumption is especially problematic when working with multilingual writers. Multilingual writers are constantly moving between two or more languages when writing, and each language has its own set of differences that must be taken into account when reading writing by a multilingual student (Fitzgerald & Ianetta, 2016). Multilingual writers are typically thought to be students who are labeled as English as a Second Language (ESL), English Language Learners (ELL), or students who know two or more languages fluently. When tutors work with multilingual writers, the writing center practices they utilize are meant to create an understanding of the cultural difference between them and the student (Fizgerald & Ianetta, 2016). In doing so, the tutor acknowledges the student’s multilingualism and how it affects their writing.

While the concept of multilingualism encompasses a wide variety of students for whom English is not their primary language, it often leaves out an incredibly important group of multilingual writers: d/Deaf students. d/Deaf writers create a certain type of multilingualism, as their entire language system revolves around not having the ability to hear. This creates a unique set of problems for d/Deaf writers, as unlike ESL or ELL students, they cannot hear the audiological nuances of the languages they are trying to write in. Similarly, the d/Deaf are not usually thought of to be multilingual due to the misconception that their signing system is exactly the same as spoken English. With these two current aspects of how Audist, or hearing, Culture perceives d/Deaf Culture in mind, it is logical to see how translingualism, a theory that proposes writers and tutors view language as a fluid entity that influence one’s language systems, can be easily applied in the writing center to work with d/Deaf writers.

Background on d/Deaf Culture

In order to understand the struggle of d/Deaf writers in the writing center, there are a few key concepts one must first be familiar with. The first of these concepts is the difference between Deaf and deaf. If someone is referred to as Deaf, this indicates that they are somehow involved with the “customs and social behaviors that form the culture of  individuals who share the audiological difference of deafness” (Nash, 2014, p. 12). Identifying as Deaf, simply put, is “embracing, participating in, and being accepted as part of Deaf culture regardless of hearing ability” (Schmidt, Bunse, Dalton, Perry, & Raue, 2009, p. 6). Hearing children with deaf parents, hearing students and teachers at deaf schools, and sign language interpreters — while they themselves are not physically deaf — often identify as Deaf due to their exposure to Deaf customs, their active association with other members of the Deaf community, and their familiarity with sign language (Schmidt et al., 2009).

This label is exceedingly different from the label of deaf. If someone is referred to as deaf, then this indicates the physical, audiological difference of deafness (Nash, 2014). It is fairly common for individuals who once possessed their full hearing but lost their ability to hear later on in life to identify as deaf but not Deaf, as they are audiologically deaf but are not familiar with any sort of signed language system nor do they have any Deaf social networks (Schmidt et al., 2009). In this paper, Deaf will be used more than deaf in an attempt to highlight the fact that being audiologically deaf is not the only way for individuals to be immersed in the larger Deaf culture; a hearing child with deaf parents will still be brought up with sign language as their first language, making their struggles similar to those of a deaf child. Understanding the different terminologies associated with d/Deaf students is necessary for understanding how d/Deaf students perceive themselves in a predominantly auditory-focused world and is no different than distinguishing between different cultural subsets when dealing with multilingual students.

The second of these concepts one must understand is that d/Deaf Culture is incredibly diverse. There are many divisions and subcultures that exist within the d/Deaf community that are determined by a variety of factors. For instance, one division within d/Deaf Culture is whether or not one uses a signed language. There is not one standard form of signed language that all d/Deaf people use. Most students use American Sign Language (ASL) as their form of native language. ASL is a pictorial representation of words and concepts with its own highly structured system, vocabulary, and syntax that utilizes the space around the signer as well as the signer’s facial expressions to assist in communication (Schmidt et al., 2009; Weaver, 1996). While ASL might be the most common and most popular of the signed languages — being the native language for roughly 550,000 to 1 million individuals — it is not the only form of signed language (Schmidt et al., 2009; Nash, 2008). Some use Signed English, which is a form of signed language where one of several systems of hand shapes and signs are used in a way that approximates exact spoken English grammar and structure (Nash, 2008). Some deaf individuals don’t sign at all, having been forced to go through an oral-centered education system where using a form of signed language was forbidden (Nash, 2008). Depending on how a deaf child was brought up and what signing system they used, if they used any at all, significantly alters their writing style. The diversity of d/Deaf Culture is an important aspect to keep in mind, especially when attempting to apply a translingual approach to reviewing d/Deaf students’ writing.

The third, and perhaps the most important concept for the sake of the argument regarding translingualism and d/Deaf Culture in the writing center, is that d/Deaf Culture has a completely different center of reference than Audist Culture does. In a traditional Audist community, an oral form of discussion and conversing is at the center, making the mouth the originating point of language creation and the ear the receptive point of language (Weaver, 1996). According to Lennard J. Davis (1995) in “Deafness and Insight: The Deafened Moment as a Critical Modality,” “[t]he way we discuss reading and writing has in fact implied that ostracism of those who are differently-abled linguistically” (as cited in Weaver, 1996, p. 248). As children go through the education system, they are taught that all reading and writing is perceived as processes that are dependent on hearing and vocalizing; when they learn how to read, there is a major emphasis on phonics; as they begin to develop writing skills, students constantly learn to use phrases such as “states,” “says,” and “articulates” when expressing the subject’s presence as they write (Weaver, 1996). Similarly, the way in which Audist Culture refers to deaf people differs from the way d/Deaf people refer to themselves. In traditional Audist Culture, labeling someone as “a little hard of hearing” refers to someone who can hear fairly well, while labeling someone as “very hard of hearing” refers to someone who cannot hear very well (Weaver, 1996). In d/Deaf Culture, someone who is “a little hard of hearing” means that person has only slight hearing, while someone who is “very hard of hearing” is someone who can hear quite well (Weaver, 1996). As stated by Davis (1995), these essential differences in perception of d/Deafness in a dominantly Audist society cause “[t]he Deaf [to] feel that their culture, language, and community constitute a totally adequate, self-enclosed, and self-defining sub-nationality within the larger structure of the audist state” (as cited in Weaver, 1996, p. 248). This belief strengthens the argument that d/Deaf people are, in fact, an independent culture group and should be treated as such.

d/Deaf Students in the Education System

d/Deaf students introduce the writing center to an entirely new level of English and writing education. While some of the issues d/Deaf students run into in the American education system are similar to those an ESL student would face, their experiences are completely different as, “like other language minorities, most people in the d/Deaf-World were born into it. However, unlike other minorities, children born into this one gain access to the language and culture at various ages” (Nash, 2008, p. 2). Much of this lack of access is due to the fact that 90-95% of the parents of d/Deaf children are hearing, setting up an automatic communication barrier from birth (Nash, 2008). d/Deaf children do not have the same opportunities to develop language skills at early ages, leading to a severe delay in language acquisition that only worsens once these children begin school (Nash, 2008).

Most d/Deaf students that go through the education system experience various obstacles, one of which being the assumption that “because [the] students have completed high school and enrolled in college they are able to function in the same way as other beginning ESL students” (Nash, 2008, p. 2). This assumption, however, completely disregards the fact that ESL students still have the benefit of being able to hear the language they are attempting to learn. A d/Deaf student using a signed language will not have the same English language competency as their ESL hearing counterparts, namely because of the meaning placed with the nuances of verbal usage (Nash, 2008). There are subtle differences between ESL and d/Deaf students that highlight the difference having the ability to hear makes in one’s attempts to learn English.

As previously mentioned, the fundamental difference between d/Deaf writers and other writers of English is that the language disparity is much greater for deaf individuals than non-native hearing individuals, as the former possesses little access to written and spoken English (Schmidt et al., 2009). It is impossible for deaf individuals to ever gain complete audible English immersion, leading to greater difficulties in overcoming English writing barriers and problems meeting American academic standards (Schmidt et al., 2009). Similarly, it is quite common for the academic world to assume that because the d/Deaf students sign in “English,” they are already much more proficient than their hearing ESL counterparts, even if they are not quite fluent in spoken-written English. While working with a deaf student, Margaret E. Weaver, a professor at Missouri State University, found that teachers believed the student to be “lazy” and “needed to be pushed” in order to reach her full writing potential (Weaver, 1996). Weaver (1996) discovered through her work with the student that:

Whereas non-native speakers of English are beginners, Anissa [the student] was not considered a beginner. If she made a grammatical error, it had to reflect carelessness because, unlike ESL students, she should have already learned the concept through years of learning ‘English.’ However, Anissa uses American Sign Language. These faculty members erroneously identified English as Anissa’s language. English is the language she speaks within the larger audist society; she uses ASL, which she acquired as her first language, to communicate with other deaf individuals. (p. 242-243)

Writing centers are not excused from excluding and misunderstanding d/Deaf students. Current writing center  practices could be viewed as ableist and audist, as tutors are often encouraged to read papers aloud in order to “hear” the problems within a text (Fitzgerald & Ianetta, 2016). While perhaps not intentionally, reading papers out loud could be viewed by the d/Deaf community as exclusionary, as they are unable to participate in the practice. These different centers of reference additionally extend into how Audist and d/Deaf Cultures label people inside and outside their cultural groups.

It is quite clear that d/Deaf students and ESL students share similar struggles when it comes to writing in the English language. However, while d/Deaf students are indeed very similar to ESL students, they must be treated as their own entity, as the context of their struggle with language is very different from that of hearing ESL students.


The theory of translingualism is a relatively new theory of writing pedagogy. It was first used in bilingual classrooms in Wales in the early 1990s in an attempt to promote the use of Welsh, the minority language, in classrooms while simultaneously attempting to understand how communication practices among bilingual learners and teachers facilitate learning (Swanwick, 2017). The term has increasingly been accepted as an additive view of bilingualism (Swanwick, 2017), promoting the idea that acquiring additional languages is beneficial and that a “difference in language [is not] a barrier to overcome [or a] problem to manage, but [is] a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening” (Horner, Lu, Royster, & Trimbur, 2011, p. 303).

Translingualism “represents a shift away from defining language use in terms of separate languages to recognizing that individuals draw on range of language resources to make meaning, without adherence to (named) language boundaries  and according to the social circumstances” (Swanwick, 2017, p. 235). Similar to translingualism are the concepts of polylingualism and metrolingualism. Polylingualsim is an extension of bilingualism that describes the collection of linguistic features that aren’t complete in themselves, while metrolingualism is the creative use of linguistic features focusing on meaning-making among the ethnic and cultural groups that share an urban environment (Swanwick, 2017). All of these concepts focus on language as a social activity and an act of everyday communication, promoting the idea that language and language practices are constantly fluctuating and interacting with each other (Swanwick, 2017; Horner et al., 2011). However, translingualism specifically “addresses the gap between actual language practices and myths about language spread through [writing centers’] political work in order to combat the political realities those myths perpetrate,” thus making it the ideal theory of writing pedagogy to apply to cases of d/Deaf Culture in the writing center (Horner et al., 2011, p. 305).

The overall goal of translingualism is to “negotiate intelligibility” through a writer’s differences to traditional writing conventions (Krall-Lanoue, 2013). Instead of questioning a writer about what they meant to write and how to change their writing in order to conform to Standard English, translingualism seeks to ask why the writer wrote the phrase the way they did (Krall-Lanoue, 2013). Tutors who utilize this method are meant to have a conversation with the writer about writing as opposed to merely returning the paper with edits. Holding a conversation allows students and tutors, as well as anyone reading a piece of writing, to understand exactly what the writer means to argue. The conversation method is a crucial part of “negotiating intelligibility,” especially when it pertains to errors within the writing. Translingualism seeks to redefine how writers define the term “error.” Instead of faulting the writer for an error made in their writing, tutors or teachers using translingualism recognize that language is subject to variation and change regardless of whether the writer is an English Language Learner or a fluent English speaker (Horner et al., 2011). Occasionally, errors that are considered to be “wrong” by Standard English conventions become incredibly valuable to the writing, and the complete meaning of the piece cannot be understood in its entirety without the “error.” In attempting to create a conversation around writing, translingualism allows all types of writers to explain their writing in a judgement-free and understanding environment.

One example of a common “error” that is often disregarded and how applying translingualism helps uncover essential complex ideas within writing is seen in incorrect tenses. Take, for instance, a writer who writes the sentences “I gain the experience I need to be able to write a paper” and “I gain a lot of this in English 095 this year and in English 096” (Krall-Lanoue, 2013). Based on traditional writing conventions, the “error” in these sentences would be the wrong form of gain; it has become automatic for teachers, tutors, and peer editors to immediately cross out gain and replace with with gained in order to make it fit with the tense of the rest of the sentence (Krall-Lanoue, 2013). Translingualism, however, requires the tutor of the writing to step back, refrain from immediately changing the tense, and instead ask the writer what they meant. Sometimes, what appears to be incorrect tense use is indeed a mistake, and the student fixes it. However, other times the tense use is not a mistake, and the sentence now opens up a “more complex way [the writer] feels about [their] learning” (Krall-Lanoue, 2013, p. 229). In the example given above, using the wrong tense of gain means that “[p]erhaps, for [the writer], the experience [they] have gained is not something entirely in the past but is something that is still happening at the time of the writing” (Krall-Lanoue, 2013, p. 229). Additionally, this reexamination of “error” is incredibly important when working with students for whom English is not their primary or first language. The writing of these students is described by Young-Kyung Min (2016) as “complex,” as it involves both a process of language acquisition and a process of composition. Often, the errors made by writers for whom English is not their first language are clear evidence of normal second language learning and processing as opposed to some failure on the part of the students (Min, 2016). Therefore, the conversation created around writing, as exhibited by the translingual approach, allows students to further develop their second language skills by giving the student an understanding and non-judgemental environment in which to explore their process of language acquisition and the development of their second language. Applying translingualism to writing promotes the idea that writers’ differences should be a shared resource rather than a problem to be eliminated and demands that students take an active role in attempting to understand writing as a fluid, multi-level entity (Krall-Lanoue, 2013).

d/Deaf Culture, Translingualism, and the Writing Center

Perhaps the largest struggle writing centers face is that there is very little written about “students whose first language isn’t an oral one” (Nash, 2008, p. 1). This struggle also extends to the broader area of writing research. When Madeline Maxwell published her study of the functions and uses of literacy in the deaf community in 1985, there had been “[t]o date, no studies […] directly investigat[ing] the cultural values or functions of written language in this population” (p. 209). Nearly forty years later, there have only been a handful of studies done regarding d/Deaf students and their writing. Most of these studies were done prior to 2005, resulting in a severe lack of research on how d/Deaf students fit into the landscape of the modern American education system. The absence of such studies is problematic, especially since “most assessments of deaf children’s language are based on written samples and written tests” (Maxwell, 1985, p. 209). Additionally, the “lack of [intersection] between writing center and deaf scholarship” is indicative of the fact that “[w]riting centers [are continuing] to struggle to meet needs of deaf students in theoretically sound ways because of presuppositions that exist in general academia” (Schmidt et al., 2009, p. 1).

If there is truly so little scholarship investigating d/Deaf Culture in the writing center, one may ask, then how are writing tutors expected to learn how to work with d/Deaf students? The problem with this question is twofold. First, the question implies that in order for tutors to learn how to work with certain groups of writers, they need to learn from sources that specifically outline how to do so. These sources create a division between types of writers, creating an atmosphere of “othering” when students who differ from “the norm,” such as d/Deaf writers, are involved. Second, along similar lines, the question implies that tutors are unable to apply any of the basic writing tutor theories they know, like translingualism, to these special groups of students simply because the groups are “different” from “normal” writers.

In this sense, tutors and the writing center practices they implement when working with d/Deaf writers walk a very fine line between completely othering d/Deaf writers and forcing them to assimilate completely into the non-d/Deaf world. On one hand, d/Deaf writers are not that different from other ESL and ELL writers, and tutors should therefore use similar writing center theories and practices when working with them. On the other hand, however, d/Deaf students are unique in their language learning processes and need to be treated as separate from other ESL and ELL writers in order to get the proper help they need. This precarious and complex situation is likewise enhanced by the lack of scholarship investigating the relationship between d/Deaf students and writing center practices, as very few d/Deaf-oriented practices have been established. Therefore, translingualism is perhaps the best current writing center theory to apply when working with d/Deaf students, as it combines an understanding of multilingualism with writing center practices that revolve around creating and sustaining the meaning that arises from the writer’s experiences and position in the world. Translingualism provides d/Deaf writers with an opportunity to develop their English language skills while simultaneously allowing them to retain their unique voice as a d/Deaf writer. Obviously translingualism’s position as the most applicable theory for working with d/Deaf writers might change once more research is conducted on the relationship between d/Deaf students and the writing center, but for the time being it creates a very easy-to-follow hierarchy that outlines how to most effectively work with d/Deaf students without creating an atmosphere of “othering” and erasure of the students’ d/Deafness.

The first step in this hierarchy is simply recognizing that d/Deaf writers have different needs than hearing writers, and these different needs involve processes unique to d/Deaf writers. For example, d/Deaf students often use an interpreter to help facilitate communication in the education system (Schmidt et al., 2009). While not every d/Deaf student uses one, tutors understanding the role of an interpreter is necessary for them to effectively work with d/Deaf writers. Many tutors are reluctant to work with d/Deaf students that use interpreters at first due to fears of breached tutor-client confidentiality (Nash, 2014). However, the foundation of interpreter training is certification and adherence to an ethical code that does not violate confidentiality; once tutors are made aware of this, they become more comfortable working with d/Deaf students (Nash, 2014).

Tutors must also be aware that there is a certain etiquette that must be used when working with d/Deaf students and their interpreters. Tutors must keep the focus entirely on the student they’re working with, keeping eye contact and speaking directly to the student as opposed to directing the conversation at the interpreter (Nash, 2008; Schmidt et al., 2009). Addressing the interpreter makes the student feel “othered” and detached from the conversation, which is incredibly problematic as the conversation is all about the student and their writing. Similarly, tutors working with d/Deaf students who use interpreters must talk at a pace that the interpreter can keep up with and cannot talk at the same time a visual aid is being used (Schmidt et al., 2009). For d/Deaf students, the traditionally verbal instruction is now visual instruction, making it impossible for the student to focus on what the interpreter is saying and the visual aid being used simultaneously. By recognizing that d/Deaf students have a different set of needs than their hearing counterparts, tutors are recognizing that they must be flexible with their communication skills (Schmidt et al., 2009). Comprehending that d/Deaf students have different needs than hearing students is the first step in working with d/Deaf writers and is essential for understanding the common error patterns in d/Deaf writing.

The second step in the hierarchy is examining d/d/Deaf students’ writing and recognizing common, unique error patterns within it. According to Alec Webster in Deafness, Development, and Literacy (1986), the “[m]ost important feature [in the writing of the deaf] is the difficulty in linking sentences together,” a struggle ESL students share as well (as cited in Weaver, 1996, p. 246). However, many of the common errors seen in d/Deaf writing are explicitly unique to d/Deaf writing due to the differences between ASL and Standard Written English. The six error patterns commonly seen in d/Deaf writing are: (1) Unconventional Subject-Verb Order; (2) the Absence of “To Be” Verbs; (3) the Absence of Possessive Markers; (4) the Absence of Plural Markers; 5) the Misuse of Verb Tense; and (6) the Absence of Determiners and/or Articles (Schmidt et al., 2009).

Once tutors are able to pinpoint the common error patterns in d/Deaf writing, they can begin the third step of the hierarchy: applying translingualism to the writing. Each of the six common errors, when examined through a translingual lens, is revealed to be caused by the language barrier between English and ASL or other signing systems, as opposed to just laziness on behalf of the writer. For example, unconventional subject-verb order is perhaps one of the most frequently seen errors in d/Deaf writing. This is due to the fact that the sentence structure patterns between English and ASL are vastly different; in ASL, the verbs precede the subject or might not even be explicitly stated (Schmidt et al., 2009). It is common to see a phrase like “I go to the store” written by a d/Deaf student as “store I go” (Schmidt et al., 2009). If a tutor merely tells the writer to change the syntax, there is a possibility that the underlying problem will be ignored. By merely telling the student to fix the syntax and word order, the tutor is not necessarily acknowledging how the student’s experience as a d/Deaf writer is affecting their writing, and thus is not recognizing that the student is learning how to write in a second language. By using translingualism as a framework for working with a d/Deaf writer, the tutor, instead of just telling the student to fix the word order, would instead discuss the error with the student in an attempt to understand how their lack of hearing influences their writing. Doing so allows the tutor to see a correlation between the d/Deaf writer’s multilingualism and how that multilingualism is affected by their hearing impairment, thus leading to a more complex understanding of the student’s writing (Krall-Lanoue, 2013).

Two other errors that occur frequently in d/Deaf writing are the misuse of verb tenses and the absence of plural markers. In ASL, tense is not a concept that is utilized, and thus improper tenses often show up in d/Deaf writing (Schmidt et al., 2009). For example, if a person using ASL wanted to convey “I crossed the street,” they would sign “finished,” followed by “street,” then conclude with “person walking across” (Schmidt et al., 2009). Additionally, d/Deaf writers are more likely to leave verbs in the infinitive form as opposed to conjugating them to fit the proper tense (Schmidt et al., 2009). As illustrated earlier, using translingualism in instances of wrong tense use often leads to a discussion between the writer and reader. This discussion allows both parties to better understand the meaning of the text, thus ensuring that the proper meaning is being conveyed. d/Deaf students also typically leave out plural markers (Schmidt et al., 2009). When referring to plural items, the sign for the subject does not change; instead, the number of items is indicated before signing the noun (Schmidt et al., 2009). For example, if a d/Deaf student is writing about fruit and wanted to refer to multiple apples, it is common to see apple instead of apples in their writing (Schmidt et al., 2009). Translingualism in this instance forces the tutor to recognize that a consistent lack of plural markers is influenced by the lack of plural markers in ASL and other forms of signed language. As opposed to assuming what the writer meant and marking the writing with the proper plural marker before moving on, the tutor would instead consult the writer in an attempt to understand why the marker is missing in the first place. Using translingualism with d/Deaf writers creates an environment for communication and conversation between the writers and tutors, allowing both parties to work through the piece of writing together as equal participants in the tutoring session.


As Weaver (1996) discovered through her research with d/Deaf students in higher education, faculty members often believe that the mistakes d/Deaf students make are because they “[have] the ability to write but just [do] not put enough thought into [their] writing” (p. 242). This belief is detrimental to the self-esteem of d/Deaf students, as it makes them seem indolent when in reality they cannot control the fact that their deafness makes their writing different. In order for d/Deaf students to not only succeed in the writing center, but in the whole education system in general, it needs to be recognized that d/Deaf students have a set of problems unique only to them because of their lack of hearing. Applying a translingual approach is the best way to recognize how a d/Deaf student’s disability influences their Standard English writing while also recognizing the detrimental limitations of Standard English when dealing with multilingual writers. Because of its flexible structure and willingness to adapt to include students of all abilities, the writing center is perhaps the best place to begin attempting to change how the education system views d/Deaf students and writers. The personalized tutor structure and flexible nature of the writing center make it the ideal space to reexamine how the current education system fails d/Deaf students and what can be done to help them succeed. Writing centers cannot say they truly help all writers regardless of ability unless the time is taken to recognize d/Deaf students, their culture, and how the current education and Standard English systems are failing them.


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