This week I spent at a friend house cat sitting. I have has a good time and no cat was harmed. The perqs of house sitting did not only include a nice cooktop and a hot shower, but also access to 1.3 x 10^6 TV channels on 3 meters of television.

I have to say that ,with some very edifying exceptions from my time in Istanbul, I have not watched television in about a decade. The Turkish exceptions being wonderful language learning opportunities. TV usually sucks really bad, except when rarely, it doesn’t.

In my stay here as cat sitter I have enjoyed access to HBO and other movie channels. Also, the Sundance channel which ran a Law and Order “marathon.” For some reason, I don’t know why, I really enjoy that show.  TV means commercials. I don’t enjoy the commercials. However, I did see one commercial that blew my mind.

An Amazing TV show for linguists and people who love language

It was an advert for a show on the Sundance channel. It’s called “This Close.” The commercial made the topic clear: It’s a show whose protagonists speak ASL –American Sign Language.

This is a fascinating thing.

Remember that ASL is not English. It is a foreign language (to me and probably you). As I explained in another article on this website, subtitled sign languages present viewers with a unique language learning opportunity. Usually we are asked to keep track of “body language,” the set (action), spoken language and writing when we watch subtitled moving pictures. But in this case, we are given access to the muscle movements of language not by means of sound, but by photons: visible movement.

No matter how good or bad the show writing may or may not be, it is amazing I said. Truly amazing. So I bought a subscription to Sundance.

The show is a linguist’s dream!

The producers made the choice to fill the show with all sorts of music, which I guess is a wise marketing choice -most people who watch TV in America hear well. They also choose to have fairly quiet moments too. Great choice in a world where perfection does not exist and every man is an island.

The show offers so many kinds of linguistic interactions:

  • Hearing person -ASL speaking person interaction
  • ASL-ASL speech
  • Hearing person who speaks ASL non-natively – Native ASL speaker
  • Spoken language interpreters interpreting for ASL speakers.
  • Native ASL speakers who are deaf speaking English.

The show also gives air (anti-metaphor not intended) to issues from translation theory.

In the pilot episode, a fan of one of the main character’s catches himself saying things that he does not want the main charcter to know. So he askes the translator to not translate. Then continues to share his thoughts about the main character (he is sexy, the man says) and continues the translator to not translate what he (the guy who speaks English) says. Which is, in academic terms, shitty. It would be like if a friend and I who both speak Turkish started talking about you, your breasts or ass or other secondary sex organs in Turkish right in front of you. How do we handle such a situation, i.e. when we as translators are asked to be the “mental filter” for one of the parties who is speaking? Imagine how that would work between heads of state.

I have much more to say about this amazing show. But I will save it for another posting.

Hands and arms move as fast as vocal cords. No screen shot can capture a full sentence.

What this all means

The social impacts of such a show on American culture are incalculable. People know nothing about deaf communities (there are more than one in the US). There are people who grow up speaking only ASL, there are people who are deaf who grow up with no language and then have to learn language closer to adulthood.

People, the very existence of sign languages challenges many traditional notions about the brain and language.

More about the show and the science

Post Scriptum

Dear New Yorker, yeah, the show slips into cliches. Who cares. Deaf people are as dumb and uniteresting as the rest of us. Except when sometimes, they are not.