Calibrating deaf cosmopolitanism [without videos]

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Note 1: this blog is based on a longer article: “Deaf cosmopolitanism: Calibrating as a moral process – International Journal of Multilingualism” open access here: LINK
Note 2: In another version of this same text linked here, a vlog in IS is included and the quotes referred below are included in the form of videos. All videos are subtitled in English (click CC).

In this blog, we draw on our data from the ethnography we conducted as a part of the MobileDeaf project. Annelies draws on data from her MobileDeaf subproject on professional mobility, which included field work in eight settings, two of which feature in the examples below: (1.) A sign language conference in Florianopolis, Brazil, called SIGN8 (2017) (2.) The DOOR International campus in Nairobi, Kenya, a Bible translation centre where teams from different countries live and work (2019). Erin conducted 7 months of fieldwork on tourism in Bali, Indonesia (in 2018), where she engaged with deaf tourists of diverse nationalities travelling by themselves, in pairs, or in groups. Many of them toured parts of the island with one of the two deaf tour guides working in Bali.

These encounters all involved ideas and practices that transcend (or are claimed to transcend) national and linguistic boundaries. Based on our analysis of the data, we connect language practices with cosmopolitanism, coining the term deaf cosmopolitanism.

What is cosmopolitanism?

Cosmopolitanism is an orientation that recognizes cultural, racial, religious and/or gendered differences and also sees people as capable of connecting across their differences, moving beyond the binaries of sameness versus difference. The origins of “cosmopolitanism” are in the Greek word kosmopolitês, a “citizen of the world” or “world citizen(ship)”. Cosmopolitanism is often defined as:

  • attitude/orientation: openness to difference and willingness to connect
  • practices/skills (such as adapting language use)
  • abilities (such as empathy)

People who do not travel outside the country where they were born can also engage in cosmopolitan relationships, such as shop owners and tour guides.

What is deaf cosmopolitanism?

Deaf people who participate in transnational encounters often view themselves as citizens of the world, taking pride in their ability to cross national and sign language boundaries, attributing this to a feeling of deaf “sameness” or DEAF-SAME. It is a common refrain among deaf people that their deafness is the basis of an intuitive connection with other deaf people. This connection, in combination with visual communication skills, allows them to communicate across linguistic boundaries.

We coined “deaf cosmopolitanism” to describe this idea that deaf people can and do connect across national and linguistic borders. We do not intend to promote deaf cosmopolitanism. Similarly, we are not arguing that deaf cosmopolitanism is inherent in, or the drive of, all deaf people who cross national borders to seek each other out. We also emphasise that international deaf encounters are often experienced as fraught, uneven and ambivalent; in relation to differences in power, (im)mobility and access to resources, often related to race, class, education, and geographical location. To this background, we are focusing on “deaf cosmopolitanism” as an ideal and an experience that people often express when talking about international deaf encounters, not as a fact or truth.

What is the role of language in deaf cosmopolitanism?

Language is central to deaf cosmopolitanism. In the process of “calibrating” (adapting) to deaf people from different language backgrounds, deaf people make an effort to adapt their signing to be understood, such as by signing slowly, using pantomime, paraphrasing concepts, using signs, words and fingerspelled alphabets associated with different (sign) languages and/or with International Sign. They also engage in informal interpreting for each other.  Many deaf signers value direct communication in International Sign (IS) because it emerges from, affirms, and produces a sense of sameness of deaf people. IS is often experienced as good (in the sense of enjoyable, even if it may also be hard), and as right: communicating directly with people from different language backgrounds entails a moral obligation (Green 2014).

Mobile deaf people often engage in rapid, immersive and informal language learning, acquiring (bits of) new sign languages, new mouthings and fingerspelling alphabets. They then use these bits they have learnt, in communication with others.

What is linguistic cosmopolitanism?

Linguistic cosmopolitanism has been described in different ways. Here we describe three options (cf. Janssens & Steyaert, 2014):

1.   Using one common language (a lingua franca): Esperanto for example was developed for cosmopolitan purposes but English is more often regarded and used as a cosmopolitan language. There is a potential for discrimination and oppression when the use of a single language is favoured.

2.   Using several languages in parallel (plural monolingualism): People learn and use each other’s languages and/or work with interpreters. People appreciate, celebrate or embrace linguistic diversity and multilingualism, and there is an awareness about or concern about the dangers of linguistic imperialism. However, some people argue that “plural monolingualism” is not cosmopolitan: some definitions of cosmopolitanism include direct communication even if communication is more difficult in that case.

3.   Translanguaging (multilingua franca): A particular mix of bits (eg. signs or words) of different languages and other resources (eg. gestures, images) can originate in a particular context and can be somewhat standardized. Such a standardised version is also called a “multilingua franca”

Below, we discuss examples of each of these positions.

Translanguaging and attitudes

In international deaf spaces, deaf people frequently discuss the idea of having a good versus bad “attitude” in the communication process: if you work towards understanding each other and orient towards each other, you show you have a good attitude. In the following clip, Kang-Suk from Korea, who gave a presentation about international deaf communication at the SIGN8 conference in Brazil, points towards the importance of willingness and motivation in this process. Also important is having shared experiences and concerns, which helps deaf people connect. In discourses on deaf cosmopolitanism, the need for a shared orientation towards understanding is often emphasised.

What is especially important in cross-signing is listening. If you take a selfish approach, it won’t work and it won’t be successful. Both signers need to take a curious view of the other’s language and be exploratory in a co-operative spirit, to feel that synergy. Also, what’s important is to look at what the other person is trying to say, their aims. If you are both trying to discover what the other is saying, you’ll grasp each other as you go along. (…) Also, the first time people  communicate together, it’s not going to be about wide-ranging, random topics. It’s going to be about a particular topic: ‘Where are you from’? It’s going to have a narrow focus and people will have a shared motivation. That narrow focus may grow wider, and people may be motivated to converse more broadly, whilst if people have different interests,they may stop to communicate.

Using a lingua franca (ASL), or not?

The use of signs from certain sign languages, especially American Sign Language (ASL), are actively resisted in international deaf interactions. ASL, or ASL-influenced sign languages, are the primary sign language in many countries, and ASL is learned and used as an additional sign language by many people. However, the use of ASL is often commented upon in a pejorative way because it is associated with linguistic imperialism and the US.

Deaf people from the United States have a reputation in European deaf spaces because of their language use such as “fast” signing and the general predominance of fingerspelling in ASL. In international deaf communication, fingerspelled words (which are a referent to spoken languages) are often difficult to understand. By many Europeans (and others), the use of International Sign is considered to be more acceptable than the use of ASL because of the investment it requires in terms of time and adjustment to the other interactants. In the following quote, Calvin from the USA (deaf travel influencer and tourist in Bali) explains this key difference between IS and ASL:

IS works when conversing with a person whose process might not match with my own. By signing slower and more visually, they can understand me, copy me, and I influence their signing as well as them influencing mine to find a common communication approach. It becomes an exchange. With ASL, it’s more “My way or nothing” and the person I’m talking to might copy that, but I’m not learning from them in that situation. It’s not an exchange, it’s one sided and that’s limiting.

There is also a heightened awareness of sign language vitality that seems to motivate people to not use ASL, or to ask others not to use ASL, especially in contexts outside of Europe and the United States. An example is the following story by Kate, from the USA about her travels in New Zealand, where she was discouraged from using ASL:

For example, when I was in New Zealand, my brother and I would use ASL to talk with each other. Others did not approve…they would tell us to leave ASL for when we are in America. There we were to learn New Zealand sign language [NZSL]. “Leave ASL while you are here”. I took it as advice and decided not to use ASL. It forced me to connect and get the real experience of New Zealand. The same happened in Europe. They don’t understand ASL, so I tried my best to sign more IS mixing it with BSL.

Here, IS mixed with BSL (BSL and NZSL are part of the same language family and therefore experienced as similar) is seen as more appropriate than the use of ASL. At the same time, ASL could be said to be as much a lingua franca as IS, especially in the global South where many national sign languages are influenced by ASL. What follows is an example from the DOOR campus in Nairobi, Kenya, which is a Bible translation centre where teams from different (mostly African) countries work and reside to translate the Bible into their national sign language. Eric, a Kenyan Sign Language translator at DOOR in Kenya explains he sees ASL, which he learned at school, as useful to connect internationally:

I learned ASL at school when I was a child growing up. I was always exposed to ASL, no KSL [Kenyan Sign Language] at all. I learned it when I was small and grew up this way. That’s how I learned ASL. (…) A good thing is that learning ASL when I was young in school helps me now to understand people from other countries that come here. They would use an ASL sign and I could make that connection from my youth, and we could accommodate each other by trial and error. There are countries where ASL is used so ASL helps us to connect.

There may also be clashes in expectations for international deaf communication. ASL use by Americans such as Kate is often frowned upon, but the use of ASL may be seen to be as cosmopolitan as using IS, depending on the perspective. Rahul from India, who was a student at DOOR in Kenya at the time of interview, explains he experiences the insistence on IS as typical for Europeans:

I see it as being delineated into two groups. On one side there are Europeans and some from other countries,and on the other there are Americans. Europeans hate ASL and try to keep it out. The other thing is that the ASL-users do not really want IS. So because they did not want IS, I would sign in ASL to them. A few of them do accept IS and try to engage in it. Europeans on the other hand, are fully ready to embrace IS. I forgot that fact so I signed ASL to a European. Their response was a bit negative – they had an attitude about that. They saw me signing ASL and asked if I learned it in America. I sensed the disapproval, apologised, and tried not to use ASL. So it depends. People are diverse. Europeans do not want ASL as communication, but people are all very different.

Rahul and Eric take a pragmatic attitude towards ASL since it allows them to connect with deaf people from other linguistic backgrounds. Rahul does not necessarily see the use of IS as right or just; however, Rahul understands that to be accepted and welcomed may require the use of IS. “European” deaf expectations may dominate in international contexts: for them, adapting is calibrating by mixing/meshing and using iconic signs; while for others, using ASL may be the most effortless and sensible way to adapt.

Learning and using “bits” from foreign (sign) languages

Mobile deaf people are often focused on learning (bits of) the national sign language of the country they visit. The emphasis on the national sign language, even if people who meet each other have common knowledge of ASL, is a sign of respect and openness for the host nation. Deaf cosmopolitanism relies on this ideal of exchange consisting of learning and using “bits” of other languages. Those bits not only include signs, but also fingerspelling alphabets, mouthings and written words. When they travel, deaf signers are often eager to engage in social interactions with signers using these “bits” and this is often talked about in terms of an “exchange”. In this example, Wahyu, a deaf Indonesian who works as a guide in Bali, discusses how he adjusts to tourists of different nationalities by using their signs and mouthing:

When I work as a deaf guide, I use International Sign and Australian Sign Language mainly. When I meet deaf people from Bali, I switch to BISINDO, but during work I generally use IS because the majority of people come from America, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. When Australians come, I need to switch the way I sign and that is a bit more difficult because of their two-handed alphabet. (…) When they slow down it is fine. (…) When a Chinese person comes, I sign differently compared to when a German or a Dutch person comes – I use a different IS. (…) I have to adjust, yes. When deaf people come here and don’t understand my IS, I have to adjust and use some German signs if a German person comes, but only a bit. For example, I will mouth WILLKOMMEN whilst signing WELCOME, it is only a bit and we understand each other better after that, but I mostly use IS.(…) I learn while communicating. When I meet a deaf person I use the signs I learned before which helps us to further communication. 

Wahyu learns and adopts bits including fingerspelling alphabets (with which he admitted to struggling with sometimes), signs and mouthings. He also indicates that IS looks different, depending on whom he is interacting with. Calibrating to his interlocutor, he may use Auslan instead of IS. His language learning is connected with tourist mobility, and he uses “bits” of languages he has picked up in previous encounters with tourists.

At SIGN8 in Brazil, there were pre-conference workshops for both conference languages (IS and Libras). People could present in either of the two conference languages and there were no interpreters provided. This means many Brazilians were aspiring to (and pressured to!) learn and use IS in a short time, and it also means that the handful of non-Brazilians were motivated to learn bits of Libras and associated mouthings in Portuguese. Non-Brazilian participants attempted to incorporate in their signing the few Libras signs they had learned at the pre-conference workshop and/or from informal interactions with Brazilians. Julie from the USA, who presented at this conference, explains how and why she used some Libras signs during her presentation.

When my talk started and I was standing in front of the audience, I began with remembering the [pre-conference] workshops, establishing eye contact with people I’d met, and inserting some LIBRAS signs, such as OBRIGADO [thank you], and the signs for MOTHER and FATHER. I felt that it was important to connect with the audience. (…) To be honest I’m sure I jumbled it up, but I didn’t feel embarrassed – I felt that I was being open and showing to them that I’m new, too. I know many Brazilians are really strongly rooted in LIBRAS and feel unsure because they don’t know any IS, and I wanted them to feel comfortable when seeing I don’t know it well either.

As in the example of Kate visiting New Zealand, deaf people signing IS in local places will use the few marked “foreign” signs and mouthings that they know, for better communication and also to show awareness of and respect for national sign language boundaries.

Learning and using foreign sign languages

At the DOOR campus in Kenya, there was a multilingua franca in use, consisting of mostly KSL mixed with signs from ASL and Indian Sign Language (the latter because of a long-standing collaboration with a campus of DOOR located in India). Translator teams (such as from Mozambique and Sudan) learnt KSL informally and had to work on translations into their national sign languages. Here, the director, Paul, expressed his view on the language policy at the DOOR campus as learning each other’s signs and thus meeting in the middle:

I think the best way is for me to sign Kenyan Sign Language, and for others to use their sign language, to connect. This way they see a bigger picture, and communication goes well. (…) Most of the time it is a 50/50 split between their signing and my own. This is because I would not know their sign language in its entirety, and the same would go for them. It is a sharing form of communication which is called code-mixing. It is my signing and their signing integrated together to understand each other clearly.

While people on the DOOR campus are constantly engaging in translingual practice in their multilingua franca, there also is emphasis on separating and learning other sign languages, thus simultaneously propagating a multilingual environment in the form of monological multilingualism (in the translation products).


Deaf language practices are central to practices of deaf cosmopolitanism. Deaf people engage with cultural sameness and difference; and do this through language. Their practices of calibrating signing, exchanging signs, and language learning are shaped by moral ideas about what languages are most appropriate in specific contexts and/or with/by whom. For example, in deaf cosmopolitan encounters, the use of host national sign languages or International Sign are often expected as a form of “good and right” behaviour related to good or bad attitudes. Opinions differ on what is more suitable.

Going back to the classification of forms of linguistic cosmopolitanism, we have identified:

  1. Lingua franca: ASL
  2. Plural monolingualism: learning each other’s sign languages (eg SIGN, DOOR)
  3. Translanguaging / Multilingua franca: language use by deaf tourists and tourist guides; International Sign; mix of signs used at DOOR 

From their cosmopolitan orientations, people do not always choose the language that is most easy or most suitable to use in that situation. Examples that influence decisions include discourses about the power and dominance of certain sign languages, especially American Sign Language (ASL) and International Sign. Thus, within deaf cosmopolitan orientations and practices, the desire to show openness and respect to particular languages or interlocutors; and the willingness to communicate flexibly, impacts on language use.


Green, E. M. (2014). Building the tower of Babel: International Sign, linguistic commensuration, and moral orientation. Language in Society, 43(4), 445-465.

Janssens, M., & Steyaert, C. (2014). Re-considering language within a cosmopolitan understanding: Toward a multilingual franca approach in international business studies. Journal of International Business Studies, 45(5), 623-639. doi:10.2307/43653823