“Poetry In Motion”
The average American utters a whopping 16,000 words per day — nearly 1,000 per waking hour. Most of us pay no mind to how we speak them. We don’t think about contracting our tongue or pursing our lips to form the phonemes of language — we simply will the words to flow.
But what if they don’t? What if you find yourself knowing exactly what you want to say, but unable to say it? I don’t mean occasionally tripping over your words or forgetting a phrase — I mean literally being unable to speak. Well, I can tell you.
Ever since I was little, I have had a stutter. And while its frequency waxes and wanes, its presence has persisted for as long as I can remember. Many kids stutter when they’re young — it’s a normal part of speech development, after all. But I was different — I didn’t outgrow mine.
As far as stutters go, mine has always been mild. I am usually able to cover my halting speech or redirect my intended sentiment without drawing much attention. At my best, I can pass as fluent. Talk to me enough, though, and one thing will become apparent: I’m not.
I know what it’s like to be unable to express myself. To be incapable of forcing out a word from behind an unseen wall of resistance. To choke on silence and drown in the simplest of sounds.
It’s why I enjoy writing so much. I might not be able to speak what I wish, but when I write, I am in complete control of my words — there’s no last-second dodging or switching to find a more pronounceable, if ultimately less impactful, word. It’s why I took linguistics in college, despite it contributing nothing to my degree and requiring significantly more work than a free elective has any right to. And it’s why I took an interest in American Sign Language (ASL).
ASL was a language that could be “spoken” without having to speak. It’s speech, but with your hands. It’s poetry in motion, sometimes literally, and it represented a form of expression unbeholden to my defective speech production. And while I didn’t have much practical use for it — neither myself nor anybody I knew was Deaf or knew ASL — I grew fascinated all the same.
So when I came across an ABC Family show that featured the language, I couldn’t help but watch.
Switched at Birth
The show, Switched at Birth, was about two teenagers who were, well… switched at birth. The two girls live strikingly contrasting lives — one a rebellious artist, part of a wealthy, WASPy family, and the other an optimistic athlete, the daughter of a working-class, single mother. After learning about the switch, they attempt to blend their families and integrate their lives into one big, happy household. The twist? One of the girls is Deaf.
Daphne — the aforementioned optimistic athlete — lost her hearing as a toddler. And from the very first episode, she and her mother Regina use sign language. Seamlessly trading off between true ASL and the more literal signed English that accompanies their oral speech, the characters bring sign language to center stage, offering the other family and mainstream audiences alike their first exposure to the language.
The incorporation of sign language offers viewers a new way to listen — and challenges conventional assumptions about speech delivery. It requires both speaker and audience to remain present in the moment, or risk missing it entirely. Whether a speech or a monologue, scripted or off-the-cuff, orations command attention, and those delivered in ASL command more than most. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the monologue that Regina (played by Constance Marie) delivers to her daughter at end of the pilot episode.
It is a monologue that you have to watch to fully understand; a speech that’s just as touching on mute as it is aloud. Regina lectures her daughter about wanting to transfer from her Deaf school to the hearing one her fellow switchee attends. She staunchly opposes the decision, chastising Daphne for trying to change in order to appease her biological parents.
Everything from the word choice to the camera angles comes together in a confluence of craftsmanship to create a touching performance that equally moves the audience and highlights the beauty and eloquence of sign language.
Daphne asks her mother to support her decision to transfer, and the monologue begins.
“Absolutely not,” Regina opens, her terse tone accompanied by a particularly emphatic version of the sign for no — the first three fingers splayed apart, only to come together in a single motion, thumb to fingertips as if grasping a pinch of salt. Her sentiment is clear and her dissent apparent, so much so that the viewer can’t help but see the passion in her hands, as much as hear it in her voice.
As the monologue progresses, so too does Regina’s incorporation of sign language. She gestures and motions and gesticulates her way through her appeal, reminding Daphne of what happens to Deaf kids at hearing schools.
“They’re outsiders,” she exclaims, both hands pointed downwards in front of her, palms facing her body and fingers spread apart. The sign physically embodies the feeling of separation, forming a literal wall between Regina and the daughter she is so fiercely trying to persuade. The more we see, the more we as viewers start to realize that signed language can be just as expressive and moving as its spoken counterpart — it is art, as much as communication
Regina continues, assuring her daughter that she can do anything she wants with her life — that she doesn’t need to prove anything by subjecting herself to a hearing school.
“You’re a thousand times smarter than any of those hearing kids who used to tease you and make you feel stupid,” she pleads, knocking a fist against her head, a rap on the skull. It’s the sign for “dumb,” and it’s obvious enough, even without explanation. Knock, knock — anyone there, upstairs?
Cue Daphne butting in, defending herself by proclaiming that she’s not a little kid anymore — she doesn’t need her mother to protect her.
And this is where the tone shifts.
Regina goes from trying to talk sense into her daughter to laying down the law in a way that only a single mother can.
“Yes, you do,” Regina retorts. She has to protect Daphne from herself. “You know what’s right,” she goes on, backing up her appeals to logic with moral duty. She explains the truth that is evident to everyone but Daphne: that she is lying to herself.
“You’re letting these people” — referring to Daphne’s biological family — “pressure you because you’re so desperate for their acceptance.” This is the iconic shot — Regina’s head in profile, filling the entire frame, a single finger trailing down the length of her throat during the word “desperate.” It’s a slow sign accompanied by a harsh whisper — the movement lingering on her exposed throat and the syllables heartfelt in her voice. The vulnerability of the motion is poignant even without its verbal accompaniment.
What’s more, that motion is the sign for “thirsty.”
ASL has no specific sign for “desperate,” so Regina chooses one to fit. The language often conveys desperation with “want,” or in some cases, “hunger,” but Regina takes it a step further. Here, we see a common rhetorical device, hyperbole, deployed in sign — an easter egg for those well-versed enough in rhetoric and skilled enough in ASL to notice. Without even saying the words, Regina communicates the intensity of Daphne’s desperation by equating it to a craving as fundamental and primal as thirst. At this point, Regina’s signing has taken on a rhythm of its own — the sequence is almost poetic.
“Let them love you for who you are…” she preaches, her intention enhanced by the sweeping gesture of its ASL interpretation.
This one’s easy to understand — the sign for love followed by a gentle lowering and raising of an upturned palm, as if presenting her daughter. “…not who they think” — a single finger to the temple — “you should be.”
In just 60 seconds, this bilingual monologue manages to form an argument and move an audience. And it does so not only through the power of its content, but of its delivery.
Regina says her piece in sign language for her daughter’s sake, and English for the audience’s. But her signing isn’t a word-for-word translation of her speech; she uses “thirsty” for “desperate.” “Dumb” for “stupid.” It would hardly surprise me to learn that more variations pepper the sermon; those my elementary understanding of the language let slide unnoticed. Regina’s signed monologue differs from her spoken, but it’s just as authentic — and it’s all the more moving for it.
Through this dichotomy of language, we see that exact verbiage doesn’t matter as much as the underlying truth behind it. One doesn’t “translate” English to ASL so much as “interpret.”
As English speakers and speechwriters, we can learn from this interpretation. It isn’t the words that matter, but the depth of feeling and candor of meaning they communicate; in other words, there’s no one right way to speak.
From Regina’s monologue, we learn that speeches aren’t really about speech at all. That ultimately, it doesn’t matter that I have to dodge and switch to find a more pronounceable word — if “want” doesn’t work, I can use “thirsty.”
— Cheyenne Jett (Former WWW Intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
You can find Regina’s monologue on YouTube.
Follow West Wing Writers on Twitter.