Sign language has become trendy on TikTok, but many videos feature incorrect signs, sparking fears the trend will cause lasting damage to American Sign Language
The Washington Post asked Sheena Lyles, 37, of Baltimore, a Deaf comedian on TikTokto demonstrate several sign language mistakes made on social media. Here she shows the right way to sign “lie,” as well as the wrong way used by Eagle in his video.
Sign language set to music has become trendy on TikTok, particularly among hearing creators, spurred in part by the representation of sign language in popular movies like “CODA” or “A Quiet Place.” But with its growing popularity, many deaf and hard of hearing creators, who rely on sign language to communicate, worry that TikTok is allowing incorrect signs to spread like wildfire.
Eagle acknowledged that he sometimes makes mistakes with his signing, but accused some in the deaf community of “gatekeeping,” and trying to prevent hearing people from using it.
“I think it’s really crappy that they keep their language in a box,” Eagle said. “Sign language is something to love, and everyone should learn it.”
The issue has grown so large that the National Association for the Deaf posted a video last month criticizing the rapid spread of unqualified people teaching incorrect sign language on social media, saying that it’s doing “devastating harm” to the deaf community.
When using sign language, even seemingly small changes, such as using the wrong hand shape or moving hands the wrong way, can make a sign unintelligible or give it an entirely different meaning than intended.
In a sign language rendition of the song “We Are The World,” for example, Scott Berends, 47, of Holton, Mich. who has 1 million followers, tries to sign the word “children.” The sign is supposed to look like he’s gently patting children on the head — instead critics say it looks more like he is playing bongo drums. The sign Berends uses doesn’t have any meaning in American Sign Language.
The sign language mistakes on social media can be so significant that Kilee Ashton40, of Salt Lake City, who is Deaf, said she often can’t understand what someone is trying to say. “It’s ugly to watch,” she said.
Ashton said she and other deaf people have tried to point out mistakes to creators like Eagle and Berends, but they have been blocked or had their comments deleted.
Berends admits that he sometimes makes mistakes with his signing, but maintains that he posts his videos with positive intentions to spread sign language. He said he is open to feedback but deletes any comments he feels are negative or mean-spirited.
“Hard of hearing people or people from the deaf community have thanked me for bringing cultures together,” he said. “I’m a big supporter of everyone, and the deaf community is extremely important in my life.”
Subtle changes in hand direction, shape or placement are common mistakes among novice signers on social media and can change the meaning of a sign.
When Eagle signs the song “Simple Man,” he tries to sign the word “young,” but moves his hands down his chest instead of up. In doing so, he accidentally signs the word “tired” instead.
Similarly, when Berends signs the Beatles song “Let it Be,” he tries to sign the word “trouble,” but his incorrect hand shape, movement and positioning means he signs the word for “awesome” instead.
Because of the explosion of bad sign language videos she has seen, Lyles has started selling merchandise with the “S.O.S.” acronym, which she said stands for “Save Our Signs.”
“We cherish ASL because this is our communication tool. We need this language for access; we need this language to communicate with others,” she said.
John Troumbley29, of Kokomo Ind., who is Deaf, estimates that he only understands half of what is being signed on some popular TikTok accounts.
“It’s already hard enough for us to communicate with the hearing community and then you have people learning incorrect sign language and that complicates things even more,” he said. “Some signs are really close to each other, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to cause problems.”
Deaf people say that fake signs like those seen on TikTok can have serious consequences. There have been several cases of “fake interpreters,” which prevented deaf people from accessing critical information. For instance, in 2017, a news conference for Hurricane Irma featured an interpreter who signed gibberish like “pizza” and “bear monster” instead of information about evacuation orders. Other notable ‘fake interpreters’ include the man who interpreted Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013and a woman who delivered an incoherent sign language translation during a 2017 Florida news conference about a murder suspect.
Making translation errors
Another common sign language mistake is trying to sign the way English is spoken, rather than following the grammar rules of American Sign Language. This is sometimes referred to as Signed Exact English, or SEE — and it’s a controversial way of using sign language among the deaf community.
Some creators acknowledge that they don’t follow ASL grammar rules. They still make translation mistakes when choosing specific signs for English words.
In a free sign language class that Berends runs through his Facebook pagethe teacher, Kat Jaret, 43, of Forest, Va. uses some signs incorrectly. When she tries to sign “like I said,” she uses a sign for liking something (as in “I like ice cream”) rather than the sign used to indicate something is similar. (“This ice cream tastes like my grandmother’s.)
“I know sometimes we don’t sign perfectly,” Jaret said, in reference to both herself and Berends. “Nobody speaks English perfectly sometimes.”
But deaf people point out that fans who follow these accounts don’t always realize the creators are making mistakes — especially if critical comments are deleted.
Teaching sign language sparks debate
Whether hearing people should teach sign language remains a topic of debate in the deaf community. One reason is that it takes opportunities away from deaf people, but another is that hearing people who aren’t trained properly often don’t know they are making mistakes and aren’t qualified to teach.
Ashley Noelle Russ, 38, of Shawano, Wisc., a Deaf woman who has about 40,000 followers on TikToksaid the safest way to learn sign language is directly from deaf people — many of whom teach the language for free on TikTok.
“American Sign Language is what we use everyday for our communication,” she said. “It’s so important to look for deaf creators and learn from deaf creators.”
She and many others were alarmed recently when Berends posted on social media that he would be teaching sign language to a local store, despite the fact that Berends is not a licensed interpreter or teacher.
When asked about his qualifications, Berends said he started learning sign language when he was a child because he had a deaf friend. As an adult, he said he took American Sign Language classes through cudoo.comwhich offers basic sign language lessons.
Eagle, who is Native American, said his interest in sign language stems from seeing Native American sign languagealso known as ‘hand talk,’ as a child. He calls himself an “innovator for sign language.”
But some Native Deaf creators on TikTok say his videos don’t show proficiency in Native American sign language or ASL.
“If you want to do sign language, fine, but don’t charge for classes, don’t ignore or block people who live in these communities every day,” said Christina Yeates39, a Native Deaf woman in Salt Lake City. “It’s not a trend. This is our daily accessibility.”
Jullian Mitchell, 38, of Puerto Rico is a Deaf ASL teacher and believes that many people who are now using sign language on social media don’t know the history of sign language, and why it’s important to preserve it. In the late 1800s, international educators voted to remove sign language from deaf education, and schools started punishing students who used it. Most schools for the deaf did not start using sign language again until the latter half of the 20th century.
“Sign language is at war, true biz,” Mitchell said, using a popular ASL slang phrase. “It’s hurting us. They think it’s nothing, but hearing people don’t understand what it’s like to be oppressed, to be at the bottom.”
Deaf creators struggle to be seen
Deaf creators say they often struggle to gain the same popularity as hearing creators on TikTok. They worry TikTok’s algorithm favors hearing creators, who tend to talk and use music on their videos more often.
“It becomes a slap in the face when you see new people who aren’t really part of the culture get like 500,000 views, and they’re signing awkwardly,” said Matt Maxey, a 34-year old Deaf man in Atlanta who has been trying to monetize various social media platforms under the account name “Deafinitely Dope.”
He and other deaf creators say that they want more hearing people to learn sign language — but they want people to support the deaf community at the same time.
Jon Urquhart, 29, of Boston, has over half a million TikTok followers. He can hear but is the child of deaf adults, otherwise known as a CODA, and is viewed among the deaf community as a “heritage” signer and ally.
He uses his platform to promote online classes with deaf teachers. He said people who learn sign language should engage with the deaf community, rather than just using the language for entertainment or performative value.
“Learn ASL to break down barriers, make deaf friends and include deaf people in your life,” he said.
An earlier version of this article said Scott Berends, a TikTok creator, planned to teach sign language to firefighters. Berends planned to teach sign language at a store called the Fire Station in Houghton, MI. This version has been corrected.