How To Speak to Deaf People Using an Interpreter

Deaf people use a visual language to communicate. Most pastors have not been trained how to use a sign language interpreter. When a particular message is directed toward Deaf people, a few changes can help greatly. Sign language interpreters can share these ideas with pastors, missionaries, and other speakers so they can be more effective with Deaf people.

1. Preach only one topic per sermon. Talking about too many things at one time can be confusing. Have one main preaching point or purpose for the message.

2. Make sure your ideas follow a logical and planned pattern. This is easier said than done. Also, avoid jumping from idea to idea too quickly. Deaf people value clear messages.

3. Take plenty of time to develop each idea fully. Make sure each idea is understood before moving to the next idea. It is better to communicate a few truths more clearly.

4. Make sure your interpreter understands you. Before your sermon, take time to share the highlights of your message with your interpreter. Be sure to include hard or unfamiliar words, difficult concepts, illustrations you plan to use, your main preaching point, your outline, your desire for the audience’s response, etc.

5. Use the structure: Topic – Comment. Sometimes in English the topic or subject appears last in the sentence or paragraph. Make sure your topic of conversation is clear at the beginning. Emphasize when you change topics or subjects. Tell the location, time, and person first, then make your comments. (Condensed from SWM 101 Series – What Interpreters and Deaf People Should Know. Order from SWM)

How To Speak to Deaf PeopleUsing an Interpreter
Deaf people use a visual language to communicate. Most pastors have not been trained how to use a sign language interpreter. When a particular message is directed toward Deaf people, a few changes can help greatly. Sign language interpreters can share these ideas with pastors, missionaries, and other speakers so they can be more effective with Deaf people.
1.    Preach only one topic per sermon. Talking about too many things at one time can be confusing. Have one main preaching point or purpose for the message.
2.    Make sure your ideas follow a logical and planned pattern. This is easier said than done. Also, avoid jumping from idea to idea too quickly. Deaf people value clear messages.
3.    Take plenty of time to develop each idea fully. Make sure each idea is understood before moving to the next idea. It is better to communicate a few truths more clearly.
4.    Make sure your interpreter understands you. Before your sermon, take time to share the highlights of your message with your interpreter. Be sure to include hard or unfamiliar words, difficult concepts, illustrations you plan to use, your main preaching point, your outline, your desire for the audience’s response, etc.
5.    Use the structure: Topic – Comment.  Sometimes in English the topic or subject appears last in the sentence or paragraph.  Make sure your topic of conversation is clear at the beginning. Emphasize when you change topics or subjects. Tell the location, time, and person first, then make your comments.
(Condensed from SWM DM10. Order from SWM)

6.    Choose your target audience – Children, Adults, Parents, Deaf, Hearing, High language level, Low language level, etc. – In a mixed audience, plan to say something to reach each group. For example, you could preach 70% for Deaf adults and 30% for teens.
7.    Read Bible verses slowly, naturally, and clearly. Allow the natural meaning of the verses to become clear as you read. Rapid Bible reading is rarely interpreted accurately.
8.    Think visually. Illustrate with something the audience can see or has experienced. Allow time for them to watch your illustration, then look back at the interpreter for your explanation.
9.    Watch for understanding in the eyes of the Deaf audience. Realize there will be a delay between when you speak and the interpreter signs your thought. Speaking more slowly and understanding the delay will help you get better feedback.
10.    Stop (pause) when Deaf people look away or are distracted. When they are not looking, they cannot hear you. Deaf people rely more on their eyes than do hearing people. Hearing people tend to feel awkward during pauses. Deaf people tend to appreciate waiting until the distraction is past.
11.    Repeat or rephrase to make the message clear. Hearing people may consider repetition boring, but Deaf people tend to value repetition as a means to emphasize the point. Repeating more than once can be good.
12.    Ask questions, then give answers. This is a highly effective method and is one of the ways Sign Language is normally used. Examples: “Does God love Deaf people? Yes, God loves Deaf people!” or “In how many days did God create the world? God created the world in six days.”
13.    It is fine to use hand and body gestures. You may want to instruct your interpreter to have the Deaf audience watch you as you describe something with gestures. Also, when you make a specific gesture – how tall, how deep, how large – wait until the interpreter catches up and the Deaf people can see your gesture before you proceed.
14.    Use the same words throughout the sermon or lesson. For example, if the message is about the resurrection, use the word “resurrection” often during the message. The Deaf people will understand your message was about the resurrection. Another example: The words, “saved,” “born-again,” and “receive Jesus Christ as Savior” all tend to mean the same thing. Switching between those words in one sermon can be confusing. One Deaf person said, “I have been saved, and have received Jesus Christ, but today I want to be born again.” The message was confusing to Deaf people.
15.    Explain unfamiliar topics or words. Describe, tell stories, use positive examples, and use negative examples until the topic or word is very clear. Continue only when the audience understands you (even if you cannot finish your sermon).
16.    Use specific and clear words and illustrations regarding sin. Say the word you mean. Do not try to be polite. Deaf people tend to value clear communication more than politeness. Examples: say gossip instead of tattle-tale, say lie instead of fib, say rebellion in stead of stubbornness, say sexual sin instead of uncleanness.
17.    Be very clear in the invitation. Make sure the deaf audience understands which decision you are asking them to make. Do not switch back and forth between decisions. For example, complete the invitation for salvation before moving on to service, or vice versa.
18.    Leave them wanting more. When the deaf audience is understanding, they tend to want to learn more. Speak for clear understanding, not just to say words.
19.    Talk with the Deaf people before and after the message. Deaf people tend to value close relationships more than a truthful message. Your relationship will strengthen your message.
Some of these thoughts may seem obvious. Others may seem strange and foreign. Remember, Deaf people are from a different language and a different cul
ture, even though they live in your same country. Speak as if you are talking to a foreigner and your communication with Deaf people can be greatly improved.
Deaf people are not dumb! Deafness is a communication handicap not an IQ problem. Consider an older adult who loses his hearing. He did not lose his intelligence. He only lost his ability to communicate. Deaf people could also consider hearing people low-functioning because they do not know sign language!
By the way, Deaf people must also adjust their language level when communicating with hearing people! But, when around other Deaf people who use sign language, they can say anything they want to say.
Hearing people can clearly communicate with Deaf people using an interpreter. Practicing these principles will help greatly. Some hearing preachers have even found that their hearing congregations have begun to pay attention better after applying these principles of clear communication.

Clear communication is communication.
If they did not learn, you did not teach.
If they don’t understand the way you talk, then talk the way they understand!
“Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”
– 1 Corinthians 14:19

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