Various Language Modes | Sign Language

What does a sign language interpreter mean when they ask you, “What is your Deaf customer’s language mode?”  There are various language modes the Deaf and hard of hearing community may use.

A person who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing has their own preferred sign language mode. Some use ASL while others prefer a more English grammar signed language. Some may also use Signed Exact English (SEE) or depend on reading lips.

various language modesAmerican Sign Language (ASL)

ASL has its own grammar and vocabulary with cultural and regional variations.  Quality Sign Language Interpreters are professionals in knowing how to determine appropriate cultural mediation when provide an interpretation.  Each spoken language around the world cannot simply be translated word for word.  There may be idioms, grammar differences, and other cultural influences on language based on region and experience.  It is the same with signed languages.

The culture plays a big role in idiomatic phrases and a real world translation from one language to another whether spoken or signed.  See examples below of literal versus conceptual translations from spoken French to English. (  English has many idioms that, if literally translated into ASL, would not make any sense.  For example, “They are like two peas in a pod.”  This of course refers to two people being inseparable.  A commonly used ASL idiom literally translates into English, “Train gone.”  But this conceptually means “the opportunity has passed you by.”

Pidgin Signed English (PSE)

PSE is the commonly used term for a contact language between ASL and spoken English.  Instead of using ASL grammar, it incorporates English grammar while using conceptually accurate signs.  Many Deaf and hard of hearing people prefer interpreters to use this this language mode so they know the exact English spoken.  This way they can respond using the precise English terminology used by the speaker.  At other times, they may have a background in English making it easier to receive visual language in an English sentence format.  There may be various reasons for the use of a contact sign language.

Signed Exact English

SEE is a form of English on the hands.  It is less conceptually accurate then PSE and focuses on communicating English words in a visual way to those who cannot hear a spoken language.  It is not as commonly used as ASL or PSE.


An interpreter may still be requested even for a customer who prefers to read lips.  Often times a speaker is not clear to see or multiple speakers are in an environment.  This commonly occurs in a classroom or presentation where there are large groups of people.  A sign language interpreter may be required to make language visibility clear and stationary even if the customer is lip-reading.  Qualified interpreters know how to properly move their lips to be clearly understood.  They also may add information such as where the speaker is sitting/standing and what they look like so the customer does not have to look around the room thus breaking their concentration on the language.


This is not a comprehensive list of various language modes your Deaf customer may request.  Be sure to ask them what they prefer before making any assumptions.  And recognize many may code switch using multiple language modes depending on the setting they are in.


Additional Resources:

Famous Idioms | Meaning

Communication Options for a Child who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing


Photo Credit:

MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review