Asl makes the big screen with coda

Asl makes the big screen with coda

How accurate is the award-winning movie as to how it portrays Sign Language speakers?

This year, the Oscars awarded a film we feel drawn to CODA. Many don’t know, but this coming-of-age comedy-drama film directed by Sian Heder is a remake of the 2014 French-Belgian film La Famille Bélier”. And it did some wonderful adjustments to it.

The word CODA stands for “children of deaf adults”. Statistics show that over 90% of all deaf parents have hearing children, so that’s quite the communication challenge. “Mother father deaf” is also a commonly used phrase in the deaf community to identify a hearing child of deaf parents. And in this case, it’s also a wink to music, since CODA is also an epilogue to a piece of music.

So the story goes on about the elder child of deaf adults and the only hearing member of the family who attempts to help her family’s struggling fishing business while pursuing her aspirations of being a singer.

Why is this remake interesting? And how well does it portray the reality of the deaf community and sign language speakers?


One is in France, the other in the US. One is a rural family who works on a dairy farm, the other is situated in a city named Gloucester, and the family is invested in the fishing business. But most likely the most significant difference between the two films involves the cast. 

La Famille Bélier, not that many years ago, was interpreted by hearing actors who played deaf roles. This led to inevitable exaggerated or inconsistent signaling and behaviors. At the given time, the filmmaker admitted he never considered casting deaf actors to avoid making “a documentary about the deaf” to “tell the story of an adolescent girl whose experience was out of the ordinary, because she was living with deaf parents and a deaf younger brother.” 

Sian Heder, on the other hand, decided to confront criticism and set one condition to take the role: the deaf characters would be deaf actors. It was decided, Heder learned American Sign Language in the process of writing the script with 40% of it being in ASL (American Sign Language). She was also guided by two deaf collaborators whom she called “ASL masters” Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti. Heder hired a rotating group of ASL interpreters from the deaf community in nearby Boston to secure the on-set communication among the cast and crew. Even Emilia Jones, the main character, took voice lessons and learned ASL for nine months before filming started. 

Another big difference is the effort the movie made toward being more inclusive. CODA is shown with open captions (the captions are shown on screen) so people who need it won’t have to wait for the captioned showing. 

La Famille Bélier on UK Amazon Prime has English subtitles for the French dialogue and LSF, but it doesn’t have SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing). These are crucial for deaf audience members as they convey non-dialogue sounds such as music and contextual noises. For example, have you ever seen between parentheses “[Door knocks]” or “[Loud screaming in the background]”?

Marlee Matlin, part of the cast, made a distinction that is key to understanding what makes the movie special. She explains how you can write a script because somebody’s deaf, or write a script where a character happens to be deaf. There’s a distinction there. A distinction that makes hiring and portraying people from the deaf community in a movie not a “documentary about deaf people”, but a story like any other that represents a part of our population. 


They were pretty happy. But not only because of its accessibility. Because in this depiction, they felt much more represented. There are many stigmas, prejudices, and taboos that are broken with very simple choices. For example, the deaf characters are self-sufficient and sexually active people. Delbert Whetter, vice chair of nonprofit RespectAbility said, “After seeing so many stories where people with disabilities are depicted as helpless, forlorn souls needing to be rescued, it is so refreshing to see a story with Deaf characters that are small business owners and leaders in their fishing community, with depth and nuance that rival and even exceed that of their hearing counterparts in the story.” 

Deaf writer Sara Nović adhered to how “deaf and disabled people are often neutered or virginal in movies and books, and that’s extremely boring and inaccurate.”

International business major Sarah Hoffer, raised by deaf parents, also expressed how the biggest misconception around is that deaf people cannot speak. “I often get asked how I was able to learn how to speak as a child if my parents were deaf. Both of my parents speak very well, and my speech developed normally”, she explains.

And Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, 50, a deaf activist and writer in Columbus, Ohio, told TODAY how even the tiny interactions are right on spot. In an email she remarks how pleasantly surprised she was when Jackie (Marlee Matlin’s character) “gets the attention of her husband and son at the concert by whapping them on the shoulder — that whole thing read as authentic and familiar to me in a way.”

There is, of course, still room for improvement. For example, the family listening to loud bass music as a way to enjoy music was deemed inaccurate. And for many, it was very clear that the dialogue was written by a hearing person since ASL and Englishare very different languages, with not only distinct syntax, grammar, and so on but also their idioms.  

Also, the film suggests that the hearing child of a deaf family translates and interprets in almost all settings. When the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly states that in a wide range of scenarios, a professional interpreter is provided and required. This could be a court hearing or medical appointment. And people need to know what’s on the one hand, a misrepresentation, and on the other, a right that must be guaranteed.  


American Sign Language (ASL) “is a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, with grammar that differs from English”. It is expressed by movements of the hands and face and it’s called American sign language due to it being the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf, hearing impaired, or the like. And its speakers rank somewhere between 500,000 to two million in the United States alone. It’s the fifth most-used language in the United States behind Spanish, Italian, German, and French. 

It is a very rich language. It can express with a single sign what may take multiple words in English to get across. And it’s so, so subtle, a phrase might be either a statement or a question depending on how you move your eyebrows. This is why the movie simulates through thoughtful camerawork and other quirks of the blink-and-you-miss-it details.

“Sign language is the expression of hands, eyes, face and body, the entire body, thus lending itself to artistic expression that goes beyond just the voice,” is how Marlee Matlin, one of the stars of CODA, puts it. There are even uncaptioned occasions in the movie due to the lack of a faithful equivalent. But because the sign was so expressive, Sian decided there was no need for one. 

Signing has also appeared in sci-fis like Dune, Godzilla vs Kong, and The Book of Boba Fett as futuristic non-verbal communication. Would you like to know more about ASL for a personal project? Contact our language experts at LST.


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