Sunday, October 31, 2010

From The Trenches

I've been teaching Simultaneous English to ASL this semester. I have twelve students and this is what I can say about all of them:

1. They have learned to trust me, to trust that what I tell them is what I truly believe will work.

2. They are willing to make changes in how they think about language, culture and interpreting.

3. They all want to "convey the message faithfully."

4. They are all making progress.

Now here's what I can say about me as the instructor.

1. I do not have enough time in class (1 hour, 15 minutes, twice a week) to instruct, then model, then have them practice. I leave classes wanting to have done more,

2. I owe part of any success I am having to for providing my students with a virtual language community.

3. I owe another part of any success I am having to iTunes and the free podcasts they offer, which provides unlimited numbers of source material on a variety of subjects. (In particular, TedTalk video podcasts.)

4. I finally got them to stop signing "HAPPEN" "WILL" and "HAVE" in every sentence.

It's a daunting task to teach this class. As much as it is on them to "do the work" so it is on me to "guide the work."

I pray I am on the right track.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You're either IN or you're OUT!

Being an interpreter makes you a part of a language community. Make that...being an interpreter "should" make you a part of a language community, since my previous statement assumes that you use the language in social situations as well as business.

Using ASL simply as a source of income is, in my opinion, an abuse of a privilege and is,in essence, exploiting a language community.

It is a privilege to be invited into the deaf community and to be trusted enough to be present in situations that impact their income, their health, their business, their families and their very personal issues.

Being a part of the ASL community doesn't mean that you "love" all deaf people, participate in the "long goodbye," or tell everyone where you are going when you get up from the table. It means that you understand that the language belongs to the people who use it as their primary means of communication, it means that you value and respect the language users and strive to have as fluent abilities and as complete an understanding of that language as possible.

In my experience, those interpreters and students who are not part of the language community, often plateau early and rarely develop skills that are valued or sought after by deaf people.

So, are you IN or are you OUT?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I say 2 + 2 = 5!

Oh, wait...IT DOESN'T??!! Well, my friend said it did and he knows math. And it totally could be 5, if you think about inflation. Okay, maybe it's not five, but I think you understood what I meant...I meant 4. Also, 5 is very close to 4, isn't it?


Rarely in math is there room for discussion regarding addition, subtration, multiplication or division. It's right, or it's wrong. Accept your B- and keep moving. Try to work on the problems in the back of the book.

But, can this work with the process of learning ASL? It seems that everything leads to a discussion..."my deaf friend says..." "I saw an interpreter sign..." "The client understood me anyway..." And the instructors say, "What I do is..." "What I've seen is..." "One time, at band camp..."

No wonder interpreting students are so confused so much of the time. They don't always have great language models around them and there's so much hedging and waffling from instructors who are reticent to say:
"That is the wrong sign." "That is not grammatically correct." "This is the correct sign, this is the grammatically correct structure."

I'd like a nickel for everytime I've heard a five minute "you're okay, I'm okay" speech before the feedback even begins.

While I do not believe language learning can be as black and white as math, I do think we can learn something from math teachers. Math teachers always tell their students to "show your work." Not only does the math student know that their answer was incorrect, they also get feedback about where they went off track. Interpreters show their final answer (the interpretation), but not their "work"---which is the processing that goes on in their heads.

We need to not only be strong enough and kind enough to be direct and clear about what is right and wrong...we also need to explain when there is "good, better and best".

And we need to figure out ways for our students to SHOW THEIR WORK. Engage them in discussions about why they used a rhetorical question. If they have no reason...what a perfect teaching moment!

Ask students to explain what they really thought that phrase meant, what purpose did the classifier serve, etc.

We have to ask better questions, to get better answers and to understand the students' process.

I have no magic plan for this. But as I will be returning to teaching interpreting in the Fall, I plan blog about my successes (and near misses and flops!).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Q: How Long Have You Been Doing This? A: Not Long Enough

As I approach my thirtieth year of national certification, I wonder if, truly, I can claim all thirty years. When I tell someone "I've been interpreting professionally for almost 30 years", does that mean I'm 30X better than someone who has been interpreting for one year?

Have I grown as an interpreter and signer each and every year?

I don't think how long you have done something necessarily means you are that much better at it,.

Someone with half my experience could be as good.

Someone with twenty years experience may just be doing that same one year of experience over and over twenty times.

I think it is about quality not quantity.

So let's look at one of my quality years----

1993 was a good year. It was the first year that I worked primarily in the mental health field. I experienced working with psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers involved in helping deaf people who presented with depression, sociopathic tendencies, borderline personality disorder, addictions of all kinds, OCD, and myriad other diagnoses. I learned so much that year and had so many experiences that I expanded my knowledge base, my language base and added strategies for dealing with aphasia, disfluency, echolalia and uncatagorized language disorders. Plus I learned how to work with all kinds of mental health professionals. (Orderlies are your best friends on a forensic unit!)

On the other hand, 1999----pretty uneventful. I think what I learned that year was to never completely rely on Mapquest to get me to my job and to be more vigilant about listening to the traffic reports. Workshop-wise, hmmmm....that was an RID conference year in Boston and I went, but cannot remember a single presenter.

I try, I really make each year....each day if I can....a learning experience. It doesn't always work out that way. And when it doesn't, it's because of me. I may have blown off a conference or workshop experience or I may have not paid attention to something wonderful right in front of me.

My point, dear readers, is that our professional development is a continuing process. Maybe we should not count how many years we have been doing this. Maybe we should only count the years that saw change or growth in our experience and in our work.

Just last week I learned some signs for some cultural icons of my own faith. This month I've been working more with young people with limited language and finding some strategies that are effective in getting them to express themselves. I feel great about that.

I'm planning to make this a year that counts.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prosody (and other 50 cent words)

Be patient with me, gentle reader,through this little linguistics lesson.

Prosody can be simply defined as the patterns of stress and intonation in a language.

Prosody is what helps us know whether the speaker (or signer) is asking a question, giving a command, being sarcastic or angry.

Prosody is not about vocabulary and not about grammar. (Wait...isn't that what is taught in sign language classes? Vocabulary and grammar?)

Have you ever overheard a conversation where you can hear the people, but you can't make out the words? Can't you still tell if it is an argument, celebration or a question and answer session? You recognize the prosody (the flow, intonation and rhythm).

So called "dry humor" is built on the fact that it is delivered as a statement, not as humor, so the listener has to figure out the true intent. (This is also why dry humor so often leads to a punch in the mouth.)

To have mastered the prosody of ASL is to have the fluency and naturalness that you need to be an effective interpreter.

Lack of prosody leads to misunderstanding of intent, emotion and mood. Lack of prosody means that deaf consumers have to make certain leaps in order to make sense of the string of signs presented to them.

How do you develop prosody?

Surround yourself with native or near native signers. This is the piece of the language you probably will not get from an ITP. The lack of appropriate prosody is sometimes called "a hearing accent."

ITP instructors rarely give feedback about this, mostly because the feedback would be "It just doesn't look right." (And that, albeit true, would not be considered helpful.)

So forget the word prosody for now.

Let's just say--Does your ASL look natural?

We have a certain rhythm or cadence in spoken English, that when represented in it's written form is partially handled through punctuation. Our voices show the end of a statement (period) or one in a list (comma) or command (exclamation point).

The reason why e-mails are so often misunderstood, though, is because you just can't make the written word reflect exactly what you want to say. The voice is mightier than the pen, so to speak.

ASL has a distinct cadence which can be modified to add layers upon layers of meaning and intent. Some of this can be taught in a formal class (non-manuals, for example), but most are learned most effectively through "osmosis." (a usually effortless often unconscious assimilation)

EFFORTLESS? Yes, it should be effortless because all you have to do is live your life and carry on conversations with competent native or near-native signers.

UNCONSCIOUS? Yes, if should be unconscious because you are so bust getting your point across and understanding your friend's point that you don't even realize you are learning.

Okay,so what prevents this effortless and unconscious learning?

Formal classes, my friends, formal classes.

If you depend on formal classes, you'll learn a stilted, somewhat unnatural form of the language. Prosody is about exposure to many different signers, many different experiences and not one of them can be duplicated in the classroom.

It's a double edged sword, I know. It's not unlike being a creative child and being forced to take art lessons. There's benefits, of course, but sometimes you'll have the gift squeezed right out of you.

The classroom is for instruction, guidance, feedback and practice.

Never, never, NEVER doubt that your true grasp of the language will come from being with native ASL signers in real life, doing real life things.

So yeah, this was another little lecture about getting out into the deaf world. I just thought maybe if I used some 50 cent words you'd believe me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spotted! The Missing Link (in Voice to Sign Instruction)

More on Interpreter Training

First you learn ASL*

Then you learn to interpret from Spoken English to ASL.**

*Okay, not totally learn it but you have the basic vocabulary down and you have a sense of the grammatical features.

**Yeah, you've worked some on consecutive Voice to Sign and you might have English Intrusions, but I know how to sign while someone is talking.

When you complete your course of study, maybe you are out there waiting to get certified or maybe you know somebody who knew somebody or you know somebody who doesn't know anything about ASL and you got a job. Working or waiting, you know that something is missing, that what you do doesn't look like what experienced and skilled interpreters do---not even the "newbie" version of it.

I've seen many ITP graduates go through the after-graduation slump and ask themselves questions like....Where did things go wrong? Did I choose the right profession? What happens now ?

To me, the fact that the overwhelming majority asks themselves these questions, means that there IS something missing, and that ITP graduates KNOW it.

And I believe I've come up with that "missing in action" might be.

Remember when you and I were acquiring our first language? Do you remember how we refine our skills?

It was "interlocutor feedback" or "backchannel feedback" or people saying "Wait...WHAT are you trying to say? Can you explain that again?"

Remember when we tried to tell our mothers what happened on the bus and how we lost our left glove?

Me: So, this guy moved over and then she says "no" and I went, like....that's my seat and he goes, yesterday we changed.

Mom: Wait....what? Who's "she"

Me: Oh, the bus driver. So anyway the bus driver is all like NO and the other girl is just sitting there, then...

Mom: What does this have to do with losing your science book?

Me: I'm just explaining what happened in the morning.

Mom: THIS morning?

Me: No this is before that!

And so this goes on until I explain it clearly or my mother goes and gets a headache powder.

Slowly but surely, I learn to organize my thoughts and express myself better and write book reports and essays. In other words, I learn how I can explain things so that people can understand what I am talking about.

This part of language acquisition is crucial. And it is exactly what is missing from Your Average ITP.

After a student gets a rudimentary grasp on the language, there has to be a period of time where he or she should be working on Explaining, Not Interpreting.

So, what would this look like in a classroom?

Perhaps, Lucy, the eager ITP student, would listen that famous "Highly Effective Habits" tape.

And then Lucy would attempt to explain the habits "as she understood them." From this an instructor would be able to give feedback (not necessarily about every nuance of ASL grammar) but taking a holistic approach-- Overall does this student make sense and she get across the message?

The goal should be (before even beginning to interpret) for an interpreting student to be able to visualize & conceptualize material outside of his or her own experience and relate it to an ASL user.

This would give Lucy a sense of confidence and competence that her cognitive and linguistic abilities were effectively delivering a message.

Basically, Lucy, you've got some explaining to do!

My concern is that too much emphasis is put onto "can the student get out the signs fast enough" and not enough emphasis on "can the student get the message across."

My advice to those out there who are mentoring new interpreters:

Stop having them interpret. Give them things to explain. Engage them in a debate. Challenge them to USE the language.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Learning Sign-to-Voice Interpreting: MIND THE GAP!

Here's three steps to becoming an awesome sign-to-voice interpreter:

1. Always look at the deaf person
2. Understand everything he or she signs
3. Say it in perfect English.

That's it. Now go out and conquer the world.

But wait, there must be more to it than that!

In the typical sign to voice class. all too often the student is asked to do step 3, before he or she can even follow step #1.

And step one in more sophisticated terms is to have the visual acuity/tracking skills to be able to take in all of the information that is on the surface and embedded in a signed narrative. In short, the average beginning student cannot even SEE the signs.

Scene from an actual class

Me (the teacher): Notice how the deaf signer's head goes slightly back and the eye gaze changes, that indicates a relative clause, so you know that's not a new idea, but an expansion on the topic.

Ted (the student): What? Where? The eyes changed? I didn't see it.

Me: Let's look again.

Ted: (puzzled expression)

: Again?

Ted: Ohhhh, now I see it.

Before students are asked to voice or even UNDERSTAND the signed message, they have to be trained TO SEE, TO NOTICE, TO PROCESS the visual information.

This is a big gap in how voicing is generally taught. Perhaps it is more than a gap....perhaps it is a sinkhole. A very significant bottomless sinkhole--because believe me, once you miss that aspect of your skill acquisition, I promise you will spend years trying to catch up,

In my opinion, the way most ITP teach voicing is "FIRE, AIM, READY"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Celebration of Mediocrity, Part 2

Spoken language interpreters would so much rather work from their second language to their first. It makes perfect sense.

Sign language interpreters rarely want to work from sign to voice. That also makes perfect sense, in a non-sensical way. From my perspective, when you stand in front of an audience of one and you are signing away who knows if you are making full sentences or even delivering the message. Perhaps the deaf consumer does, but how often does a deaf consumer actually go up to an interpreter and say "Hmmm, I understood about half of what you signed."

But if you are's hard to cover up those awkward silent moments or those sentences that just trail off.

To be an interpreter, you should be a fairly balanced bilingual. At any rate, you shouldn't feel like you can go out there and sign your heart out knowing that if the deaf person really wanted to express himself that you'd be flummoxed.

Also, don't show up at assignments, look at me and breathe a sigh of relief-- Oh great you are here, YOU can voice! I'm pretty sure we are getting the same hourly rate.

As far as I am concerned you are only as good as your weakest skill.

I'm not putting down those interpreters who are still striving for greatness. Whether or not they reach greatness isn't even the point. It's about the drive and the knowledge that there is still more to achieve.

It's okay to have more to learn. It's just not okay to believe you've "arrived" before you actually have.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Interpreting Today -- The Celebration of Mediocrity

In any field or profession, there will always be those who excel beyond the expected, out-perform the crowd.

Not everyone has to be a superstar; it is also okay to be qualified, skilled, able, competent and clear.

What is see in the intpreting world right now though, is an abundance of "GOOD-ENOUGH."

There's so much of that around, that I believe more people have forgotten what minimum competency looks like.

When a good interpreter comes to an assignment and actually signs something approximating ASL, she is seen as "crackerjack."

Mediocre then looks pretty good.

And the field celebrates those who are barely qualified.

They scream, "We are NATIONALLY CERTIFIED!" Nationally certified equals approved by an organization as having the basic skills necessary to work professionally, not that you are GOOD, COMPETENT or ABLE in any one situation.

I'm tired of us celebrating mediocracy.

People should feel a certain professional pressure to rise up. Instead by being given prime assignments and not having to get consumer feedback and not being monitored by interpreter provider agencies and being assigned to assignments by people unqualified to judge...we continue the lowering of the bar.

Interpreters HEAL THYSELVES.

Get a grip on your skill level and stop feeling entitled to take assignments just because you are offered them.