Deaf-Parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education?

Amy Williamson presented Deaf-parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston/Newton. Amy will examine the experience of deaf-parented interpreters as child language brokers, heritage learners of sign language, and practitioners working among the community who raised them.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

“Do You Remember the First Time You Interpreted?”

For those of you without deaf family members, you remember. Clearly. This question probably evokes a visceral emotional reaction and a vivid mind’s eye image. For me, a white middle class hearing female who grew up with deaf parents and extended family members, I might as well be asked if I remember the first time I ate toast. Toast has always been a part of my world. So has interpreting. Well, at least the concept of interpreting.

What I grew up doing was what is commonly referred to as child language brokering. I don’t remember the FIRST time I interpreted but I do have memories of culturally brokering between my parents and non-signing people. When I was in middle school, I was assigned a submission to the dreaded science fair. Any of you with children may have some empathy for my mother as she had to deal with a daughter (me) that was, is, and shall always be the Queen of Procrastination. As per usual, just before the stores were closing the night before the project was due, I needed a run to the drug store to get some long forgotten but very important item to complete the project. Just as the store was closing, my mother was at the cash register purchasing the key item that would make or break my project. While I was not actually standing with my mother, I was close enough to witness the following:

Clerk: Hello, how are you?

My mother: looking down to retrieve money from her wallet does not see that the clerk has said something to her

Clerk: Well, you don’t have to be rude.

My mother: still looking down does not see that the clerk has said something else

In that moment, my 13-year-old self knew that I could do one of a few things in reaction. I was not ‘interpreting’ for my family members as I do now that I am a professional interpreter, but I had over time, trial, and error learned how to determine the goals of each of the people communicating and navigate between them. Each interaction, constellation of players, and context would result in a different decision on how to broker between them.

Some Days I Made Good Decisions. Other Days I Did Not.

On that late night I made a decision. I walked up to my mother and started signing to her. The act of signing made immediately clear to the clerk, who probably was exhausted after a long day of waiting on ungrateful customers and may not have intended for the comment to be said out loud, that my mother was deaf. Not rude. And more than anything, wanted to get in and out of the store with the must have for the science fair project item. Anyone that knows my mother can vouch for me when I say that ‘rude’ is the last adjective you would ever hear in a description of her.

To Broker or Not to Broker, Not a Choice.

This experience wasn’t a first. It wasn’t the last. This type of thing will always happen for children of deaf parents. No amount of Video Relay Service, Closed Captioning on TV, laws protecting the rights of Deaf people, or interpreters on every street corner will prevent children from witnessing and brokering in situations like this. Even if a parent chooses not to have their child broker, it is almost impossible to stand by and watch miscommunication happen. Children want to help their parents. How the situation is handled is unique to the relationship between child and parent and those decisions are highly personal. The dynamics around these interactions need to be understood and respected by the larger interpreting community.

What Defines a Native Signer? Is Auditory Status Part of the Criteria?

Signed language researchers have no consensus on a definition of who is a native sign language user. Such a small percentage of deaf people are born to signing deaf parents. By defining a native user as someone that uses the language from birth, the number of native users for their research purposes would be limited. Researchers manipulate the criteria to suit their research questions.

Among spoken language colleagues the criteria for native users of a language is straightforward. Anyone that uses a language from birth is considered a native user. For some reason, modality and auditory status become part of the criteria when we talk about native users of signed language. People seem loathe to admit that a majority of native signed language users are hearing because most deaf people have hearing children and those children acquire a signed language from birth.

What Makes a Heritage Language User? Fluency Will Vary.

If a person uses a minority language at home with their parents and is not educated in that same language, they are called a heritage language user. As a student of their home language, they are called a heritage language learner. Deaf-parented individuals are heritage language signers and potentially heritage language learners if they take a signed language class.

Heritage language fluency will vary wildly among users and may vary within the same family. Fluency in the heritage language will depend on several factors such as how often the child interacts in the heritage language or how diverse the language users are that they interact with. Family language policies and dynamics are unique and evolve for each family differently.

The Role of Family, Community & School.

For any language acquisition, whether it is a first or subsequent language, there are three areas of immersion that will ensure full and rich language acquisition. They are family, community, and school.  If we apply this model of language acquisition to each of four groups, we can develop a better understanding of the opportunities for signed language acquisition and fluency development for the communities we work with.

If you are deaf with deaf parents, you will have signed language immersion in all three areas. If you are deaf with hearing parents, there are no guarantees of immersion in all three areas. If you are hearing with hearing parents, the opportunities for immersion in any one of the three areas are difficult to experience. If you are, like me, hearing with deaf parents, you will experience immersion at home, possibly in the community but not in school. I conducted a survey of 751 deaf-parented interpreters and found that 74% of the respondents reported that they had interactions with signing deaf people that were not their own parents at least weekly. deaf-parented interpreters do have community opportunities for signed language acquisition.

In thinking about these three areas of language immersion, how does your experience shape up? How much signed language immersion have you had in your home life, community, or schooling?

Child Language Broker to Professional Interpreter

When I was 18, I needed a job. I was a poor college student that needed money for shoes. And beer (shhhh…don’t tell my mother).  I thought I had no marketable skills but then I found out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had just passed and the world was in desperate need of exactly what I had to offer.

I was a heritage language user of ASL and I had experience as a child language broker. These two experiences were valued and needed. Without setting out any intention of becoming an interpreter, doors opened that started me on a professional career path. A path that I am grateful for.

My own entry to interpreting is not unique. Almost 80% of the respondents to my survey fell into the ASL/English interpreting industry without intentionally pursuing it. Most of the interpreters that responded to my survey started interpreting before the age of 25. Just like me and some of you.

What does all of this have to do with interpreter education and why am I…someone with no formal interpreter education program background…even talking about it? Let me show you.

Only 28% of the deaf-parented interpreter survey respondents attended and completed a formal interpreter education program.

Deaf-parented interpreters want to get training. They are committed to getting structured training. Enough so that one survey respondent, a mother of young children, drove an hour and a half one-way to attend a structured interpreter training program. That same program required students to attend specific evening and weekend events in the deaf community to get more exposure and understanding of ASL and the community that uses it. The respondent’s deaf family members lived near her and she saw and interacted with them and the deaf community regularly. Her instructor insisted that she adhere to the requirement to attend the same events that her classmates were required to attend.

The hoops she was required to jump to get exposure to sign language and the deaf community were unnecessary for her but the system failed her by sticking to their rigid requirements.

Amy Williamson

She is one of the 28%.

25 Years of Progress?

In the 25 years since I entered the field, the bar has been raised on entry-level requirements for interpreters. In the grand scheme of things, this is a good thing but I challenge our industry to look at what we may be losing as we raise the bar.

If I were to graduate from high school today and need money for shoes and beer, I’d probably have to get a job at McDonald’s.  The community would not have access to my skillset. I would not be able to work in many states without licensure. Licensure would require certification. Certification would require sitting for RID’s NIC or CDI exam. To sit for that exam, I would need to have completed a BA or AA degree or demonstrated equivalent competency through the alternate pathways process.

Alternate pathway is a nice option for anyone that has not completed a degree but it still requires documentation of interpreting and education.

How would you propose I document all of the situations like the one in the drug store the night before my science fair project was due?

I would likely not become an interpreter in 2015. Maybe I’d be a police detective or a bookstore manager. All of those respondents that said they ‘fell into’ interpreting would be teachers or lawyers or waiters or accountants or stay at home moms.

Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe interpreter education is working for most people. What do I know?

Together We Can Ensure Adequate Training.

It recently dawned on me that I had never met an interpreter/student interpreter before they started to learn sign. I don’t know what it is like to decide to take an ASL class or to become an interpreter. I don’t know what it is like to see a person signing for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to interpret for the first time (let alone in a classroom from a video). I don’t know what it is like to sign in front of other people for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to go though a decision making tree that you learned in a class before making a decision while interpreting.

I do know that expecting deaf-parented interpreters, child language brokers who are native and heritage users of signed language, to fit into the current model of interpreter education does not work for most of us. We need professional education. We need acknowledgement that we bring a different skill set to our industry than interpreters who do not have deaf parents.

Let’s ensure that little girls with deaf parents, and their classmates, have options for interpreter education that take into account their native and heritage language use. Training opportunities that are designed to enhance and refine their child language brokering experiences. We need deaf-parented interpreters to have an integral part of shaping our industry as we provide services to our signing communities.


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References

Angelelli, C. (2010). A professional ideology in the making: Bilingual youngsters interpreting for the communities and the notion of (no) choice. Translation and Interpreting Studies, 5(1), 94-108.

Compton, S. (2014). American Sign Language as a Heritage Language. In T. G. Wiley, J. K. Peyton, D. Christian, S. C. Moore, & N. Liu (Eds.), Handbook of Heritage, Community, and Native American Languages in the United States: Research, Policy, and Educational Practice. New York: Routledge and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Napier, J. (in press). Not just child’s play: Exploring bilingualism and language brokering as a precursor to the development of expertise as a professional signed language interpreter. In R. Antonini (Ed.), Non-professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the Art and Future of an Emerging Field of Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Reynolds, W. & Palmer, J. (2014, June). Codas as heritage learners →signers. Presented at CODA International, Codazona, Tempe, AZ.