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Educational Interpreting

Updated on May 1, 2013

It's A Job Like No Other

Educational Interpreting is more of a calling than a career; it is exhausting and exhilarating, frustrating and fun, challenging and rewarding. It has been a part of my life for the past 12 years.

I didn't start out in education; when my daughter was diagnosed at age 4 with a bilateral sensorinueral hearing loss, I was the administrative assistant to the president of a large financial institution. I learned to sign by immersion (basically by diving into the deaf community hands first. All I knew at the outset were the A-B-Cs in slow motion and I taught my daughter, who was five at the time, as I learned. I'm not entirely sure I recommend this method, as it seemed to be a side trip to insanity for about a year - albeit an extremely effective one - but...

To make a long story short, I went from an executive office to a third grade classroom (talk about your culture shock :o) I am creating this lens to share with you some of the things I have learned along the way both as a parent and as an interpreter.

A growing crisis

There is an increasing shortage of interpreters for deaf consumers all across the United States.

DEAF: Politically incorrect? - Nah, it's just a word :o)

Signing vs. Interpreting: Is there much difference?

You'd better believe it!

Maybe you already know some sign language and you've decided you might like to become an interpreter. There are several colleges scattered throughout the U.S. that offer Interpreter Training Programs (ITPs for short). It's important to note that there is a huge difference between interpreting and conversational signing; speed and stress for starters. When you are conversing with someone in sign, it is your own thoughts traveling from your brain to your hands, and you are able to speed up, slow down or even stop and regroup those thoughts at will. To put it more plainly, you already know what YOU want to say and you are free to say it as fast or as slowly as you like. Even when receiving communication, you are at liberty to ask the other signer to slow down or even repeat the information if necessary.

In a professional setting, however, those options are very rarely a part of the equation known as the interpreting process. You are expected to continuously receive speech and/or signs, then simultaneously process the information and spit it back out in a manner that best matches your student's comprehension level (and the new information keeps coming). You rarely have any control over the speaker's volume (mumbling students giving oral reports are always a nice challenge) or speed (did you know that a nervous teacher up for evaluation by their principal can speak 937 words per minute?) It is an extremely demanding job when done correctly and tremendously satisfying as well. Additionally, there are things like field trips and visitors, assemblies and pep rallies, club meetings and counselors; all of which you are responsible for interpreting.

Did you know?

As of 2002, 73% of deaf children were mainstreamed in public schools.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in Interpreting

If It is AMERICAN Sign Language - Why is the word order so weird??


Because unlike spoken English which is auditory, Sign Language is a VISUAL language...

(that's why :o)

English (like all other spoken languages), is auditory. Unlike many other languages, however, if you have not grown up "hearing" English, it is extremely difficult to master.

When I was teaching sign language classes, I always did a simple exercise to help my hearing students understand the difference between spoken English and Sign Language. It never failed to generate a room full of light bulbs and ohhhhhhhhhh's.

Consider the following English sentence:

The car is parked in front of the house.

Suppose I handed you a small toy car and asked you to place it in front of "the house". Your first question would probably be either, "What house?" or "Where is the house exactly?". This is, of course, because visually speaking you cannot put an object in front of something that isn't there. This is the main reason why ASL word order is often so much different than spoken English. It makes a lot more sense when you think about it that way, doesn't it? English is, essentially, a second language to many deaf people (word order and figurative language being the biggest stumbling blocks). It is also fraught with conflicting rules, slang, idioms, and a million other things that just don't make sense unless you grew up "hearing" it (so you can "see" what the problem is here, can't you?).

An Important Note

Learning sign without interacting with deaf people is like learning to swim without water. - Bill Vicars

Well I'll be a monkey's uncle! - ASL even has its own idioms :o)

The Manual Alphabet - American Sign Language

An Item of Interest

Sign language is like any spoken language; completely different from one country to another.

The Manual Alphabet - British Sign Language

Some great books on sign language - Elaine Costello's are excellent

Destination Communication

Understanding the language deficit

How many times have you asked someone, "Where on earth did you hear that???" If you have kids it was probably several hundred times by their 5th birthday. But have you ever thought about what happens if someone can't hear it? Children that are deaf or hard of hearing generally miss all or most of the peripheral information inherent in our everyday life. Sort of like keeping a child in a soundproof booth and only opening the door once or twice a day to give them a new word directly. At the end of a month's time their vocabulary would only be 30 - 60 words simply because there was no other source available to them.

To make matters worse, 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and only 27% of the parents ever learn to sign. Of the 27% that actually learn to sign, only 10% of them are able to sign with any proficiency. Compounding this problem is the fact that a child's hearing loss can remain undetected for a number of years (we did not discover our daughter's until she was 4). When you consider that the first 6 months of life are supposedly the most critical for language, it is obviously a problem of considerable magnitude.

This is, unfortunately, the way mainstreaming happens most of the time. With the exception of deaf children born to deaf parents, the majority of deaf students begin their education lagging far behind their hearing peers due to a simple lack of language exposure.

Editor's Personal Note on Language: English is a RIDICULOUS language; something I never realized until I found myself trying to explain it to a deaf student. Consider this semantic: We get IN a car, in a truck, and in a van, but we get ON a boat, on a bus, and on a plane. Why??? I haven't a clue.

How about negative words like "terrible" and "awful" used in conflicting ways? Ha. So much for those context clues:

My sister's grades are terrible (LOUSY);

My sister is terribly clever. (BRILLIANT)


That boy is awfully mean.

That boy is awfully cute.

Same words, but an awfully big difference in meaning (you know what I mean?)

How About: "i" before "e" except after "c"? - So many English rules are just made to be broken

A Frequent Frustration

The average reading level of a deaf high school student (age 17-18) is 4.0 (fourth grade).

Social Skills

Or lack thereof

Many times it falls to the classroom teacher to reinforce and sometimes teach basic social skills to their students. Often these same skills are lacking with a deaf/hard of hearing student as well, but the lack may manifest itself much differently. It is important to note the role that a language deficit (or barrier) can play in basic social etiquette, like turn taking for instance. A hearing child without social skills might stomp up to another child on a swing and demand, "Get off; I want to swing now!" whereas a deaf/hard of hearing child may simply walk up and push the child off the swing and not see a thing in the world wrong with that (of course we would :o)

Deaf children frequently feel cut off from their hearing peers, and it is up to the interpreters and classroom teachers to help them feel more a part of the whole. Learning some basic signs as a class and playing fingerspelling games to practice spelling words (without the interpreter) can help to bridge the gap and make students feel included. It is also important to point out to deaf/hard of hearing students that ALL kids feel lonely and misunderstood at some point in their life; it's not just them.

In addition to an unawareness of socials skills, there are often outside influences that can shape a child's behavior for better or worse. As a parent, I fought a constant battle with things like extra prizes at the dentist's and doctor's offices (because my daughter was just so darn CUTE) and even money handed to her by strangers (because the poor little thing has hearing aids). Even the most responsible of grown ups can have a tough time keeping a child from becoming spoiled; I know I sure did. :oP

UNfunny Factoid

FCC closed captioning rules do not apply to videotapes or DVDs, which are often provided to teachers with classroom book sets.

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I hope you enjoyed your visit... - Don't forget to "sign" my guestbook

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    • randomramblings1 profile image


      5 years ago

      Awesome article! There are very few legit articles on the Deaf community on Squidoo...glad to see we're working together to inform others! :) I like how you distinguished between sign and interpreters say it's a whole different creature and after all that I have studied, I believe it!

      Keep the articles coming, I'll read them for sure, and maybe check out one of mine in your spare time? ;) I wrote "10-reasons-why-deaf-love-asl" and "deaf-non-profit-organizations".

      Thanks for your awesome lens!

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 

      6 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      This is something I've wanted to do for a while now. This was helpful advice to me to take into consideration while I make my decision.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Another excellent lens! Love the layout too.

    • Mihaela Vrban profile image

      Mihaela Vrban 

      9 years ago from Croatia

      I did enjoy this lens! You made very informative and helpful lens. Blessed by an Angel!


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