"TerpTopics(TM)" "Interpreter Topics Rendered Faithfully (TM)"

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Maybe you are learning ASL and think you might want to become a terp (sign language interpreter); but, first you have questions:  Perhaps you have recently made the commitment to become a terp, and find that now you have even more questions.   Whatever your reason for viewing this page, we hope you will enjoy your stay.

This FAQ assumes that you (the reader) are a hearing adult, and that ASL is not your native (L1) language.

 


 

1.  How long does it take to learn ASL (American Sign Language)?

Most interpreters, regardless of how long they have been at it, will tell you that they are still learning.  They are not "just saying that."  They mean it..  It takes a long time; longer than most people might guess.  

A rule of thumb is that it takes about five years to develop some fluency, and about 10 years to be fairly proficient.  You may find that you progress more quickly or more slowly than that.  

As a second- or third-language learner, you will probably enjoy some early successes, learning lots of ASL vocabulary, and picking up a few idioms.  You will also begin learning ASL grammar, to use signing space, role-shifting, and referents.

2.  Why does it take so long to learn ASL?

Because you are an adult, it takes considerable time and a sincere commitment to learn a second or third spoken language.  

Like spoken languages, ASL has acquired historical and cultural import, and has its own grammar, syntax, and idioms.  But, unlike spoken languages, ASL is non-linear (is three-dimensional) and naturally incorporates the linguistic use of space, non-manual markers, and other features.  Learning a manual language can be challenging for native users of a spoken language.  

ASL is a wonderfully rich and beautiful language.  Take your time and enjoy the journey.

3.  How can I learn ASL?

People learn ASL in a variety of ways, and it is recommended that you take advantage of as many methods as possible because each one offers something that the others do not.  
    
Avenues to learning include: 

classes at a local deaf service center, community college, or university; 
enrollment in college or university ITP (interpreter training program; find them here); 
developing a mentor/protégé relationship with a native ASL user or qualified interpreter; 
private tutoring; 
participating in Silent Socials and Suppers
attending interpreter conferences and workshops
referring to ASL dictionaries and interpreting and Deaf culture resources; 
taking advantage of the wealth of information on the Internet; and 
frequent chats with d/Deaf family, friends, and acquaintances.  

The ASL ocean is wide and deep.  Pick a spot and jump in!

4.  Why do people become sign language interpreters?

Well, there may be as many responses to this question as there are interpreters.  

Responses include:

Because ASL is such a beautiful language that I got hooked and couldn't walk away from it; 

Because I have a friend or family member who is a terp, and I saw how much s/he enjoyed his/her work;
 
Because I wanted to be of service at my place of worship;
 
Because my mother/father is deaf and sign language is my first (L1) language, so interpreting feels natural to me; 

Because I was fascinated with the educational interpreters where I went to school and knew I wanted to do that when I grew up.  

As you begin meeting interpreters, feel free to ask them why they do it.  You will find that interpreters are often happy to share their story, especially when you say you are thinking about entering the field.

5.  I've been studying ASL [or interpreting] for a while now, and suddenly I'm "stuck."  I can't seem to learn anything new, and I'm concerned.  Should I quit?  Maybe it's not for me.  What should I do?

This has happened to many interpreters.  You have simply hit a plateau.  Hang in there.  Try to relax.  Keep going.  

Do not quit because of this common stumbling block.  Plateaus are part of the process, and you will get through it.  It may take only a week or a couple of months, but you will come out on the other side, and will just as suddenly begin learning at a satisfying pace again.  

A feeling of frustration is natural, of course.  But, try not to beat yourself up too much.  Be kind to yourself and take a break for a few days or a week, if you must.  Hang in there.  You will be glad that you did.  

By this point in your process, you have probably developed at least one mentor/protégé relationship, so speak frankly with your mentor about your process.  If you have not yet negotiated for a mentor, now is a good time to find one.

6.  Once I've acquired some level of signing skill, I'll automatically be an interpreter, right?

No.  Signing is one thing; interpreting is another.  The two require different skills, , and abilities (SKAs).  Someone might be a wonderful signer, and not effective as an interpreter.  Not every good signer will be a good interpreter.  

In addition to language fluency, an interpreter must succeed in performing the required mental processes and physical tasks.  Some people observe an interpreter at work and believe the job to be simple and easy; that interpreters do not really do much.  After all, don't interpreters simply repeat what someone else has said?  It is more complex than that.  

An interpreter must receive the source message, understand it, reformulate it into a different language and mode (spoken to signed or vice versa), and then render a complete, accurate, culturally and dynamically equivalent message in the target language.  S/He must match the pace of discourse, over a sustained period of time.  

Interpreting requires more than knowledge of the languages in use.  It is mentally and physically challenging work that is often is emotionally and/or psychologically challenging, as well.

7.  Where do interpreters work?

Interpreters might be found working wherever there are d/Deaf people and hearing people who wish to communicate.  

Interpreters practice in a variety of settings, including: 

            Community; 
            Legal; 
            Medical; 
            Mental Health; 
            Tactile (consumer is deaf and blind); 
            Theatrical; 
            Platform (during a presentation, lecture, workshop; often on a stage); 
            Educational; 
            Religious; and 
            VRS / VRI (video relay service / video remote interpreting).

8.  What does "repetitive motion injury" mean?

Most people have heard of carpal tunnel syndrome, or tennis or golf elbow.  These are examples of repetitive motion injuries.  

People who sign for an extended period of time without resting their hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders are in danger of sustaining a repetitive motion injury.  

Risk of injury is one of the reasons that, when an interpreting assignment is expected to be lengthy, more than one interpreter is advised.  When more than one interpreter is assigned, they are working as a team and will agree to take turns every 20 minutes or so, allowing each interpreter the physical rest needed to help in avoiding this type of injury.  This working together arrangement is called "teaming."  

For an informative article online about the risk of injury to sign language interpreters, see: Sign Language Interpreters at High Ergonomic Risk, an April 2008 piece published by Science Daily.

9.  Will I become wealthy as a sign language interpreter?

Probably not.  Sign language interpreter earnings, like that of many professions, can vary a great deal.  A terp's credentials, experience, specialty, skill level, as well as setting and geographic location, will play a part in determining income.  

To give you a sense: If you are an educational terp, you might earn between $15 and $35 an hour.  A contract terp (that is, an interpreter working through an agency) might earn $30 to $100 or more per hour; and legal terps might earn $50 to $150 or more an hour.  

Many interpreters work a "day job" (say, at a school or vocational center) and contract with one or more interpreter agencies for evening or weekend assignments.

10.  What if I find myself in a professional or ethical dilemma or conflict?

The seven tenets of the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) set the standard and are, therefore, the professional interpreter's guide.  Certified terps and interpreter members of RID (or a RID affiliate) are bound by it.  Learn it, support it, and follow it.  Your thoughtful and consistent adherence to the CPC will serve you, your consumers, and our profession well.  RID's CPC FAQ page is a helpful resource, as are instructors, colleagues, and mentors.

11.  I feel frustrated.  My ASL instructor is deaf, and when I go to the Silent Social at the mall, they won't let me use my voice.  I have so many questions; but, I don't know enough sign language to be able to ask them.  What can I do?

Yes, this can be frustrating.  And it is a situation similar to that encountered by deaf people in a hearing society.  Use it as an opportunity to problem-solve and to learn communication coping strategies.  

Hearing signers at Silent Socials (and elsewhere) have internalized and demonstrate a deep respect of information accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Silent Socials are so named because, well, voices are turned off.  Such a forum is an oasis of language emersion and offers a unique learning experience.  That said, your question is certainly an appropriate one.  

Here are some suggestions:

Write down your courteous request for assistance and your questions, and then present it to someone who seems approachable.  

You might ask one of the hearing signers if they would mind stepping away from the group, to allow you to use your voice in a different setting (maybe a nearby food court table or a store).  Promise to not keep the hearing signer longer than a few minutes; after all, s/he is there to experience the Silent Social, and did not necessarily intend to become your captive audience.
  
Do not underestimate your instructor's communication skill and willingness.  S/He has placed him- or herself at the front of a classroom of "newbies," and is likely very knowledgeable of how to help students.  Ask for the help you need.  

Go to a library and the Internet for information.  There are many resources available.

12.  I'm learning sign language and can understand quite a bit.  In public, I notice that deaf people chat with one another as though other people don't know what they're saying.  Out of respect, how should I behave if I'm in a restaurant and notice people signing at a nearby table?

You may also have noticed that hearing people behave similarly -- as though no one knows what they are saying.  

Naturally, you would not presume to focus on the conversations of people nearby.  You might decide to do nothing in the way of letting the signers know that someone else (you) in the room understands sign language because the moment is fleeting and you are not likely to observe their conversation.  

At the same time, many terps believe it a courtesy to discretely and calmly catch the eye of one of the signers, and then to offer a warm smile with a respectful greeting, such as "Good morning," or "Good afternoon."  In turn, the nearby signer might quickly acknowledge your greeting, or might extend the greeting moment with a quick remark about the restaurant or the weather.  

Be prepared for a couple of questions about your hearing status (deaf? hard of hearing? hearing?), or whether you are an interpreter or a student.  The exchange will likely end at that, and you will have relieved yourself of any moral or social burden you might otherwise have felt.  

If you have been at the restaurant for quite some time, perhaps building up the confidence you need to greet the nearby signers, by then it may be preferable to do nothing.  Think of how you might feel in the other person's place.  Suppose you had just finished pouring out your heart about a personal matter, and then some ASL student at the next table decides to reveal him- or herself after having been there the whole time.  

Use your best judgment.

13.  People refer to "ASL grammar" a lot; but, I'm having a hard time nailing it down.  What is it, exactly?  How does it work?

Learners of a second language often benefit from a bit of a refresher on the grammar of their native language to help them understand that of the new language.  A basic understanding of what is a subject, object, topic, predicate, etc., will serve you well.  If you would like to refresh your knowledge of English grammar, click here for a good reference resource.  

Assuming you are comfortable with grammar in general, it may help to know that sentences in ASL are usually constructed in the order (syntax) of: time-topic-comment, or, put another way: time-subject-predicate.  For example: a signed interpretation of the English sentence, "I was sick yesterday" might be, YESTERDAY ME SICK.  

One good resource for ASL grammar is the teachers' guide in the "green book" series; another the TerpTopics grammar page here.  There are many good resources throughout the Internet; for some of them, check the TerpTopics.com Links page.

14.  I want to learn the correct way to sign or interpret an English word or an English sentence; but, it seems like everyone I ask signs it differently.  Are they wrong?

If they are experienced signers, they are probably not "wrong."  There are likely a few things going on.  

First, there may not be an exact, matching, sign for the English word you have in mind, so a signer will demonstrate what s/he understands to be a conceptually accurate signed expression.  As an example, while there is a sign meaning bear, there is not a single sign meaning polar bear, so polar might be fingerspelled or expressed as a description or other reference.  

Second, often there are more than one conceptually accurate way of signing a given message, and you are being offered two or more of them.  As an example, a signer might sometimes use the sign CAUSE, while at other times, might choose MAKE HAPPEN or another conceptually accurate expression.  

Next, concepts are often signed differently depending on whether the signer is using ASL (American Sign Language) or PSE (Pidgin Signed English) or is transliterating English, and so on.  

Keep in mind that you are seeing an interpretation, not a translation.  Among signers, as among users of spoken English, there may be any number of ways to say the same thing.  

An excellent example of variation is the Pledge of Allegiance (to the US flag).  If you are in the company of several terps signing the Pledge, you are likely to see a few variations in sign selection.  

During the 2007 NFL Super Bowl,  Billy Joel sang the US National Anthem while actress Marlee Matlin, herself deaf, signed her version of it.  Also on the field was a highly talented and experienced [hearing] certified interpreter, Jason Hay-Southwell.  There were differences between Ms. Matlin's and Mr. Hay-Southwell's interpretations.  Later, an Internet blogger concluded that, because the signed interpretations were different, "deaf people are just messing with us" -- perhaps an easy mistake to make, yet clearly not true.

15.  With so many ways of signing (ASL; PSE; transliterating; etc.), which one should I concentrate on?

If your goal is to become a NAD-RID-certified interpreter, you will need to become fluent in the use of them all, and a few more.  One of a successful student's first steps is to learn what each is, and when each is appropriately used.  

For an excellent overview of transliterating, see the book Transliterating: Show Me the English by Jean E. Kelly.  This book is available through many lending libraries; however, you will not regret a decision to purchase it, as you will refer to it again and again.  

For more recommended reference resources, see page 16 of the Florida RID affiliate (FRID) Quality Assurance study guide here, and the variety of links on TerpTopics.com here.

16.  What is a "classifier," and how is it used in ASL?  I don't think we have those in English, and I don't understand the idea at all.

In linguistics, a classifier (CL) is a word or sign that represents a type (class) of thing (noun).  

Examples found in English include: cup; food; vehicle; animal; human; etc.  Rather than say, "Please eat your green beans, fried chicken with gravy, and rice," a parent might simply say, "Eat your food, please."  Or, "Put your cup back onto the table, please," instead of, "Put your yellow two-handled Sippy® back onto the table, please."  

Classifiers in ASL include handshapes representing: animal-walking-upright-on-two-legs (human, gorilla); animal-walking-on-four-legs (cat, armadillo); motorized-vehicle (car; platform loader); building (store, school, castle); item (vase, knick-knack, toy); long-thin-thing (wire, string, pencil); flat-thing (paper, book); tunnel-like-thing (cave); tubular-thing (cable; hose); etc. 

The three-dimensional (non-linear) nature of ASL enables signers to put a classifier into motion, showing how it behaves, or where it is in relation to another noun (person, place, or thing).  Spoken/written languages are two-dimensional (linear), so use qualifying words to convey movement or relationship of nouns.  For example: "The car sped from my left, crossed my path, nearly hitting me, then came to a stop up the street, in front of a delivery truck."  Using ASL, a signer uses a classifier handshape for vehicle, showing its movement, direction, and ultimate stopping place, relative to the signer and to the second vehicle (the delivery truck).

17.  I'm puzzled.  I read somewhere that ASL doesn't use the verb "to be" (ex: is; be; was; am), and doesn't use "because," or "then, either.  But, I'm sure I've seen signers use signs for those.  What's the scoop?

American Sign Language assumes existence ("being-ness"), so there is no need of a distinct verb equivalent for the English verb "to be."  

If a signer is talking about something, it can be assumed to exist, unless the signer characterizes it as a product of imagination or dream, or as a proposal, suggestion, or hypothetical person-place-or-thing (noun).  

Regarding English prepositions and conjunctions (because; then, of; among, under; etc.): ASL has a limited need of distinct signs correlating to these English word-types because noun or event relationships and cause-and-effect are expressed in three-dimensional space (a book is shown atop a table, a dog is shown beneath a car, a person is shown third in a long line, and so forth), body-shifting and other non-manual markers, are expressed in chronological (time) order, or through the use of any number of other linguistic mechanisms inherent to American Sign Language.  See more about ASL grammar, including tense, here.

In English, as you know, tense is commonly established via verb conjugation (she was; they were; it had been).  In ASL, tense and verbs are not thusly intertwined; they are expressed separately.  

When you see a sign representing an English word that is not used in ASL, you will know it is from a manually coded English system (CASE; SEE1; SEE2; etc.).  Signs for IS, BE, WAS, BECAUSE, and THEN, and THE are some of many signs that have been developed for manually coded English systems and, therefore, have no rightful place in ASL because they are not American Sign Language signs ... they are English.

It is true that many signers use these signs from English, so why do they do it if they're not ASL?  They either learned incorrectly (were taught the wrong thing or misunderstood), or they know better but use the signs anyway (i.e.: because it's socially acceptable to do so), or because they are communicating in coded English or PSE (Pidgin Signed English).

18.  Is there a written form of American Sign Language?

Not yet.  Spoken languages are linear in nature, so lend themselves quite well to the nature of written language, which is two-dimensional coding.  However; signed languages are not linear; they are three-dimensional, so are not easily represented by a linear, two-dimensional code (writing).  

Several linguists have tried, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to develop a readable written code for a signed language.  The effort continues.

19.  My ASL instructor and interpreters I've met talk about "glossing"  or "glossed" ASL.  If there's no written form of ASL, then how can it be written in a glossed form?

A gloss is a quick and convenient, yet incomplete, method of coding.  

When glossed (coded) using another language (for example: ASL into English), much of the source language meaning is lost.  Linguists, interpreters, and signers are glossing when they use English written words to represent an ASL message, sign, or concept, or when they speak English words in place of ASL signs.  However, make no mistake; this is not written ASL.  

Glossed ASL is the act of using written or spoken English words as a code that represents or conveys some degree of ASL meaning.  

An example of how full meaning can be lost when a message is coded, think of how emailed messages are frequently not fully understood or are misunderstood.  Using email, a writer is unable to give vocal intonation to his/her message, and may neglect to punctuate well enough to convey his or her full intent.  Writers of English attempt to fill-in for missing vocal emphasis, facial expression, and "body language," by using bold or italicized script, and use punctuation to try to imbue meaning where vocal inflection and natural speech cadence are not possible.  These and other challenges go unmet when ASL is glossed (coded) into written or spoken English.

20.  During an assignment, what does an interpreter do when different consumers use different forms of sign language, for example: one uses ASL and one uses transliterated English?  Does the Terp use them both?

This happens more often than most people might imagine.  

Yes, the interpreter does his or her best to produce a dynamically equivalent message in as many variations as needed.  This situation results in exhausted terps and exhausted consumers, but all parties simply do their best to accommodate one another under the circumstances.  

With proper planning, this unfortunate set of circumstances can be avoided when meeting planners are knowledgeable about how and when to obtain and manage interpreting services.  For example, when several deaf consumers are anticipated as part of a large auditorium audience, an interpreter positioned to the right of a hearing presenter might use ASL, while an interpreter to the left might sign transliterated English.  This arrangement permits attendees the choice to sit on the right or left, according to their signed language preference.

21.  I've learned the manual alphabet; but, struggle with fingerspelling.  My fingers seem to trip over themselves and it's frustrating.  Are there any tips that you could share?

Some fingerspellers seem to have no trouble at all, while others of us have trouble with it.  

Learning to fingerspell by repeating the alphabet over and over is not especially helpful in building fingerspelling skill because letters in English words do not naturally appear in A-B-C order, so a helpful approach is to practice letter-combinations (sequences) that do.  Try focusing on common letter-sequence practice drills, fingerspelling them again and again.  You might be delighted with how quickly you are able to pick up the mechanics of common letter-sequences, and gratified by how often they will show up in fingerspelled words.  

Some two-letter sequences to practice are: th; he; an; re; er; in; on; at; nd; st; es; en; of; te; ed; or; ti; hi; as; and to.  

Here are some three-letter sequences: the; ing; and; ion; ent; for; tio; ere; her; ate; ver; ter; tha; ati; hat; ers; his; res; ill; and are.  

Remember to avoid bouncing or jerking each letter, as this wastes energy, can exacerbate repetitive-motion problems, and makes viewing comprehension extremely difficult.  The goal is to produce smooth, fluid, and accurate fingerspelling.  

Speed will come with practice, and is not a goal to take the place of accuracy and clarity.

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HEADS-UP

The Terp FAQs (frequently asked questions) on this page are offered only as brief and general suggestions, and are not meant to provide comprehensive information.  There is much more to sign language and to interpreting than can possibly be covered by a single Web page or site.  Sign language interpreters are responsible to the Deaf community, consumers (deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, hearing, or organizational), our profession, and ourselves, to acquire as much knowledge as possible.  Your quest must not stop here.  Find out all you can about sign language, ASL, deafness, Deaf culture, and interpreting,  Earnest seekers of information will benefit from browsing our LINKS page here.  If you are in the U.S., your first stops should include the online sites of RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf), NAD (National Association of the Deaf), and their respective affiliate chapters in your region or state.

 

This page was edited: 09/15/2009
This page has been visited Hit Counter times since: July 17, 2008.
TerpTopics is a trademark and service mark of TerpTopics, LLC. © 2008; 2009. All rights reserved.

TerpTopics™ is an independent entity; as such does not claim or attempt to claim, represent, or imply by any means whatsoever that it is associated with any other entity that may or may not offer services, goods, or information of interest to interpreter, Deaf, or student communities.  The opinions expressed here those of TerpTopics unless otherwise stated.  Please keep in mind that, while every effort is made to present correct, appropriate, and reasonable information that is based on our experience, anecdotal experiences of others, or developed during the general course of study and professional development, we do not represent TerpTopics as having cornered the market on wisdom (heck, no!) or experience; one reason why links to several other good and reliable resources are made available throughout this site, and we hope that earnest seekers of knowledge will take advantage of them.

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Gifts, goodies, and prezzies!  Shop 'til you drop!!  =)

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