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TRANSLATE THIS PAGE
Maybe you are learning ASL and think you might want to become a
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)
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
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
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
participating in Silent
Socials and Suppers;
attending interpreter conferences and
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!
do people become sign language interpreters?
Well, there may be as many responses to this question as there are interpreters.
ASL is such a beautiful language that I got hooked and couldn't walk away from
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.
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.
Once I've acquired some level of signing skill, I'll automatically be an
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 might be found working wherever there
are d/Deaf people and hearing people who wish to communicate.
Interpreters practice in a variety of
Tactile (consumer is deaf and blind);
Platform (during a presentation, lecture, workshop; often on a stage);
VRS / VRI (video
relay service / video
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Use your best judgment.
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
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.
are many good resources throughout the Internet; for some of them, check the
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
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
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
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.
so many ways of signing (ASL; PSE; transliterating; etc.), which one should I
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
For an excellent overview of
transliterating, see the book Transliterating: Show Me the English
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 has been visited
July 17, 2008.
TerpTopics is a trademark and service mark of TerpTopics, LLC.
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.
Did someone say
So many books;
so little time ...
Why waste it?
Discover films of interest to
ASL or interpreting students here.
Did someone say
So many books;
so little time ...
Why waste it?
Discover films of interest to
ASL or interpreting students here.