5 Surefire Steps to Overcoming Skill Plateau For Sign Language Interpreters

November 24, 2013

Experienced interpreters may often find themselves struggling for continuous improvement in their product. Diane Lynch references strategies and tools to help long-standing professionals break out of business as usual to take sure steps to improved practice.

Perhaps you have decades of sign language interpreting experience, have been to countless workshops and trainings on skill development, yet feel that you have hit a plateau in your skills. You may notice obvious erroneous patterns in your work. For example, your fingerspelling reception needs improving, or you sometimes produce miscues.

I was there until a few days ago.

I had the great honor and privilege to attend a three-day training opportunity with Dr. Carol Patrie and Sharon Neumann Solow, who in my opinion are consummate beacons of enlightenment to members of the ASL/English interpreting profession.

My Journey

The pair presented milieu evidence-based data to a group of highly motivated professional sign language interpreters. Carol and Sharon insisted throughout the training period that the group was already advanced…I, on the other hand, held some skepticism and thought to myself, “Why do I hold this skepticism? And, if this is so, then why am I here? My journey had begun.

Patrie and Solow assigned pre-reading material- Daniel Gile’s Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training. Revised edition. The text is written in an idiomatic style that was easy for me to digest. As I was wading and navigating through the printed description of the interpreting process, reality hit me like a lightening bolt, and I came to and even greater understanding of the incredible complexity of the work that I do on a daily basis.

After digesting this resource, it felt to me, like I just completed an ITP. During the training, I learned to use this shared language and terminology that are both transparent and current to accurately describe and dialogue about the work that we do.

Identifying Patterns

Experts in every professional field were not simply born as experts. The difference between a practitioner that is an expert and one who is not is “pattern recognition” (Kaufman- Ungifted; Intelligence Redefined) Professionals which learned through procedural process (music, swimming, long-distance running, tennis, math, chess) spend many hours every day perfecting their craft. They develop neural pathways that allow a person to unlearn bad habits and to develop fine-tuned complex tasks. Brain plasticity remains present throughout a person’s life. The old phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” is simply erroneous. Deliberate practice is how the expert’s greatness is achieved.

Deliberate Practice

Interpreting is not an automatic task. It takes effort! Practicing our craft while we work is just not possible. Working and practicing have a different focus altogether. So, let’s be honest with ourselves-we need to embrace the idea that practice requires grit. It requires a professional to put forth a sustained intense effort and concentration for incremental periods focusing on one specific task. Kaufman cites a ten-year rule for propelling one’s self from mastery to eminence.

Gile’s “Effort Model” contains a “Tightrope Hypothesis” which describes in detail the complexity of the interpreting work in terms of a person’s capacity for success given the demands of the work and maximizing the tools which are possessed to perform the task. Avoiding failure, the breakdown of the interpreting process, is our most important duty.

Once we attain those required skill subsets necessary to interpret through routinization, the effort needed to recognize and encode the learned patterns are less rigorous. The more skills that are available in our tool box (supply), the more likely we are able to avoid saturation through allocation of our resources to meet the demands using a reduced amount of effort. It’s the skillful coordination effort which allows us to perform this delicate balancing act. Cognitive stress…who needs it?

Advanced interpreters are motivated to propel their skills to the next level. How does one refine one’s thinking in order to reduce information lost in translation? Patrie and Solow recommend a five-step systematic approach to self-analysis for improved performance.

5 Steps To Improved Performance

  1. Render a 3 minute sample of your work to analyze. Find your errors and correct your interpretation. (write them down)
  2. Find the level at which your interpretation broke-down. Was it on the comprehension level? The transfer level (from one language to the other), or the reformulation level?
  3. Think about the impact that the miscue had on communication. How severe was the consequence?
  4. Revise the interpretation and render again.
  5. What actions will you take to focus on improvement?

The best interpreters push their skill sets to work towards becoming an expertise. How will you fill your tool box to coordinate your effort?

Change The Way You Finish 

The Chaos Theory tells us that if you change the way you start, you’re going to drastically change the way you finish. The best way to begin is to practice often with materials that are directly related to the tasks. Recommended resources include:

  1. Carol Patrie’s “The Effective Interpreting Series” and “Rapid Sequential Visual Processing (RSVP)”- both evidence-based resources that are available through Dawn Sign Press.
  2. National Clearinghouse on Rehabilitation and Training Materials (NCRTM)

Paradigm Shift 

I am grateful that I am consciously aware of my skill development requirements and relieved that I still have plenty of time left in my career to begin serious remediation. And to my colleagues- morally and ethically speaking, the Deaf community, our fellow colleagues and society at large deserve no less than our very best work. The fact of the matter is, the consequences of our lack of action could potentially be severe.

I would like to thank Dr. Carol Patrie- the kindest and most prolific writer and academician in our field, and Sharon Neumann Solow- the most patient and shiniest professional that I know. You both have caused a paradigm shift within me. And, many thanks to Sorenson Communications for providing this stellar training.

My journey begins and continues with deliberate practice today, and I invite you join me.

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15 Comments on "5 Surefire Steps to Overcoming Skill Plateau For Sign Language Interpreters"

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Great article! It was great to meet you and all my peers. Thanks so much for “paying it forward” to all of the other peers in our profession! “We love you for that”

Looking forward to my “deliberate practice” today!

Diane Lynch

Hello Chris,
It was a pleasure to meet you and learn from Sharon, Carol, and each other, as well. I look forward to searching on the clearinghouse website for my resourses. Have you find anything interesting there, yet?


Excellent article, thank you for sharing!

Diane Lynch

Thank you, Amanda. Is there something in particular that resonates with you?


Very nice article! I agree with Chris, a great way to share this wonderful training we received.

Diane Lynch

It was a pleasure to meet you, Debbie. Let’s keep the positive dialogue in motion. Be well!


[…] Diane Lynch shares 5 steps that every sign language interpreter can take to overcome plateauing skills and to be more deliberate in their practice.  […]


Glad to see you on the radar Diane! You rock! Thanks for writing this piece for us to share.

Diane Lynch
Thank you for your comment, Billy. If it were not for advocates and mentors like you, our communities would looks markedly different. The Tightrope Hypothesis applies to just about every profession, but I remember back in the day of my nascent career as an interpreter and as young professional, it was skilled individuals such as you who would gently steer me in that positive direction of service and professional fidelity. Mentors are those that ground their apprentices with lessons that suggest that failure is not an option. Once that lesson is mastered, the rest becomes more effortlessly achieved. The key… Read more »
Stacey Nazaruk

I went to the same 3 day training (in September 2013)… and left feeling inspired and “advanced”! 🙂 I’m always striving to become better… but the training helped me realize I know more than I thought, but also how to keep advancing. Your article captures the heart of the training… sometimes in the chaos (or monotony) of our lives we lose that eagerness to strive. Thank you for the reminder. Nicely done!!


I know you didn’t write this article for novice interpreters, but seeing as how I have in no way come close to “plateauing”, but like the ideas behind the article I have to ask: Do you think these self analysis skills would be helpful for a novice to improve their performance as well, or do you think it would be best to have someone more experienced perform an outside analysis, or even both?

Katie Hering
Thank you Diane for writing this article! I enjoyed reading about how interpreters can propel forward and in what ways to do so. I completely agree with the more tools that we have in our toolbox, the more likely we are to avoid an interpretation breakdown and the more variety of tools we have, the better equipped we are to handle a variety of situations. Do you advise that when we do practice if it should be with a colleague? I can see the pros and cons for practicing independently and with a team, but I would love to hear… Read more »
Sierra Stewart
Hi Diane, Thank you for your perspective and inspiring words about how interpreters can continue to improve their work. I will soon be graduating from an interpreting program, so this topic has crossed my mind many times. I think it is very common for new interpreters to worry about their skills diminishing after graduation. Also, that they will not have time or the resources to continue improving their work. This may also be an issue for interpreters working in education settings. The summer can pose a long break where their normal interpreting job is not going on. This in turn… Read more »
Raechel Lemis
Hello Diane, As an American Sign Language major, I can relate to your article. Even though I have been studying American Sign Language for close to 8 years, I am by no means an expert. My profession may not be interpreting, but your advice has stuck with me. The beauty, sometimes the beast, of language is that it is constantly evolving. As users of the language, it’s our responsibility to practice it and keep ourselves up-to-date with the changes no matter how rapid they maybe. It is our responsibility to the Deaf community since they have been diligent in assisting… Read more »
Bethany Ekstrand
Diane, I was challenged by your article. As a senior at in an interpreter training program, I am counting the days till I am done with school. I’m excited to graduate and join the interpreting profession. However, even though I’ll be done with school, I won’t be done practicing interpreting. Over the past few months, I have spoken with several interpreters who have told me that the next few years are what will define me as an interpreter. Your article challenged me as to what that identity will be. Will I allow myself to plateau, merely content with my skill… Read more »

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