What can Sign Language Interpreter Education Learn from Wild Birds?

October 22, 2014

Birds raised in captivity often struggle to acquire natural communication and instincts. So too do sign language interpreters brought up in ITPs, with limited Deaf community connections and interaction. Kimberly Hale considers how interpreter education can borrow strategies from nature in raising the next generation of sign language interpreters.

The current state of interpreter education reminds me of an attempt to return rehabilitated, injured or orphaned birds to the wild, rather than allowing the natural developmental process of wild birds to occur.

[View post in ASL]

Natural Versus Artificial Development            

In the wild, chicks are nurtured and learn the way of the bird through instincts, observation, and imitation of older birds. Mature birds protect chicks and model bird behavior. Astute mother birds perceiving just the right time to send the chick off into the world, push the fledglings from the nest. Wild birds effectively raise their young who behave as birds and function effectively in their natural habitats.

In contrast to the natural development process is the artificial process employed when injured, orphaned, or captivity-bred birds are rehabilitated and released into the wild. These birds, much like student interpreters, learn the way of the bird in an artificial environment removed from natural developmental stimuli.

Gatekeepers – The Natural Approach

Historically, trusted individuals were sought out and encouraged by members of the Deaf community to act as sign language interpreters. Just as chicks are pushed from the nest by astute mother birds, these chosen fledgling interpreters were pushed into a wider variety of settings as their performance and success warranted.  As members of the “wild bird” community, they naturally gained values, skills, and knowledge needed to function as birds, albeit with unique responsibilities.

The System – Bred and Raised in Captivity

In contrast, the current model of interpreter education creates sign language interpreters bred and raised in captivity and then released into the wild. Many interpreters-in-training have never encountered the Deaf Community in its natural state and have a limited understanding of Deaf Community interactions, yet they want to join the “flock”. Initial interactions are often mediated, controlled, and contrived by the Interpreter Trainer(s), similar to the artificial environments created by bird rehabilitation specialists.  A large portion of training time is spent with other interpreters-in-training or with videos of ASL users and interpreter samples, rather than spending time with the “flock”.

Limited Exposure Limits Competence

Often rehabilitated birds are released to the wild as adults or older juveniles. They spend their formative years learning to act like birds based solely on instincts and the bird trainer’s teaching. They miss the benefit of natural imitation opportunities, protection from older birds, and the natural pecking order process. Prior to release they frequently have limited contact with wild birds. This may lead to difficulty upon release into nature.

Interpreters “raised” in interpreter education programs, just as birds raised in captivity, may lack skills in negotiating the flock.  They do not communicate and behave as naturally as those who are raised and groomed naturally within the flock. Specifically, they are more hesitant and awkward in seeking clarification. By not learning language primarily via natural interactions, they miss the opportunity to naturally learn appropriate birdcalls and signals for clarification and correcting misunderstandings, which is a critical skill for sign language interpreters.

Early Exposure Unintentionally Disrupts the Flock

Quality Interpreting Education Programs attempt to assist interpreters-in-training form connections and appropriate behaviors within the community by requiring community interactions and event attendance before release. This does not mirror the natural process either. Interpreters-in-training, without connections or formal welcome (because they are unknown to the flock), insert themselves into the wild flock. Unfortunately, this “forced” introduction and acceptance model disturbs the natural order of the flock. New awkward birds invade the wild bird territory, and the wild birds are expected to embrace, accept, and nurture the interpreters-in-training.

Early Release

Given the growing interest in the wild flock, the limited numbers of rehabilitation facilities, and the structure of those facilities (i.e., colleges and universities), bird rehabilitation programs are specified lengths. More often than not, there are not specific competency based exams to ensure that birds-in-training are ready to be pushed from the nest and fend for themselves.

Because they are pushed from the nest before they are ready to function independently and are left to fend for themselves they end up under the tree instead of in the branches among the flock.  These released birds often become the unintended recipients of wild bird droppings. Stronger birds will strive and will, eventually, learn to fly thereby officially joining the flock.  Others, especially those without appropriate support, never get off the ground.

We Need to Invest

Investment in wild bird habitat and creative habilitation solutions for birds-in-training is essential to facilitate natural wild bird interactions and nurturing throughout the development process. We – wild birds, successful captive-release birds, and bird trainers – must facilitate the renewal of natural wild-bird model of sign language interpreter education. A more effective habilitation and release program must be created. Creative thinking from all segments is required. Leaders have begun to address the concern.  It is time for those who are not yet leaders, but who are in their prime and ready to nurture the next generation of interpreters into existence to join the conversation. The nesting grounds and habilitation programs are ready for the next generation of brooders, hatchers, pushers, and trainers to join the discussion. 


I am hopeful that CIT’s partnership with Street Leverage to host this year’s conference will engender dialog that should continue long after the conference ends. Join the discussion of how best to habilitate new wild bird interpreters by sharing your chirps, caws, coos, or tweets.


The captivity-raised concept presented here is similar to Molly Wilson’s conceptualization that she eloquently describes in By-passing Deaf World in Terp Training. Interpreter education generally bypasses the Deaf community – opting instead for an artificial captivity-based training model.

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.


Leave a Reply

15 Comments on "What can Sign Language Interpreter Education Learn from Wild Birds?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
I love this article! As someone who relies heavily on metaphor and analogy in my thinking and teaching, this parallel works well. I would like to believe that some of these “raised in captivity” interpreters can be and are embraced by the members of the flock eventually. The wild birds sense something that sets apart certain birds from the ones under the tree. They invite them to fly along, observe, and honor the leaders of the flock. I have seen it happen, especially during captivity when birds-in-training sneak out and hang out with the wild ones. Thank you Kimberly for… Read more »

Hi Betty,

I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I really enjoyed creating it. I know that some of the “raised in captivity” interpreters can be embraced by members of the flock. I was one of those awkward fledglings who didn’t fit in – not because I wasn’t welcome, but because …well, I wasn’t one of the flock.

I would enjoy chatting with you more. I’ll be sure to hi when I see you again.

I am one of those “raised in captivity” interpreters BUT I learned quickly (after several Deaf people suggested I go into the ITP) that I could not let them down after such a unique blessing. I suffered a lot of verbal abuse and talk that was less than inviting from teachers and mentors along the way. Yes, we do eat our young. But, I never forgot that blessing and how important it was to keep that connection with the Deaf community going at all times. While I was a student interpreter I went to Deaf Clubs and Deaf community events… Read more »


You are right! Those 3 hour events are not sufficient for fluent language or cultural competence.

And, I was aware of the “shit” on the birds below, although I do not think it is intentional. I think when captive birds are released when they are not ready, they can not enjoy the full benefits of the wild flock. They are unable to fully realize the beauty of the flock from that vantage point.

Kimberly, What a wonderful way to paint a vivid picture! Brilliant metaphor. Love this part: “Because they are pushed from the nest before they are ready to function independently and are left to fend for themselves they end up under the tree instead of in the branches among the flock. These released birds often become the unintended recipients of wild bird droppings.” That’s an image that “sticks” indelibly in the mind of the reader. But you don’t leave us hopeless: “Stronger birds will strive and will, eventually, learn to fly thereby officially joining the flock.” You don’t specify exactly what… Read more »
Noni Warner

the last part of your answer is great! thanks for ‘food’ for thought.


I think you’re right, Anna. “Venturing into a new culture requires humility, courage, determination, respect and the willingness to see the world from another perspective.”

I am not sure we know what the precise mix of those traits are needed to help one fly to the treetops.

Another question that we discuss in our program is if we can instill those types of traits into our students, or do they need to just have them upon enrollment.

What do you think?

Laura Lippincott
I love the analogy you used. Your discussion regarding mentors certainly reflects an ongoing thread in most Street Leverage articles. Mentorship is very important, but there is a good reason many of us older (yikes) interpreters don’t mentor much. I used to mentor all the time. However, then my bosses would give the mentee more work than myself because they were cheaper. (Community Colleges in California do not require certification.) If the hiring of interpreters is in control of people who are not themselves consumers of interpreting services (the Deaf Community), experience and skill will never be valued correctly. Until… Read more »

Laura you point out a major problem with the procurement of interpreting services – the people with the least knowledge of what is needed, are often the very people approving agency contracts.

The placement of interpreters seems to become more removed from the Deaf community as nationwide interpreting agencies use public lists of interpreters to fill appointments instead of personal contacts and knowledge of individual preferences.

I do not know how to turn that ship around.

Shannon Mulhall
I worked almost a year as a receptionist at the deaf center shortly after graduating my ITP. I got something that a lot of my peers did not – the ability to observe ” in the wild”, be kindly corrected, and exposure to a huge variety of signing styles. This was one of the most formative parts of my fluency development – raw, genuine language. I have the sweet and wonderful senior group who would come weekly to play cards – I developed many wonderful friends and the most patient teachers from that group. I recalled there was one client,… Read more »

Shannon, I had much the same experience that you did, when I worked at the South Carolina Association of the Deaf. I was surrounded daily with Deaf colleagues (5:2 ratio in favor of Deaf) and community members. Without that experience with wild birds, I am not sure I would have survived, much less learned to fly and sit among the flock in the treetops.

Hi Kimberly! I love the analogy you have drawn as it frames one of the key struggles we face in interpreter education effectively. I have been in interpreter education now nearly 20 years, 12 of those years as a fulltime professor. The main reason I began teaching, and why I stay, is that I believe the one of the best ways to change a system is to be part of the system and work within it. As I consider your analogy it strikes me that “raising birds” in captivity vs the wild is one I hope we can begin to… Read more »
I am one of those birds at the base of the tree trying desperately to get off the ground and join the others on the branches. We are required to attend Deaf events for our ASL classes. After recently attending a Deaf event I came to an important conclusion about myself. Most of these events are social and conversing as we all know is filled with much anxiety before, during and after the event (second guessing ourselves). At my last event we formed teams and we were trying to win the game. I was so focused on reaching the goal… Read more »
This analogy is spot on. Being a student still studying to become an interpreter I completely understand what you are saying. In the school setting (captivity) I feel confident with my understanding of both ASL and Deaf culture. I feel ready to communicate and get involved with the Deaf community (the wild), but when I go to Deaf events I shy away. I feel small, like I haven’t learned anything. At this point I know that I am under the tree. I agree that three hours in Deaf events is not enough for anyone to get a clear understand of… Read more »
Callan Reed
Kimberly, Your article had such wonderful imagery. It’s hard to explain to others what it feels like as an ASL Interpreting student, I can identify with this article right away. I’m constantly afraid of submerging myself into the “wild flock” and disrupting the flow, or even worse; insulting someone by sheer accident! There are so many things that I have not learned naturally, since no one in my entire family/friend circle is deaf. I’m hoping the more I get out into deaf events the more I can intuitively pick up, but I still can’t help but be nervous. I agree… Read more »

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)