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Stages of Competence: Sign Language Interpreters and the 8th Year Climb

Healy - Sign Language Interpreters and the 8th year climb

Practice professions like sign language interpreting progress through cycles of learning that can leave us exhausted, feeling like we’re always just beginning. But really it means there’s always more to discover!

There’s a hike in Shenandoah National Park that is filled with beautiful views, tedious switchbacks, and rock scrambling that requires strategizing, slowed pace, and guidance from those further along the trail.

In this practice profession of interpreting, it’s a bit like we’re climbing an enormous, multifaceted mountain. Along the way we reach summits, gratified to see the distance we’ve come; we traverse plateaus, relaxing into needed rest and rejuvenation; and we climb ascents that challenge our perseverance and commitment to growth. One of these stages I’ve come to call the “Eighth-Year Climb.”

[View post in ASL]

The Eighth-Year Climb

I noticed it first in myself. About eight years into my interpreting career, I began to feel incompetent, doubting my ability to facilitate communication at an acceptable level. I asked team interpreters if I should remove myself from assignments, “Really, be honest. Am I qualified for this level of work?” And I sought the same input from my consumers in various ways.

Consumers thought I was doing fine. Colleagues acknowledged I was working hard, and while my product was not phenomenal, it was acceptable. The answers were hardly satisfying to an interpreter who had felt competent until recently. Over the next few years, those insecurity-driven discussions grew shorter and less frequent until I looked back with relief that the phase seemed to be over, but with confusion around what exactly I had just experienced.

Recently I found myself on the other side of nearly identical conversations. A colleague in her eighth year of signed language interpreting came to discuss her struggles, and I was shocked to watch us follow the same script my mentor-colleagues and I had followed just five years prior. Naturally, I told her about my experience, and we worked through it together. Since then I have met a handful of other interpreters currently in their eighth year of professional interpreting experiencing this same self-doubt, questioning, and fear. It has me pondering the causes and implications.

My best guess about the phenomenon draws on concepts from the Four Stages of Competence and Zone of Proximal Development.

Four Stages of Competence

The Four Stages of Competence is a learning model developed by Noel Burch that describes the steps of acquiring a new skill. First, we experience Unconscious Incompetence: we don’t know what we don’t know. That is, we lack enough awareness even to recognize our own inability (for a great discussion on this, also check out the Dunning-Kruger Effect on Wikipedia!).

At some point, we become aware of our shortcoming, and that leads to the second step: Conscious Incompetence. Recognizing our inadequacies is uncomfortable, but until we are aware of limitations, our growth is stunted. For many of us, formal training opened our eyes. We may have thought interpreting was just, “sign what they say/say what they sign.” Then we realized how complex it all is, and through training, mentoring, analysis of self, cultures, languages, power dynamics, and so forth, we gained Conscious Competence.

Hopefully, we become consciously skilled before we leave our apprentice relationships. Then as we gain experience and become adept at applying theories, skills, and strategies, a large proportion of the work becomes run by Unconscious Competence, the fourth stage of learning. While interpreting always demands significant effort, around five years into my career, I was no longer overwhelmed, and I felt confident in my ability to execute the necessary tasks most of the time.

Then my eighth year came, and the ground shifted. Have you experienced it?

I think what had happened was this. I had become Unconsciously Competent at a basic level. As those foundational skills became more automatized, it freed more of my mental capacity — to draw on Daniel Gile’s Effort Model of Interpreting (Gile 2009) — which allowed deeper meta-analysis of the work. I could mentally stand beside myself and study what I was doing while interpreting. And as I watched more experienced interpreters do the “same” work, I could run my interpreting brain parallel to theirs, and yet see how their product was more nuanced, sophisticated, and accurate in its wholeness than the target texts I could create. I became Consciously Incompetent at a new level. That is, I was experiencing an expansion in my Zone of Proximal Development.

Zone of Proximal Development

The concept of Zone of Proximal Development was proposed by Lev Vygotsky and expanded on throughout the twentieth century. Basically, it explains that learners grow to a certain extent on our own, but eventually need someone else to enable advancement to the next level; perhaps you’ve heard the term scaffolding, identifying someone’s learning stage and then meeting them one step higher to support progress.

Billy Kendrick discussed in his recent article, No One’s a Prodigy! Deliberate Practice and Sign Language Interpreting, the idea put forth by psychologist Anders Ericsson that skills take approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master. Ericsson explains that mastery depends critically on the quality of the practice, but let’s assume we are always striving to become the best interpreters that we can be. If that were the case, the math implies to become an expert, one would interpret an average of 25 hours per week, 50 weeks each year, for eight years. Of course, we never finish growing in a practice profession; we never become passive “expert” interpreters. However, after 10,000 hours of intentional development, we may find ourselves entrusted with assignments we’ve never before faced in our career.

It can feel like we’ve climbed miles up the mountain, finally breaking through the cloudbank in exultation, only to see up ahead colleagues who have climbed higher than we ever imagined existed. We’ve opened a new Zone of Proximal Development. We can see the next summit above

the clouds, but we don’t yet know how to get there. And the ground that seemed far below has vanished beneath the clouds. The lowest spot we can see is only inches beneath our feet. It feels like incompetence has appeared from nowhere! But perhaps it’s just that we’ve been Unconsciously Incompetent in certain aspects of the work, and our new Conscious Incompetence indicates advancement, despite the sense of regression.

Uncomfortable but Valuable

The recognition is not in vain. I watched myself, and now others, hit this discomfort and doubt, and it sparked a recommitment to our professional development. We cleared our schedules and budgets to prioritize events in the Deaf community, took active roles in professional organizations, and deliberately pursued pre-brief and debrief sessions with team interpreters and consumers, seeking new understanding of the complexities in the work. Additionally, our doubts prompted reflection on our motivations, which Audrey Ramirez-Loudenback pointed out can critically impact our work as signed language interpreters in her article, What Makes Us Tick? Sign Language Interpreters, Values & Motivation. And our reignited energies have paid off in better communication facilitation, collaboration, and overall enjoyment in the practice and profession.

Like any skill or development, we’re bound to plateau here and there. Hopefully, after some time of gentle walking and rest, our muscles cry out for a new challenge, and we meet it with all the passion and commitment our consumers and colleagues deserve!

Questions for Consideration

  1. If you have experienced or witnessed a phase when confidence was strong and then faltered, does the explanation in this article seem to resonate with what you have observed?
  2. If you have not experienced this “eighth-year climb” phenomenon, can you identify some factors that might have been different in your journey than the one described here? (How does this apply with Deaf interpreters or interpreters with Deaf parents?)
  3. For interpreters higher up the mountain: are there stages beyond eight-years of experience phase that you have noticed in yours and colleagues’ experiences?


Burch, Noel. “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” or “Four Stages of Competence” were developed by Burch while working at Gordon Training International in the 1970s. http://

Gile, Daniel. Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training. Vol. 8. John Benjamins Publishing, 2009.

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Codas: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?

Codas: Codas: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?

More and more, academic credentials are now considered to be superior to those that have gained their expertise through lived experiences. By working together, we can find ways to recognize the intuitive expertise Coda interpreters offer.

To my colleagues, specifically to those that have Deaf parents. Maybe you choose to identify as a Heritage Signer, Deaf Parented, Coda, signing MOTHER-FATHER-DEAF, or maybe you choose not to make reference to your Deaf parents at all. However you identify, we are all united by our shared experiences while we work as professional sign language interpreters. We share this by reflecting on our heritage with pride, compassion, and more importantly, our lived experiences which translate into our intuitive expertise as interpreters. More so, when Codas enter into interpreting training programs (ITPs) and graduate, the knowledge we acquire only solidifies and broadens our inherent ability. But sadly, for many Codas, we are continuously forced to validate our lived experiences to those with academic credentials. We need to remove the hierarchical lens in which lived expertise is viewed as secondary to academic accomplishments.

The expertise Codas bring to the profession deserves to be respected equally with those who have gone on to earn their BAs, MAs, or PhDs in the interpreting field. We, as Coda interpreters, have been interpreting long before being recognized by interpreting organizations and academic institutions. We have done this and will continue to do this, not out of an early interest in becoming sign language interpreters, but rather because of our birthright into the profession Codas helped create.

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Canadian Codas and their History in the Profession

Janice Hawkins, Mary Butterfield, and Louise Ford were at the forefront in establishing Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC) and interpreter training programs across Canada. All Codas. Everyone from Deaf community members, ministers, social workers, Codas, and teachers of the Deaf were invited to meet, discuss, and collaborate on establishing a national organization to validate and recognize sign language interpreting as a bonafide profession.

In the thirty-nine years of AVLIC, and out of sixteen presidents¹, only two Codas have been recognized by the organization as president: Louise Ford (1980) and Bonnie Heath (1986). Interestingly, Janice Hawkins, who was designated Acting President in 1980, has yet to be recognized as a past president of AVLIC. Why? And out of 800+ AVLIC active members, approximately only 19 Coda interpreters have their Certificate of Interpretation (COI) status.² As heritage signers, more Codas should have their COIs. But we don’t. Why?

Is it because there’s negative bias against Coda interpreters? Could it be that ITPs are not actively recruiting or retaining Coda students and/or staff? Or could there be a perception that our skills are not strong enough because we are not being supported in ways that acknowledge our unique heritage? Let’s work together to change this. We can start by advocating that our interpreting organizations and educational institutions come up with ways to recognize the unique experiences Codas bring to the profession. Codas, we need to start claiming our expertise as cultural brokers, heritage signers, and more importantly, as interpreters. We should no longer be asking for permission to be recognized and respected: we need to start insisting on it.     

Personal Experiences: Coda = Identity

I attended an affiliate chapter meeting a few months back. A motion was put forward to establish a committee to look into how the local chapter could be more culturally proficient. Noticing that Coda representation was lacking from this motion, I requested the motion be amended to include Codas. The discussion that followed was unfortunate and uncomfortable. Numerous people, one by one, attempted to dismiss the need for the word Coda to be included in the motion. It was posited that we don’t face prejudices and/or discrimination in the interpreting profession we work in and Deaf communities we live in. Honestly, I wish this was the case, but sadly, it is not. We are never accepted fully by one or the other despite the sacrifices we have made in trying to bring them together. Thankfully, the motion passed with the amendment. But feelings of exclusion still linger.

I have also attended numerous interpreting conferences/workshops and occasionally, presenters will make a point to thank Codas for their contributions to the field of interpreting. I find this puzzling because while we’re applauded for our contributions, we are also quickly criticized when given the chance to positively influence others with our teachings. When we have worked our entire lives as interpreters and come into positions of perceived power, especially within our profession, this same community that applauds us can easily dismiss us and our expertise. This is not fair. In Amy Williamson’s StreetLeverage article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, she eloquently describes how Codas “… are not hearing. We are not deaf. As such, we are often not seen nor valued. We are; however, both vilified and worshiped in good measure.” Far too often Codas experience this dichotomy within the profession. It’s now time to change the status quo; we need to do this together. We can do this by recognizing the invaluable contributions Codas make towards the profession – past and present. You can do this, not by saying “thank you” on a stage, but rather by giving us the respect and space to showcase our expertise. Let us share our vital knowledge. More importantly, allow us to celebrate our heritage and expertise with you.

Codas Under-Represented in Canadian ITPs

Currently, only two ITPs in Canada include a Coda as part of their faculty team. I strongly believe there should be Coda instructors in every ITP in Canada. When Codas are invited into ITPs as instructors and impart their empirical knowledge, students learn first-hand about traversing between the Deaf and hearing world, how to apply interpreting theory to a variety of existential experiences, cultural brokering techniques, and how to navigate the professional/personal boundaries as sign language interpreters. As Codas, we have done this our entire lives and have become experts in it. This deserves to be professionally recognized and taught.

Therefore, it is essential we have Coda instructors in all ITPs. Not only will this give students a crucial bicultural perspective, it also gives recognition to the Deaf communities who have passed indispensable knowledge onto their children and encouraged them to take their rightful place as professional educators.

In Joseph Featherstone’s StreetLeverage article, IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness, he identifies four pillars that should be evident in all ITPs: the Native English-Speaker, the Native ASL Signer, the Bilingual Native, and the CDI. By having these four elements in place, interpreting students can be exposed to the necessary things they need in order to become well-educated and well-rounded interpreters. CODAs, in this case, are identified as the Bilingual Native. Featherstone states:

“Bilingual Natives have native fluency in both ASL and English, such as Children of Deaf Adults (CODA). Because they most likely grew up with ASL as their first language, the Bilingual Native more intimately understands the Deaf way. That’s not to say that they are more invested in the Deaf community than those who learned ASL in school, but that their relationship with the Deaf community is more direct, and as such, they are greatly impacted by the state of the Deaf community. Bilingual Natives also have a strong understanding of English and can teach on the intersection between the Deaf and Hearing communities, especially as it relates to interpreting.”

We must encourage ITPs in Canada to do more to include Codas. We have to actively work towards being more inclusive towards Coda instructors whose life experiences dictate their professional expertise. It is imperative that ITPs, as well as sign language interpreting organizations, strive towards being better reflections of the Deaf communities that we serve.

Moving Forward with a Holistic Approach

Moving forward, let’s work together to create spaces for Codas where our experiences, and furthermore, expertise is viewed as equal to those who have made other valuable contributions to our profession. When discussing whether or not Codas are qualified to be instructors or when Codas express concerns about the state of the profession, I encourage everyone to engage in those conversations through a holistic lens. Take into consideration the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of Coda interpreters and their lifelong experience of being a part of the Deaf community.  All of these facets work in tandem to give rise to the invaluable contributions Codas make towards our profession – let’s recognize them. We at least owe this to the Deaf communities that have shared so much of their time, language, and culture with all of us.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How can we recognize the intuitive expertise Coda interpreters bring to the profession?
  2. How can we encourage ITPs to include more Codas as part of their faculty team as well as recruiting more Coda students?
  3. What are some ways you can help celebrate Codas unique heritage?



¹ Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved June 11, 2018, from

² AVLIC does not collect information on how many of its’ members identify as Coda. The list of interpreters who identify as Coda was compiled by several Coda interpreters across Canada. If you would like to receive the list, please contact the author of this article.