Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

May 27, 2015

MJ Bienvenu presented Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examines if sign language interpreters are proficient bilinguals as expected and if not, is it okay for them to work in the field while still acquiring the language?

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of MJ’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access MJ’s talk directly.]

Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual?

In a discussion about bilingualism I asked the question, “Are sign language interpreters bilingual?” I was struck by the thought that I have posed this question before. Upon reflection, I realized that we have asked this exact question repeatedly over the years. It almost feels silly to ask that question. So I queried some people and found that, indeed, this question is still considered relevant and important. I find that fascinating.

I entered the field of sign language interpreting in the early 80s. Having grown up seeing my share of interpreters, and in light of the fact that this question still persists, I’d like to explore the concept of sign language interpreters as bilinguals a bit further.

“I am an interpreter because I am a bilingual. I am bilingual because I am an interpreter.”

I have seen people say, “I’m an interpreter because I’m bilingual. As a bilingual, I should be able to use the opportunity to work as an interpreter.” That logic seems to make sense. But then, if you look at the second sentence, that’s an interesting concept. “I am bilingual because I am an interpreter.” This gives me pause. Is that statement true?  It is an interesting assumption. “Because I’m an interpreter I am bilingual.” I’d like to talk about this idea a bit more.

Bilingualism Revisited: The Ability to Comprehend and Use Two Different Languages

The reason I’m interested in talking about “bilingualism revisited” is because I feel that many people talk about bilingualism and being bilingual, but I don’t think we have a common, shared understanding…well, we may have a shared understanding, but we don’t have a shared measurement for what “bilingual” means. On its face, on the most simplified level, one might want to say that bilingualism is the ability to comprehend and use two languages. Is it, in fact, that simple? Do we consider levels of proficiency in both languages? That’s something to ponder.

Language Ability vs. Language Use

Now, I’ve done extensive analysis of both language ability and language use. This was an excellent opportunity for me to review the literature on bilingualism and I found some information as I did so. Language ability refers to productive competence, meaning that a person has a level of ease or fluidity…As an example, I’m here [at StreetLeverage Live – 2014 | Austin] because ASL and English are the designated languages and I am able to fluidly navigate between either language as needed. In our daily worlds, Deaf people move between ASL and written forms of English. As for sign language interpreters, in theory, they, too, navigate between two languages – ASL and spoken English. That’s the theory, anyway.

There is another term to consider – passive competence. This refers to a person who may have the ability to comprehend other people’s language usage, but display an inability or lack of fluency in their own expression of that language. Certainly, there is a range of what is considered fluent. When I first saw this term, I was intrigued. Deaf people’s experience with interpreters is very often summed up as: “They don’t understand us.” I was taken with/intrigued by Tom Humphries’ comment this morning when he talked about not always having an English vocabulary equivalent for an ASL term. Most literature and discussion about bilingualism focuses on the interaction of spoken languages, not between signed and spoken languages, as if Deaf people don’t exist around the world. When the discussion is about spoken language, passive competence makes sense. In our world, passive competence could mean that someone who can’t fully comprehend ASL and can’t produce it expressively can still work as an interpreter. If that is true, what are the implications? It is certainly food for thought.

Individual Bilingualism and Societal Bilingualism

Individual bilingualism occurs when an individual person has fluency in two languages, often obtained through interaction and social contact with parents, friends, educational institutions, the community, etc. These exposures all help to develop that person’s language competency.

Societal bilingualism is related to socio-linguistics – the power structures of the languages involved. This is a core element of the Deaf experience. In our experiences as Deaf people, we are aware of those dynamics. When we talk about the power structures of ASL and English, some of you may insist that both languages share equal power. I see several heads turning in reaction in the audience. The reality is that the two languages are not considered equivalent. The general view is that English carries much more status and power than ASL.

And regardless of how “good” the interpreter is or how hard they try, that message is often conveyed through the interpreter, as well. It is conveyed through teachers of the Deaf, through interpreters, through friends, who don’t recognize the power they wield. My students will often say that they need to “match” the hearing person and in their ASL production, they automatically give hearing people a higher level of status simply by referencing them in a higher position spatially. The disparate power structure is unconsciously established in a few simple moves. That implicit message is woven throughout the discourse. Throughout our interpreter training, we see this unconscious establishment of the hearing power structure within the language we use. Interpreters internalize these messages and propagate them. The idea that hearing people hold superior status is passed along and Deaf people are given lower status. So, this is how students internalize our language, our experiences and our community.

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages in their every day lives.”
(Grosjean, 2010)

I have a strong affinity for that quote. This definition resonates for me. The reality is that bilingualism is a daily, day-to-day state of being. It can’t be attained in a 9-to-5, clock in each morning, interpret all day and clock out at 5pm to return to your English-speaking life, never seeing ASL in use. It isn’t possible. You cannot become a competent bilingual under those conditions. It is not possible.

It is interesting to note that years ago, in our history, there were many so-called “community interpreters”, friends of Deaf people, who had intimate knowledge of the daily lives of Deaf people. Some of those interpreters were CODAs, had Deaf neighbors or were somehow, for some reason, fully engaged in the Deaf World. Those individuals devoted much of their time to engaging with Deaf people, using ASL in that world – sometimes only briefly exiting to maintain relationships with their non-signing family. Even when they spent time in their hearing, English-oriented environments, they didn’t discard or disconnect from the Deaf community. They still participated in the Deaf World on a regular basis.

Today, things are different. I certainly understand that we need to produce interpreters in an expedient way. Does that mean we have to produce “9-to-5 interpreters”? What are the implications of that? Are those “9-to-5 interpreters” truly bilingual?

Level of Proficiency

Level of proficiency. In my reading, I found some fairly utilitarian definitions of levels of proficiency. In contrast, I asked Deaf people and interpreters about their definition of interpreter proficiency. Overwhelmingly, the answer was native-like fluency in expressive ASL and native fluency in all forms of English – spoken, written and reading comprehension. It’s interesting that we have on the one hand a definition of proficiency that entails multiple levels, while on the other, we have the sign language community instead aspiring to a singular, ultimate point of proficiency.The reality in our daily lives is that most interpreters’ proficiency is significantly lower than the expectations of the Deaf community. The intent here is not to be negative. This is the reality. So, we have an expectation of native-like fluency and as I see it, there are individuals who fall somewhere between those two places.

More and more Deaf people are coming into contact with interpreters now. Not necessarily in face-to-face, in-person, in-the-flesh interactions but via video relay services. In those moments, we are confronted by language that may make us think, “Is that my language? Is that ASL?” We’ve been given the right to request a change of interpreter, but often, in deference to the interpreter, we don’t have the heart to ask them to switch. This is an interesting phenomenon because we may have that moment where we pause, but go on with the call, forgetting ourselves and falling into our natural language patterns, leaving the interpreter to try to keep up. Upon checking in, we may find ourselves altering our language to meet their skill level. So again, it is important to consider levels of proficiency.

School Experience

The school experience. I’ve done quite a bit of research and have had many conversations about this topic. The d/Deaf experience, irrespective of educational background or language use – whether one comes from an oral education, SEE signing, total communication (that is really more of a philosophy), simultaneous communication, the Rochester method or ASL – includes a number of commonalities. Deaf children internalize various patterns of their language that are unique to the educational realm. When they see something presented to them that is unclear, it is common that Deaf students will check in with their peers who can provide some clarity and explanation which may be in language that is more accessible to them. This is a critical part of their language development which starts from the time they enter school – probably around age 3-4 through about age 18.

Typically, interpreters don’t have this experience, regardless of their entry into the Deaf community as CODAs or friends of the Deaf community. If those interpreters are placed in a classroom – where they experience what I often call my “other language” – as hearing people, they would be able to access the academic English. Certainly, there may be topics that some are less familiar with or with which they might struggle, but generally, they could process it. But when placed with Deaf people talking about academic subjects – math, science, etc., the interpreter doesn’t have the proficiency to follow. In theory, they should have the language proficiency, but in missing that period of language development, that school experience, they are missing a critical part of the Deaf experience and a part of our language. If we are relating this idea to the topic of bilingualism, shouldn’t a bilingual person have access to “everything” in a language?

Often, interpreters seek language input. For example, they may be preparing for a social studies unit on American history and are seeking appropriate language for ships and the colonization of America. When asked, Deaf people often find themselves educating the interpreter. The interpreter may also say something like, “Spelling the names of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria is too difficult. Do you have any ideas for creating signs for the ships?” Deaf people are confronted by this conflicting behavior – a “bilingual” person whose behavior doesn’t seem to indicate bilingual proficiency.

Social Experience

Social Experience. Right. So, back in the day [translation note: presenter uses a sign that could be glossed as LONG AGO], well, it wasn’t exactly that long ago. Either way, in years past, I believe that there were myriad opportunities to interact with interpreters – we attended social events, learning and interactive events where we conversed and shared ourselves and the language used there was rich and natural and fluent.

Currently, I see what I would label classroom or “Textbook ASL.” This type of signing is typically a mechanized, citation form of signing that does not convey fluency or natural, common usage of ASL. That natural, fluent expression comes from social interaction. It is perfectly acceptable to learn ASL in the classroom, but to translate that kind of language to real-world work or to label that usage as “bilingualism” is inaccurate. That isn’t bilingualism. That kind of language is almost robotic – the person may display perfect grammatical and linguistic forms, which I applaud. They may produce all the grammatical and non-manual markers in the right place, at the right time, but the message, the core meaning is absent.

Cultural Behaviors

Culture. This is most often the place where conflicts arise – problems, struggles, misunderstandings can all impact the message in the attempt to bring two languages and cultures together. Finding that place where two languages and cultures can come together effectively is a challenge because cultural understanding is so critical. Culture is so integral. Cultural immersion from a young age is critical for true understanding. This is true for any language and culture – it isn’t specific to interactions between Deaf and hearing people, but the struggle is very real.

You’ll remember the reference to societal and socio-linguistic issues. Again, the power differentials between one culture and another come into play. Yesterday, in her presentation, Stacey Storme talked about privilege, which resonated with me. Privilege. In terms of real world application, when we bring two cultures together, we often confront issues of privilege – issues that are in conflict with the bilingual experience.

In all honesty, it was a relief to know that there would not be voice interpreters today. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I can present in ASL without other considerations. Secondly, I’ve grown tired of being stopped after a presentation only to be told that the interpreters didn’t understand or had misinterpreted my message. Finding that out is a blow, especially when the information comes after the fact. A hearing interpreter who is presenting with voice interpreters can catch and correct an error while it is happening. That is privilege at work. It doesn’t align with cultural behaviors. To hear an error and accept it, carrying on as a Deaf presenter must, without immediate repair is the culturally appropriate thing to do. A Deaf presenter doesn’t have any option – they only find out about it when it is too late to repair. This is one illustration of the struggle, the disconnect between the definition of bilingual and the cultural behaviors which should align with that definition.


Situations. There are a whole host of situations that people experience on a regular, even daily basis, and this point applies both to situations and my discussion of cultural behaviors, how do/can interpreters prepare for all of these situations? We could select examples from hospitals, legal situations, academic settings, weddings, funerals, or a number of other settings.  Each setting and situation has unique and difficult demands.


Flexibility. How flexible can we be? As Carla Mathers mentioned yesterday with regard to legal interpreting – there are rules in place so the interpreters can’t be too flexible and at the same time, we must allow for some flexibility. That flexibility is related to language use. I could see language flexibility as one measure of bilingualism.

Yes because…

I got an interesting answer when I posed the question: “Do you think sign language interpreters are bilingual?” The slide says “Yes,” but really, most people responded with a resounding, “No.” I was surprised by the response. When I was given the reasons people said no, I understood more clearly. To those few individuals who answered “Yes”, I asked, “Why did you answer yes?” Several of the “Yes” respondents said they answered that way because interpreters were able to communicate. I found that answer intriguing. The purpose of using language is to communicate but effective communication doesn’t mean effective use of language. Some responded that what was important was the interpreter conveying the main idea or basic concept. The idea that someone who has access to a full language (a bilingual) communicating only the most basic information in an interpretation gave me pause.

One Deaf person said that their own educational experiences, in the mainstream and at the Deaf school, prepared them. Their interpreters and hearing teachers signed basic, surface ideas and concepts, leaving them to decipher the rest of the information on their own. So, an interpreter, in that person’s view, could be considered bilingual and interpret only basic information because they (the Deaf person) had developed the skills to navigate through that kind of language input. But this also illustrates the inequity that exists between English and ASL. I work in a university setting. Across the United States, there are individuals who are not proficient in trying to decipher vague or basic language input. Remember earlier when we talked about the school experience – that peer learning that takes place? In these other settings, there may not be a peer to ask. In that situation, the Deaf person has only the interpreter’s rendition. That’s a problem.

Others responded that the interpreter had probably been measured by linguists and labeled bilingual. Others felt that interpreters, by virtue of their certification, must be considered bilingual.

I posed the same question to those who answered, “No.”

No because…

The “No” respondents had a variety of reasons for their answers. On reason given by many was that interpreters aren’t fluent enough in expressive ASL. It is interesting to note that most people, when asked this question, focused on ASL proficiency and not English. Both Deaf and hearing respondents, almost across the board, focused on ASL skills even though an interpreter must have English language proficiency, as well.  So, most people focused on ASL fluency. Other answers included finding interpreters hard to watch (either causing fatigue or they were uninteresting), they had too many miscues or misunderstandings, etc.

One of my own personal experiences might be good to insert here. I was at RID – the specific organization isn’t the point of this example. My point is that I was at a conference presenting. I showed a videotaped text with poor ASL usage – full of errors. The errors were purposeful. Afterwards, I asked the participants if they thought this was something good to use on the web as an example of good ASL usage. Many hands raised up to indicate that yes, they thought it was. Taken aback, I shared that this video was not, in fact, a good model of ASL. That moment gave me some important information.

So, let’s return to my original question. When we consider proficiency levels, knowledge, experience, flexibility, the ability to navigate through varied situations and interactions, community involvement and culturally appropriate behavior, it is clear that our definition of bilingual does not fit the textbook definition. No, that’s wrong. I should say that the textbook definition does not fit our definition of bilingual.

Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

The question remains the same. I don’t have the answer for you today. I leave it to you to determine the answer to the question: Are sign language interpreters bilingual? Hopefully, I won’t have to pose the question again. Before we can comfortably answer this question, we must determine our definition of bilingual.

Thank you.

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