Deaf-Parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education?

May 20, 2015

Amy Williamson presented Deaf-parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston/Newton. Amy will examine the experience of deaf-parented interpreters as child language brokers, heritage learners of sign language, and practitioners working among the community who raised them.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

“Do You Remember the First Time You Interpreted?”

For those of you without deaf family members, you remember. Clearly. This question probably evokes a visceral emotional reaction and a vivid mind’s eye image. For me, a white middle class hearing female who grew up with deaf parents and extended family members, I might as well be asked if I remember the first time I ate toast. Toast has always been a part of my world. So has interpreting. Well, at least the concept of interpreting.

What I grew up doing was what is commonly referred to as child language brokering. I don’t remember the FIRST time I interpreted but I do have memories of culturally brokering between my parents and non-signing people. When I was in middle school, I was assigned a submission to the dreaded science fair. Any of you with children may have some empathy for my mother as she had to deal with a daughter (me) that was, is, and shall always be the Queen of Procrastination. As per usual, just before the stores were closing the night before the project was due, I needed a run to the drug store to get some long forgotten but very important item to complete the project. Just as the store was closing, my mother was at the cash register purchasing the key item that would make or break my project. While I was not actually standing with my mother, I was close enough to witness the following:

Clerk: Hello, how are you?

My mother: looking down to retrieve money from her wallet does not see that the clerk has said something to her

Clerk: Well, you don’t have to be rude.

My mother: still looking down does not see that the clerk has said something else

In that moment, my 13-year-old self knew that I could do one of a few things in reaction. I was not ‘interpreting’ for my family members as I do now that I am a professional interpreter, but I had over time, trial, and error learned how to determine the goals of each of the people communicating and navigate between them. Each interaction, constellation of players, and context would result in a different decision on how to broker between them.

Some Days I Made Good Decisions. Other Days I Did Not.

On that late night I made a decision. I walked up to my mother and started signing to her. The act of signing made immediately clear to the clerk, who probably was exhausted after a long day of waiting on ungrateful customers and may not have intended for the comment to be said out loud, that my mother was deaf. Not rude. And more than anything, wanted to get in and out of the store with the must have for the science fair project item. Anyone that knows my mother can vouch for me when I say that ‘rude’ is the last adjective you would ever hear in a description of her.

To Broker or Not to Broker, Not a Choice.

This experience wasn’t a first. It wasn’t the last. This type of thing will always happen for children of deaf parents. No amount of Video Relay Service, Closed Captioning on TV, laws protecting the rights of Deaf people, or interpreters on every street corner will prevent children from witnessing and brokering in situations like this. Even if a parent chooses not to have their child broker, it is almost impossible to stand by and watch miscommunication happen. Children want to help their parents. How the situation is handled is unique to the relationship between child and parent and those decisions are highly personal. The dynamics around these interactions need to be understood and respected by the larger interpreting community.

What Defines a Native Signer? Is Auditory Status Part of the Criteria?

Signed language researchers have no consensus on a definition of who is a native sign language user. Such a small percentage of deaf people are born to signing deaf parents. By defining a native user as someone that uses the language from birth, the number of native users for their research purposes would be limited. Researchers manipulate the criteria to suit their research questions.

Among spoken language colleagues the criteria for native users of a language is straightforward. Anyone that uses a language from birth is considered a native user. For some reason, modality and auditory status become part of the criteria when we talk about native users of signed language. People seem loathe to admit that a majority of native signed language users are hearing because most deaf people have hearing children and those children acquire a signed language from birth.

What Makes a Heritage Language User? Fluency Will Vary.

If a person uses a minority language at home with their parents and is not educated in that same language, they are called a heritage language user. As a student of their home language, they are called a heritage language learner. Deaf-parented individuals are heritage language signers and potentially heritage language learners if they take a signed language class.

Heritage language fluency will vary wildly among users and may vary within the same family. Fluency in the heritage language will depend on several factors such as how often the child interacts in the heritage language or how diverse the language users are that they interact with. Family language policies and dynamics are unique and evolve for each family differently.

The Role of Family, Community & School.

For any language acquisition, whether it is a first or subsequent language, there are three areas of immersion that will ensure full and rich language acquisition. They are family, community, and school.  If we apply this model of language acquisition to each of four groups, we can develop a better understanding of the opportunities for signed language acquisition and fluency development for the communities we work with.

If you are deaf with deaf parents, you will have signed language immersion in all three areas. If you are deaf with hearing parents, there are no guarantees of immersion in all three areas. If you are hearing with hearing parents, the opportunities for immersion in any one of the three areas are difficult to experience. If you are, like me, hearing with deaf parents, you will experience immersion at home, possibly in the community but not in school. I conducted a survey of 751 deaf-parented interpreters and found that 74% of the respondents reported that they had interactions with signing deaf people that were not their own parents at least weekly. deaf-parented interpreters do have community opportunities for signed language acquisition.

In thinking about these three areas of language immersion, how does your experience shape up? How much signed language immersion have you had in your home life, community, or schooling?

Child Language Broker to Professional Interpreter

When I was 18, I needed a job. I was a poor college student that needed money for shoes. And beer (shhhh…don’t tell my mother).  I thought I had no marketable skills but then I found out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had just passed and the world was in desperate need of exactly what I had to offer.

I was a heritage language user of ASL and I had experience as a child language broker. These two experiences were valued and needed. Without setting out any intention of becoming an interpreter, doors opened that started me on a professional career path. A path that I am grateful for.

My own entry to interpreting is not unique. Almost 80% of the respondents to my survey fell into the ASL/English interpreting industry without intentionally pursuing it. Most of the interpreters that responded to my survey started interpreting before the age of 25. Just like me and some of you.

What does all of this have to do with interpreter education and why am I…someone with no formal interpreter education program background…even talking about it? Let me show you.

Only 28% of the deaf-parented interpreter survey respondents attended and completed a formal interpreter education program.

Deaf-parented interpreters want to get training. They are committed to getting structured training. Enough so that one survey respondent, a mother of young children, drove an hour and a half one-way to attend a structured interpreter training program. That same program required students to attend specific evening and weekend events in the deaf community to get more exposure and understanding of ASL and the community that uses it. The respondent’s deaf family members lived near her and she saw and interacted with them and the deaf community regularly. Her instructor insisted that she adhere to the requirement to attend the same events that her classmates were required to attend.

The hoops she was required to jump to get exposure to sign language and the deaf community were unnecessary for her but the system failed her by sticking to their rigid requirements.

She is one of the 28%.

25 Years of Progress?

In the 25 years since I entered the field, the bar has been raised on entry-level requirements for interpreters. In the grand scheme of things, this is a good thing but I challenge our industry to look at what we may be losing as we raise the bar.

If I were to graduate from high school today and need money for shoes and beer, I’d probably have to get a job at McDonald’s.  The community would not have access to my skillset. I would not be able to work in many states without licensure. Licensure would require certification. Certification would require sitting for RID’s NIC or CDI exam. To sit for that exam, I would need to have completed a BA or AA degree or demonstrated equivalent competency through the alternate pathways process.

Alternate pathway is a nice option for anyone that has not completed a degree but it still requires documentation of interpreting and education.

How would you propose I document all of the situations like the one in the drug store the night before my science fair project was due?

I would likely not become an interpreter in 2015. Maybe I’d be a police detective or a bookstore manager. All of those respondents that said they ‘fell into’ interpreting would be teachers or lawyers or waiters or accountants or stay at home moms.

Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe interpreter education is working for most people. What do I know?

Together We Can Ensure Adequate Training.

It recently dawned on me that I had never met an interpreter/student interpreter before they started to learn sign. I don’t know what it is like to decide to take an ASL class or to become an interpreter. I don’t know what it is like to see a person signing for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to interpret for the first time (let alone in a classroom from a video). I don’t know what it is like to sign in front of other people for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to go though a decision making tree that you learned in a class before making a decision while interpreting.

I do know that expecting deaf-parented interpreters, child language brokers who are native and heritage users of signed language, to fit into the current model of interpreter education does not work for most of us. We need professional education. We need acknowledgement that we bring a different skill set to our industry than interpreters who do not have deaf parents.

Let’s ensure that little girls with deaf parents, and their classmates, have options for interpreter education that take into account their native and heritage language use. Training opportunities that are designed to enhance and refine their child language brokering experiences. We need deaf-parented interpreters to have an integral part of shaping our industry as we provide services to our signing communities.


Angelelli, C. (2010). A professional ideology in the making: Bilingual youngsters interpreting for the communities and the notion of (no) choice. Translation and Interpreting Studies, 5(1), 94-108.

Compton, S. (2014). American Sign Language as a Heritage Language. In T. G. Wiley, J. K. Peyton, D. Christian, S. C. Moore, & N. Liu (Eds.), Handbook of Heritage, Community, and Native American Languages in the United States: Research, Policy, and Educational Practice. New York: Routledge and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Napier, J. (in press). Not just child’s play: Exploring bilingualism and language brokering as a precursor to the development of expertise as a professional signed language interpreter. In R. Antonini (Ed.), Non-professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the Art and Future of an Emerging Field of Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Reynolds, W. & Palmer, J. (2014, June). Codas as heritage learners →signers. Presented at CODA International, Codazona, Tempe, AZ.

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28 Comments on "Deaf-Parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education?"

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Rebecca Coyne
I am a CODA. I am a polio survivor. I grew up in-patient. I grew up interpreting for my parents at medical meetings regarding my care. My medical vocabulary is so high that doctors always ask “what field do you practice” and I can sign it as well. When I home, I joined my siblings interpreting for Mom/Dad in life. I ran into situations as described more times than I can count. Add to that I wear braces/crutches. The ugly in society would really come out. Boy could I tell stories that have you laughing and cringing at the same… Read more »
Alan Witteborg

I really enjoyed this post and think there are very valid issues brought to light from what you’ve written. Though I would encourage against the implication of interpreting being a “girls” profession. As in your last pharagraph. Though the majority of interpreters may be female, I think we should encourage more male prospects to the profession.

Amy Williamson

Alan, You are exactly right.
The English version you are reading is based off of the ASL version.
If you watch it, you will see that I am referencing a little Koda girl that I show a video of. Reading the English version does not make that plain, I apologize.
In the ASL version, I talk of the Koda girl and the boy classmate that is sitting next to her. Interpreter education needs to make some changes for BOTH of them.

Thank you for saying something.

Barbara Johnson
We should encourage all young people that have a gift of languages or of sign language to pursue the interpreting field. I always tell teens that male interpreters are very needed and they could work any where they want! I have been interpreting since I was a young teen and now I interpret for Deaf men (and women) in medical situations. I spend time reassuring the men that I am not embarrassed and that I have interpreted for other men in the same situations. I truly believe a male interpreter would be wonderful. However, I have earned the trust and… Read more »
John Hancock

Great job! Excellent. Hancock

Excellent article! To be honest, I hadn’t considered the implications the educational requirements had on deaf-parented interpreters. I fortunately for my certification just before this requirement but I will tell you, when I became an interprerter professionally, I was a single parent and there is no way back then that College would’ve been an option. Becoming an interpreter is the only way I survived as a single parent. I technically had been training my whole life for this job! I am where I am today because of my native language. Definitely an asset to my life and to the community… Read more »
Barbara Johnson

I love this article as I fit that mold as well. Amy makes some great points that I agree with 100%. The fact that fluency varies among hearing children of Deaf parents. I am the oldest of five and me and my sister worked for over 35 years as educational interpreters. We loved it…but it ended because of budget cuts to our local “centralized program”. Our three younger siblings can sign but never developed it to the point of interpreting. Thanks to Amy for a wonderful and honest perspective on Deaf-parented interpreters. I agree all the way!


I love this article! I grew up oldest of 4 siblings with an oral Deaf parent and ASL father , so I knew how to Sim Com and code switch before I even knew the terms. I struggled in attending a 2 year ITP because it didn’t really challenge me but I was required to take all the classes no matter what. However it did teach me the rules and Code of Ethics. I am glad that I was able to get my national certification before all the regulations.


Yes, I’m not surprised at the survey results. My son is CODA and he just spontaneously became an interpreter for one of the VRS company that does not require certification but to pass the sign language skills test. He is obtaining college degree a few years and plans to be certified. He is raised with my Deaf friends and Deaf Church. So you are right. Thanks for sharing and I do encourage him to take some interpreting classes for his own benefit and work with non-CODA’s interpreters. 🙂 Love your presentation.

Peggy Huber
Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective, Amy. It is so important to make sure that IDPs are active in interpreter training and in organizations for interpreters to make sure that we don’t lose sight of CODA perspective and maintain respect and compassion for the Deaf experience. I would like to remind readers that the purpose of the education requirements for certification has as much to do about a level of knowledge and experience of the world as it is about interpreter skills training. I would not recommend waiving that requirement for IDPs as that would deny those colleagues… Read more »

Thank you Amy for sharing your valuable insights. As a Deaf parented Interpreter from Melbourne Australia I believe we experience similar issues here. (Coda students not feeling understood- or encouraged to flourish. Even worse – discouraged).

Although I must say that during my post grad studies in Sydney having Deaf parented teachers/ lecturers as part of the instruction mix this definitely enhanced my learning. Also having teachers who had experienced a similar upbringing and similarity in acquiring the language contributed to my comfort levels too. Hopefully future interpreter training programs can take some of these issues into consideration.


In addition to this, has any consideration been given to the disproportionate numbers of non native or outsider interpreters working in this field? Particularly in the S/L sector? I am sure our spoken language colleagues would not experience the same numbers of non natives working in their interpreting industry? What impacts or influences does bring into the language and Deaf communities we serve? This would be an interesting study!

But Mark, I AM a native – I’m a native speaker of English. In spoken language interpreting, it’s quite normal to have an A language and a B language. I certainly have that, and Auslan is my B language. For some CODAs, it’s the opposite, but not for all, depending on upbringing, as the article notes. Some CODAs may have equal fluency in both languages – again, not all. So my education as an interpreter HAD to include – and still has to include – enculturation in the Deaf community, and it may be that for some CODAs, it’s the… Read more »
Norman James

Nice work, Amy!! Keep it up!! I really wish my fingers could move half so fast as yours!!

Michael Creason
First, let me start off by saying that you are absolutely right Amy! I am an interpreter, and I think perhaps the first one to respond, that happens to be a second language user. I do not have the same experiences that IDPs have had and that does make aspects of my interpreting different (and sometimes harder because of the lack thereof). However, as someone that had my own frustrations with how ITPs taught, I was reading this as a call to action for discussion. I’m not seeing that, and I really want to. I’m just seeing that we have… Read more »
Hi Dani, thanks for your post and I hope this finds you well. I couldn’t agree more with a number of the statements you have made. However when talking about ‘nativeness’ in this instance I probably need to clarify that I am referring to those who may be Auslan natives (depending on upbringing as you clearly point out)- in the context of interpreters predominately working from English into Auslan (here in Australia) for the bulk of their interpreting work. I completely agree that both languages and cultures need to be understood and respected equally. However I am sure that having… Read more »
I really enjoyed this. I found myself nodding along as you said that CODAs are screaming for appropriate education and training. Yes! I’m a CODA in my mid-twenties who is just now considering interpreting as a career. I lost my job back in March due to health issues, and it forced me to reevaluate my direction in life. I thought, “Why not interpreting? I have the background.” However, I have a Bachelor’s in an unrelated field, and can’t really afford to pursue another degree at this time. That’s why I decided in part to pursue interpreting, since I already have… Read more »
As a CODA and college student currently enrolled in the ASL interpreting program at Suffolk Community College, this article definitely grabbed my attention. I am the youngest of four siblings. We are all fluent in ASL. My sister has been Educational interpreter for over 15 year and absolutely loves her job. She continues to work at various events such as theater, concerts, appointments, exhibitions and the lists goes on and on and so does her knowledge and experience because of her active work and partnership within the Deaf community. I can relate to so much in this article, like accompanying… Read more »
Amy Williamson

Thank you for joining the discussion. I am glad that you are getting training as an interpreter and that you are having a positive experience. There are many Coda interpreting students that have had positive training experiences, just like you.


[…] which has given rise to the term intersectionality. This is an important concept, because, as Amy Williamson said, for her it’s not a question of being either hearing or Deaf. She’s both in one. To […]

Yes yes yes. I read this nodding the whole way thru. I am a CODA and currently in the role of elder care for my Deaf parents. I interpret complex medical appointments, legal appointments, etc and yet I cannot get a job as an interpreter because I am not a graduate of a certified ITP program. My circumstances of raising a family and caring for my parents make moving to another city to attend such a program prohibitive. Meanwhile there is such an interpreter shortage in our city that when I am unavailable to interpret for my parents and an… Read more »

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