No One’s a Prodigy! Deliberate Practice and Sign Language Interpreting

March 28, 2018

Billy Kendrick presented No One’s a Prodigy! Deliberate Practice and Sign Language Interpreting at StreetLeverage – Live 2017 | St. Paul. In his presentation, Billy discusses his belief that great interpreters are made, not born and explains that professional ethics demand excellence, mindfulness, and a plan to elevate our work to meet community needs.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Billy’s StreetLeverage – Live 2017 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Billy’s original presentation directly.]

Interested in attending StreetLeverage – Live 2018 being held in Philadelphia, PA/Cherry Hill, NJ (metros) April 13-15, 2018?

No One’s a Prodigy! Deliberate Practice and Sign Language Interpreting

Back in the Fall of 1991, around November or December, I found myself, a new signer, in the presence of a group of Deaf people who had taken me under their wing. One of the group members received an urgent message that a fellow friend, another Deaf woman, had had an unexpected complication with her pregnancy and was headed to the hospital. We immediately went to the hospital, and as was common in 1991, found that no interpreter was available. As the sole hearing person present and at the request of my Deaf friends and mentors, I began awkwardly interpreting the interactions of the flurry of medical professionals. I didn’t want to take on that role, but given the circumstances of my friends asking for information during this crucial medical emergency, I reluctantly did.

That’s when things took a turn – I made a mistake in my interpretation. Based on that error, the doctor was on the verge of taking action that would have caused our friend to lose her baby. Thankfully, one of those friends was monitoring the interactions closely and deciphered enough of the conversation that they were able to intervene, stopping everything and asking for clarification. Ultimately, that person was responsible for saving that child’s life – not me.

That experience has had a profound impact on me and my life. It was then that I realized that if I were to continue as a guest in this community, my language competence would have to improve. There was no way with my current signing capabilities that I could become an interpreter when people’s lives could truly be at stake.

Demonstrating Respect

That year, 1991, was the year I was “born” into the Deaf community. I met a cute Deaf girl (a true motivator for me to improve, of course!) who had some speech and lipreading ability and through her and my other friends immersed myself in Deaf culture. We’ve been married now for almost 27 years. Or is it 22? Math is not my strong suit. Since she’s watching me right now, I’d like to say – honey, I don’t mean to say it’s felt like longer! It’s still wonderful.

I was lucky to have my future wife and my friends to usher me into this community because I wouldn’t have gotten the experience any other way. In school, I took but one all-too-brief ASL class that didn’t address culture. It was from my community connections that I built linguistic competence and understanding and internalizing of Deaf cultural norms and values. Eventually, I became a certified interpreter. I’m showing my age here, but it was under the previously termed Code of Ethics, which we now call the Code of Professional Conduct, although the principles remain from past to present version.

I’d like to ask you all to recall what RID’s present values are. Please take a look at the next slide and pay particular attention to the words I’ve emphasized in bold print. Let me ask you all: why is demonstrating respect fourth on this list? I acknowledge the second tenet – possessing the skills and knowledge necessary to interpret – but I can’t help but notice that respect for consumers is fourth. And really, we know that the word “consumer” means Deaf people – yes, we serve hearing consumers as well, but our purpose is born out of the Deaf community.

What does “demonstrating respect” mean? It means developing our ASL skill and knowledge of cultural values to such an extent that when we are a presence in Deaf people’s lives, we are truly welcome. I’d like to posit some ideas – not solutions – for discussion on how we might accomplish this.

Understanding Peak Performance

The gentleman you see on the slide, K. Anders Ericsson, is a psychologist and researcher from Florida State University. His field of study for many years has been how individuals all over the world have attained excellence or peak performance in a particular skill. Over time his research has been supplemented by others and, I have to say, I find it fascinating. I believe the principles he puts forward apply to the field of sign language interpreting.

The other person pictured on the slide is Malcolm Gladwell, noted New Yorker contributor and prolific author. His 2009 book “Outliers” was a New York Times bestseller. In it, he included research from several sources but most heavily referenced the research of K. Anders Ericsson. For the remainder of this presentation, I will be referencing both Ericsson’s and Gladwell’s work.

The field of genetics has evolved to a great degree over the years. In the last fifteen years alone, scientists have made amazing discoveries about stem cells and the human genome. However, the study of IQ began in 1921. One California researcher, Lewis Terman, identified children who possessed genius-level IQ at an early age – around 5 or 6 years of age. In 2003, approximately 300 of those subjects were still alive. The question: does a high IQ predict success in life? The answer was a resounding “no.”  IQ does not guarantee success. Randomized, controlled studies have found the same result.

You may be wondering how this is relevant. As interpreters, we may perceive that our innate intelligence contributes to our success or we may experience struggles along the way. The important takeaway from this research is that excellence doesn’t come without effort. There is no easy path to success. We were talking this yesterday. That interpreters wonder if they possess the mysterious “it” that connotes success. But in reality, there is no “it.”

Success and the Human Brain

The real determinant of success is in our minds. Ericsson studied masters of all professions: virtuoso violinists, star athletes, chess masters, mountain climbers, etc., and found that the one common element all shared, more important than physical fitness, was the ability to train their mind in performing certain tasks. For example, you may or may not have heard of the concept of blindfolded chess played by the grand masters – the top players in the world. In this event, a person plays either with an actual blindfold or merely sits in a room set apart from a chess board which they never see, yet still plays. I believe the record number of simultaneous “blindfolded” chess games played by a single person was twenty-seven!  How is that possible while never seeing the chess board?

Another experiment required a grandmaster, intermediate, and novice chess player each to look at a simulated chess game for five seconds and then recreate the position of the 64 pieces on another board. The grandmaster could correctly position the 64 pieces with 90% accuracy, after only a five-second look! The intermediate player could place only seven or eight pieces correctly, while the novice could place only two or three. Why are the expert and novice brains so different? One important fact to note is that if the board was set up randomly, not looking like an actual game, then all three levels of player struggled to recreate the arrangement. Ericsson explains the 90% accuracy by the expert shows that they make a mental map of the board that they can work from while resetting the pieces. They have studied common positions on the chess board so long and so thoroughly that instead of seeing individual pieces on the board at a glance, their minds process all 64 as one unit and can therefore easily recall each position. This principle applies to our work as interpreters.

The “10,000-Hours Rule”

Gladwell’s book popularized the “10,000-hour” rule for mastery. You may have heard the term, “The 10,000-Hour Rule,” even though it is a misnomer. Although this concept is often looked on as a rule, it was a mischaracterization. Gladwell simply observed that those who experienced mastery tended to invest that amount of time in training their bodies and minds in the task to be mastered, with some variance among them, but in general, about 10,000 hours.

This concept tells us that mastery doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. We must invest at minimum two years at an interpreter education program – whatever your preferred acronym for that is. In all, that is not that many hours altogether. We then must pursue certification, which still would not help us reach that 10,000-hour mark. However, Ericsson states that it is not the number of hours that is the ultimate goal, rather it is the quality and type of training, education, and opportunities to apply the training which make the difference. I want to talk about some of his points from his research on outliers via the next slide.

Exiting Our Comfort Zone

Our work requires us to step out of our comfort zone. Most of us here were not raised signing or as a member of the Deaf world or culture. Thus, as interpreters, we must leave where our natural comfort lies. More importantly, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent regarding our ongoing training and education. Complacency is tantamount to professional death, and moreover, renders our work to the Deaf community moot. We find ourselves ill-prepared for what’s at hand. In stepping out of our comfort zone, we must also learn to discern what to focus on in our studies so we can target what we most need to improve upon.

When I was a newcomer to the Deaf world, I learned much from my friends. However, I also was subject to their good-natured teasing as an outsider. Another presenter mentioned “language-shaming,” but I have to admit, it worked on me! I recall one conversation I had when I was new signer with a friend of mine and a Deaf acquaintance I had just met, Mike. I remember signing something fairly awkwardly during the conversation with Mike, at which point he looked quizzically at me, then to our mutual friend, who said, “Oh, he means…”. At first, I was puzzled that my friend needed to repeat what I had just said but realized that I hadn’t been clear. Whatever mistake I had made while trying to express myself had prevented Mike from understanding me. I tried to think what could have specifically been the problem- was it some parameter of ASL that I hadn’t produced clearly: my handshape or palm orientation perhaps? I asked my friends for specific feedback and advice on how I was producing certain signs, as well as questions on fingerspelling conventions and anything else I wondered about, and over time grew comfortable doing that. As a person who grew up speaking rather than signing, I was outside of my comfort zone in learning to communicate with my hands.

As I mentioned, I ended up marrying a Deaf woman after years of having been in the Deaf community. I came to realize that my comfort zone – with hearing people- would not work for us as a couple. I had to ask myself to what extent I was willing to distance myself from that world. Of course, no hearing person could ever completely leave it behind, but being partnered to a Deaf person raises that question. For me, it meant that my friends, my social opportunities from then forward, would be rooted in the Deaf world. I considered that before my marriage and decided I would step away from my comfort zone in a significant way because of my fiance and my shared value of full communication access. Even though she had the ability to communicate with hearing people, it was not fully accessible. Whereas I could communicate in either realm – so why wouldn’t we choose the environment best suited to us as a couple? That goes back to my message of having to leave one’s comfort zone to experience growth and success.

Billy Kendrick - Einstein Reference at StreetLeverage - Live 2017

What an amazing quote from Einstein: that brilliant man to whom we owe so much. It’s a great quote. We truly cannot solve the myriad of issues in the interpreting profession as a whole until we first look to ourselves. In taking a micro view of our skills, looking at where we are and where we want to be, we can take moderate, achievable steps toward those goals- not a leap, resulting in sure failure – thereby attaining the growth we seek individually. What I’ll talk about next is the assistance that step-by-step approach requires. Remember the 10,000 hours guideline to achieving success, little by little? Next slide, please.

Billy Kendrick - Dilbert Reference at StreetLeverage - Live 2017

Investment and Commitment

Scott Adams, the “Dilbert” cartoonist, may quite be the smartest person in the entire world in my opinion. He writes the truth so clearly and with such expertise. For as you know, all interpreters are a bit loopy to remain in this profession, right? The whole premise of producing an equivalent interpretation is impossible – how can someone accurately take the thoughts and ideas of one person and convey them to another, perfectly and equivalently, in a completely different language? Crazy, right? Why do we even entertain the thought? It just can’t be done, even when conveying the thoughts of a truly crazy person!

The point is, interpreting is hard. It requires a personal investment of time and money. It requires us to accept just a little bit of what’s “crazy.” But even after more than 40 – 50 years of RID, we still find ourselves operating in the exact same way. Are we a living example of Einstein’s quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?” Are we insane, and how do we change? The answer is little by little, in small steps, and as one.

The previous slide with all those happy, excited people is what all of you looked like yesterday at 5:15 PM or how you’ll look like tonight when you’re out having a good time, right? In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, he defines Bill Gates as the epitome of success. Whether you like Bill Gates or not, consider who he is from an objective viewpoint. Did he achieve success because he was smarter than everyone else? No, his IQ was just slightly above average. Without going into too much detail given the time we have, I can tell you that Bill Gates became Bill Gates because of his family and where he lived. He was in Washington, and when he was in school, I believe it was in 1969, they opened their first computer lab. For those younger people in the audience who may not recall, computers at that time were the size of this room, not a handheld device that can send you the moon like we have today. He leveraged the coincidences of opportunity he had in his environment. Not to diminish his agency, of course; he snuck out of the house at 2 in the morning to go the computer lab. He was the definition of a nerd, ok? He wasn’t sneaking out to see girls like I wanted to…he was going to the computer lab. So he made choices but within a certain environment.

Exploring Deliberate Practice

As interpreters, we need the right environment to grow. We must have coaches. Ericsson’s research points out that practice, in general, is all well and good, but for deliberate practice, a coach who knows how one becomes an expert in the field is required. Do we have those coaches in the field of sign language interpreting? Where are they? We have some, but not enough. The next call for growth is to find your community of exceptional practitioners – not based on your opinion, rather, ask the Deaf community for their recommendations. Who are those coveted folks who everyone in the community hopes show up to their important medical appointment? Find them and pick their brains. Ask them about their mindset, their journey, and how they became an expert in the field. How they spent their 10,000 hours. We cannot do it alone. For me, I owe a debt of gratitude to my Deaf friends, truly my family, for making me who I am.

Billy Kendrick - Beethoven Reference at StreetLeverage - Live 2017

I don’t know if Beethoven intended to be sexist when he used the word “men” in this quote, but ignore that piece and know it’s talking about people in general. You know, my brothers and sisters here today – this now is a little bit of church, like Brandon said yesterday – we have a divine responsibility. We have the opportunity as human vessels to choose to take in wholeheartedly everything this work has to offer. So when Sarah, her family, friends, all our Deaf colleagues with us today, have the “unfortunate need” of an interpreter, we can be there with everything we have to become truly great interpreters. Thank you.


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