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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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What Makes Us Tick? Sign Language Interpreters, Values & Motivation

What Makes Us Tick? Sign Language Interpreters, Values & Motivation

Knowledge of personal beliefs and value systems enhance a sign language interpreter’s professional practice. Audrey Ramirez-Loudenback posits articulating our “why” may positively impact job satisfaction and longevity in the field.

I embarked on this research as a student in Western Oregon University’s MA in Interpreting Studies with a belief that our motivations will influence every part of our professional practice. Literature confirms that values are the foundation for any decision making process, whether a person is consciously aware of this or not (Amentrano, 2014; Brown, 2002; Rokeach 1970, 1974). As sign language interpreters, our responsibility is to start identifying and articulating the values that are expressed through our choices.

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Values have been discussed by many in the field of sign language interpreting (Bienvenu, 1987; Cokely, 2000; Dean & Pollard, 2013), including here on Street Leverage (Meckler, 2014). My research attempted to take what we know about values and collect information via an online survey from a large sample of sign language interpreters and interpreting students about their own personally held value systems to see what kind of patterns and trends emerged.  

Values That Motivate

The survey included the Portrait Values Questions (PVQ), an instrument used to collect data that was designed by Dr. Schwartz, a researcher and teacher in the field of Psychology (Schwartz, 1994, 2012, Schwartz et al., 2001, Schwartz et al., 2012). The survey also included questions about demographics and one open-ended question. I received 298 completed responses from interpreters and interpreting students all over the United States. A large portion of the research results centered on the responses to the open-ended question; respondents were asked to briefly describe their reasons for becoming an interpreter.

My findings showed that most respondents described reasons for entering the field that were not congruent with the value system expressed in their PVQ results (Ramirez-Loudenback, 2015). One recurrent example of this incongruity was a response that described a pleasure derived from using American Sign Language. A common example of this was “I fell in love with the language”. Most respondents that had a response similar to this example had results from their PVQ that did not match the values expressed with this idea of loving a language.

Much work has been done in the area of occupational fit and values (Amentrano, 2014; Brown, 2002; Watt & Richardson, 2007). This literature shows that values are an important part of choosing an occupation. One question that emerged from my research was about the consequence of having reasons for choosing to become a sign language interpreter that are not in-line with an individual’s personal value system (prioritization of essential values). I believe that we should be encouraging all emerging interpreters to consider how their values are being expressed in the choice to pursue this profession. This will lead pre-professionals to consider if interpreting will provide a career in which they can have the longevity and satisfaction that comes with an occupation that is congruent with their value system.

Values That Divide & Unite

My research also indicated a variation in value systems from respondents who did not identify as “White/Caucasian” compared to those that did identify as “White/Caucasian”. It is natural for individuals from distinct cultures to prioritize values differently. In fact, one of the reasons Schwartz developed this theory and model was to examine values across cultures (1994; Schwartz et al., 2001). The proportion of respondents (11%) who identified with an ethnic group other than “White/Caucasian” (89%) matches fairly closely with RID’s membership data, which was 87.7% (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 2014, p. 58). Within the small number of respondents who did identify as “Asian/Asian-American” or “Latino/Hispanic,” a stark contrast in the prioritization of values with the overall group emerged. Those that identified as “Latino/Hispanic” or “Asian/Asian American” ranked conformity the highest of all ten value types. Conformity includes the values of “Politeness, obedience, self-discipline, honoring parents and elders” (Bardi & Schwartz, 2003, p. 1208). The mean for the overall sample, of 298 participants, ranked conformity 5th out of the ten value types. I believe this leads us to some important questions as a professional community of sign language interpreters and interpreter educators regarding recruitment and retention of interpreters from diverse cultures. What is the experience of being raised with and having a value system that often seems to contrast or even conflict with the majority of your peers/colleagues? How does the majority’s value system create barriers for others to be heard and understood?

Through my study of this topic and my own experience with Supervision Sessions as a Supervision Leader for Western Oregon University’s Professional Supervision of Interpreting Practice (PSIP) program, I have noticed that most ethical conflicts can be reframed through the lens of values (Cokely, 2000; Dean & Pollard, 2013; Glover, Bumpus, Logan, & Ciesla, 1997; Karacaer, Gohar, Aygun, & Sayin, 2009; Meckler, 2014). Most dilemmas can be rephrased by asking: How are the values I am prioritizing conflict with my team/consumer/setting in this moment? Using Schwartz’ Motivational Values Theory and Model we could teach interpreting students and emerging professionals to view professional ethics in a way that is less deontological (right vs. wrong) by framing them in terms of competing values. This could improve professional discourse and lead to deeper reflective practice. When we have the language to articulate those conflicting values, I believe we can engage in a more productive conversation about how to navigate a conflict, one that honors the integrity of all involved.

Start Early for Positive Outcomes

Beginning this self-assessment of personal value systems early in an interpreter’s career may lead to richer dialogue about the impact of those values on ethical decision making. Values not only have profound impact on the choice to become a sign language interpreter, but also the choices in which settings to work, which consumers we feel we ‘match’, and the ethical standards we practice every day.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What motivated you to become an interpreter?
  2. What values do you see represented in your response to question 1?
  3. Which values do you hold dear that have the greatest impact on your work?
  4. Identify a time in your professional history when you thought a colleague was acting unethically. How can you reframe their choices and your own choices in terms of values that were being prioritized and conflicted?


Amentrano, I. R. (2014). Teaching ethical decision making: Helping students reconcile personal and professional values. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92,154 161. doi: 10.1002/j 1556-6676.2014.00143.x

Bardi, A., & Schwartz, S. H. (2003). Values and behavior: Strength and structure of relations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(10), 1207-1220.  doi: 10.1177/0146167203254602

Brown, D. (2002). The role of work and cultural values in occupational choice, satisfaction, and success: A theoretical statement. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80(1), 48-56. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6678.2002.tb00165.x

Bienvenu, M. J. (1987, April). The third culture: Working together (M. L. McIntire, Trans.). Address delivered to the Sign Language Interpreters of California. Retrieved from 3330_bienvenu_thirdculture.pdf

Cokely, D. (2000). Exploring ethics: A case for revising the code of ethics. Journal of Interpretation 10(1), 25-57.

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q. (2013) The demand control schema: Interpreting as a practice profession. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Glover, S. H., Bumpus, M. A., Logan, J. E., & Ciesla, J. R. (1997). Re-examining the influence of individual values on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(12/13), 1319-1329. doi: 10.1023/A:1005758402861

Karacaer, S., Gohar, R., Aygun, M., & Sayin, C. (2009). Effects of personal values on auditor’s ethical decisions: A comparison of Pakistani and Turkish professional auditors. Journal of Business Ethics, 88(53), 53-64. doi: 10.1007/s10551-0091012-4

Meckler, A. (2014, June 17). Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

Ramirez-Loudenback, A. (2015). Are we here for the same reason? Exploring the motivational values that shape the professional decision making of signed language interpreters. (unpublished Master’s thesis). Western Oregon University. Retrieved from

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (2014). The Views. Winter, 2014. Retrieved from

Rokeach, M. (1970). Beliefs, attitudes and values: A theory of organizational change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rokeach, M. (1979). Understanding human values individual and societal. New York, NY: The Free Press.  85

Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45.

Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An overview of Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Reading in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). doi:  10.9707/2307-0919.1116

Schwartz, S. H., Melech, G., Lehmann, A., Burgess, S., Harris, M., & Owens, V. (2001). Extending the cross-cultural validity of the theory of basic human values with a different method of measurement. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(5), 519-542.

Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fisher, R., Beierlein, C., Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663-588.  doi: 10.1037/a0029393

Watt, H. M., & Richardson, P. W. (2007). Motivational factors influencing teaching as a career choice: Development and validation of the FIT-Choice Scale. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 167-202. doi: 10.3200/JEXE.75.3.167-20