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Meet, Engage, Learn & Inspire: Mentoring and Sign Language Interpreters

Meet, Engage, Learn & Inspire: Mentoring and Sign Language Interpreters

Mentoring is often cited as a way to bridge the “readiness gap” for emerging sign language interpreters. Kim Boeh outlines the benefits of mentoring relationships and tips for successful interactions.

You find yourself sitting in a classroom surrounded by your peers and realize that you will soon graduate from your interpreter education program and you experience a moment of panic. You realize that once you leave this college community of peers, instructors, and total comfort zone, you will be all on your own out there in the “real world” of interpreting. What will you do when you need advice? Who will counsel you when you don’t know if you are permitted to wear the swanky new outfit to the assignment or if it is okay to take that picture and post it on Facebook or is it ok to….? What you really need is a mentor.

[View post in ASL]

There appears to be a need and perhaps even an outcry for mentoring in the field of sign language interpreting. There is a dearth of qualified and trained mentors available across the board due in part to lack of availability, lack of training, and lack of feeling qualified to mentor. Mentoring, if done properly, truly has a lot to offer both the mentor and mentee. RID’s Mentoring Standard Practice Paper (2007), stated that mentoring is a learning and growing experience for everyone involved in the process and the experiences that are gained through mentorship foster a higher level of professionalism for each individual practitioner. For many in the field, mentoring is considered an essential component of interpreter education but in many instances, mentoring is a component missing from interpreter education (Winston & Lee, 2013).

Bridging the Gap

Cokely (2005) and Ball (2013) mentioned a gap emerged once sign language interpreters started being trained in colleges in lieu of being chosen for language proficiency and groomed by the Deaf community. Some solutions to decreasing this gap in the education of interpreters that have been suggested in the past include implementing mentoring opportunities for students (Delk, 2013; RID, 2007).

I know what it is like to walk alone into the unknown from college training programs to real-world interpreting. I did not have much access to mentors during my interpreter training program or the first several years working as an entry-level interpreter. There were not enough mentors available to meet the demand at the time. I have personally experienced the lack of support and guidance that many entry-level interpreters encounter. I have witnessed first-hand many new graduates struggling with entry into the field, and this has deepened my belief that mentoring is the key to successfully transitioning recent graduates from college to work-readiness. I say this because I became a mentor in my local community and saw the benefits that occurred when I worked one-on-one with new graduates. We each learned from the experience by collaborating and working together. Collaboration can increase rapport, trust, and unity among interpreters.

For my master’s thesis, I asked over 400 interpreters and interpreting students in the United States and Canada one specific question referring to their feelings of how important it is to have mentors available for entry-level interpreters. The collected data from that question shows there is a strong belief in the importance of mentorship in the interpreting field by those currently working, preparing to work or previously having worked in the field. I also asked if mentoring were made readily available who would take advantage of the mentoring opportunity? A total of 82% of the participants replied they would take advantage of mentorship if available. I believe mentorship could help to bridge the gap that exists between educational preparation programs and work-readiness in the profession of interpreting. It could also lead interpreters to expand their knowledge base, provide professional development opportunities and guide them to becoming more highly-skilled interpreters regardless of their time in the field.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Connect with the Community

Leslie Janda Decker wrote an article for StreetLeverage entitled Sign Language Education: Returning to Deaf Heart. She mentions having D/deaf individuals as mentors and tutors for ASL students and interpreters. Having the D/deaf community and the professional interpreting community come together for the advancement of the field and the services to the communities is paramount. Having mentoring available either in person, via email and/or via live video chats could greatly improve the field of interpreting and the confidence of interpreters.  

Create Awareness and Positive Change

Mentoring can bring about positive changes to the profession. Implementing small group mentoring situations can prevent future students from feeling fearful of entering the profession and feeling alone. Upon graduation, a new interpreter could be assigned a deaf and/or hearing mentor to guide him down the path from student to professional. Mentors are also useful to veteran interpreters wanting to improve a specific skill area or branch out into a different setting they have not experienced previously (e.g. legal). Mentoring can benefit each and every interpreter in a myriad of ways:

  • building trust and rapport in the community
  • learning new signs/expanding vocabulary
  • building self-confidence
  • discussing ethical scenarios
  • exploring new settings (e.g., mental health, legal, freelancing)
  • keeping abreast of new technology
  • staying current with social media sites and apps related to the profession
  • learning proper business practices
  • expanding business opportunities/networking

We all need to work together to fill the void that is missing in our field and mentoring can help.

Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Mentorship

If so many people are interested in working with a mentor, then why are so few people working with mentors? Is it lack of availability? Cost? Fear? Traumatic experiences with previous mentors? Perhaps there are no skilled or willing mentors locally? How can we overcome the issues of not having enough qualified and willing mentors and interested mentees? One thought is that we all have something to offer. The student may learn a new technique or approach that was not around 20 years ago, and they can share this with others in the field. The veteran interpreter has “been there-done that” and can share experiences to shed some light on different scenarios to the novice interpreters entering the field. No matter where you are in your journey, you have something to offer to others and something to gain from others. More of us can set up study programs, workshops, and discussion groups to build camaraderie and share knowledge.

Key Tips to Mentoring

  • Determine what you want to gain from the mentorship (Skills development? If so, pick two elements of your work you want to focus on such as fingerspelling errors and use of space.)
  • Seek out an experienced, professional who is respected in the community and see if they have time to watch your work live or via a video and give feedback on just the two elements that you are working on (e.g., fingerspelling errors and use of space)
  • Feedback should be given and received without the use of evaluative language (e.g., good, bad, should have, you did/didn’t). Instead say, “What I observed was clear, effective fingerspelling. The use of space was ineffective in this sample due to items being set up in one space but referred to in another space, leaving the message unclear.
  • Focus on the WORK, not the interpreter. The goal of mentorship is to assist in accomplishing goals, and it is never the goal for one interpreter to criticize another. When working in teams and in mentoring roles (as mentees and mentors) we should always focus on the WORK, not the interpreter.
  • Give back! If someone offers to mentor you, find a professional way to give back to them and or the community. Reciprocity makes the world go round.

In Conclusion

We all have something to offer, so let’s find out what that is for each of us individually and share with our colleagues regardless of how long they or we have been working in the field. Whether you choose to start mentoring or become a mentee yourself, there is so much more out there if we are all just willing to take that next step to meet, engage, learn, and inspire. What are you waiting for?

Questions to Consider:

  1. If academics believe mentoring is one solution to help minimize the work-readiness gap in the field, what can we do now to make mentoring available nationwide?
  2. What do you think the requirements should be for someone who wants to be a mentor?
  3. How can each veteran interpreter find a way to assist the novice interpreters entering the field?
  4. How can each novice interpreter find a way to assist the veteran interpreters in the field?

For a more in-depth look at the research by Kimberly Boeh please visit


Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of interpreter education from 1800 to the 21st century. Edmonton, Alberta Canada: Interpreting Consolidated.

Boeh, K.A. (2016). Mentoring: Fostering the profession while mitigating the gap. Master of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 26.

Cokely, D. (2005). Shifting positionality: A critical examination of the turning point in the relationship of interpreters and the deaf community. In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, E. A. Winston, P. Sapere, C. M. Convertino, R. Seewagen & C. Monikowski (Eds.), Sign language interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice (pp. 3-28). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Decker, L.J. (2015). Sign language interpreter education: Returning to deaf heart. Street Leverage. Retrieved from

Delk, L. (2013, February 28). Interpreter mentoring: A theory-based approach to program design and evaluation (Rep.). Retrieved from National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers website: aspiring-interpreter/mentorship/mentoring-toolkit/articles/.

Ott, E. (2015). Horizontal violence: Can sign language interpreters break the cycle? Street Leverage. Retrieved from

RID. (2007). Standard Practice Paper. Mentoring. Retrieved December 20, 2015 from

Winston, B. & Lee, R. G. (2013). Introduction. In B. Winston & R. G. Lee (Eds.), Mentorship in sign language interpreting (pp. v-viii). Alexandria, VA: RID Press.


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Sign Language Interpreter Education: Returning to “Deaf Heart”

Returning to "Deaf Heart"

Working with Deaf mentors/tutors will help sign language interpreting students learn how to connect with Deaf people.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Before the 1980’s, when there were not many programs for students studying the field of interpreting, social interaction was a high priority. Potential sign language interpreters interacted with deaf people at churches, in their neighborhoods, at deaf schools and in many other environments in our deaf community where they developed their deaf heart. In our current era, most hearing people are learning ASL through classroom settings, with only a few teachers to help them understand the language better. They do not go outside of the classroom setting to interact with deaf people in our community, unless they are required to attend deaf events for observation and maybe brief interactions. If we continue to educate student interpreters in this way, they won’t learn much, if anything, about Deaf Heart.

Drawing Attention to the Issue

As a faculty member at the University of Arizona since 2010, I knew something was missing from our program. I teach both ASL and Deaf studies courses. Most of the students in my classes major in interpreting at UA but I could tell that when the students graduated from four years in the interpreting program, many of them were not ready to face the real world as certificated interpreters. I hope to draw attention to and provide some suggestions to bridge the gap.

Byron Bridges has a vlog which is made for teachers, interpreters, and ASL students. He strongly believes in sharing ideas topics for discussion relating our deaf culture, ASL, linguistic, teaching/learning, experience, etc.  In one of his vlog posts, he mentioned the concept of “Deaf Heart”. I am sure most of you already know about Deaf Heart, but his discussion drew my attention. In the vlog, he provided what he feels is the conceptually accurate sign for “Deaf Heart”, signed HEART-UNDERSTAND instead of DEAF HEART.

Infuse the Curriculum

From our modern interpreter programs, many students need to acquire Deaf Heart/DEAF-UNDERSTAND. Based on that idea, I started thinking about our program and the gaps I had identified. I believe all sign language interpreter programs should require “Deaf Heart” courses as a requirement for graduation instead of only requiring language classes for four years.

Structuring “Deaf Heart” Courses

Students would be a required to take a “Deaf heart” course with two units per semester with a minimum of three semesters. Students would be required to take six total units in order to graduate. Two units would be specifically for students to do 6o hours of learning outside of the classroom with deaf adults or mentors. While I know it is not easy to find deaf tutors, this type of program could help develop those types of opportunities. Once deaf tutors are hired, they should participate in mandatory training sessions to provide a clear set of rules and expectations for their roles as deaf tutors.

Inevitably, the issue of money comes up when discussing additions to sign language interpreter curriculum. Funding this type of program could be easily addressed. Many students have to pay about $200 -300 for lab fee per course. In this instance, the deaf tutors would be funded through students’ lab fees. Students normally pay for textbooks for each of their classes and one textbook tends cost between $100-300. This would make the cost of a Deaf tutor equivalent to purchasing one textbook.

The professor(s) who leads the Deaf Heart course would coordinate the interactions of 3-4 deaf people (two big D and two small d) with each student for 60 hours for the semester. Every week, students would have a list of questions to answer. The deaf tutors would support the instructor in tracking visits and evaluating students as needed. If the deaf tutor would prefer not to use written formats, students can create vlogs up to 1 to 2 minutes discussing what they talked about with their deaf tutors.

When the students finish 60 hours within the semester, the teacher will evaluate and meet with the students individually to give them a pass or fail. Once the student passes the course, they will move up to second level of “Deaf Heart” coursework.

The Value of Deaf Mentors/Tutors

Working with Deaf mentors/tutors will help sign language interpreting students learn how to connect with deaf people in a variety of ways, not simply as a professional interpreter who is only interpreting. These Deaf mentors/tutors could help to refine students’ sign language skills, teach them how to deliver an accurate message in ASL versus transliteration, and help them understand how a CDI works. They would do this by bringing students to deaf clubs, deaf schools, and deaf events, etc. It is important that all faculty, ASL teachers, and deaf people who are well educated need to get together to monitor and hire deaf tutors and pay them every semester.

It is equally important that sign language interpreting students are exposed to Deaf mentors/tutors from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Interpreter Educators should be selecting deaf tutors from big “D” to small “d”, (“D” meaning more culturally Deaf than simply deaf “d” with hearing loss). Many deaf people come from many different families, some raised in deaf schools, some attended mainstreamed schools, some have a strong cultural background, some use voice, some are grassroots, some are from Gallaudet or NTID and many more. While deaf people have many different backgrounds, we all have similar experiences being oppressed, discriminated against, frustrated with the communicate barriers and struggling to get services, such as the provision of sign language interpreters. I think it would be good for students to interact with range of people from big D Deaf to small D deaf and to help develop and connect with deaf people by understanding our tendencies, customs and values. It is important for Deaf tutors to make sure that students learn they are not here to help the “poor deaf people”. Becoming a sign language interpreter should not be paternalistic, nor should people choose this profession simply for money.

Successful Interpreters Should Have Deaf Heart 

Sign language interpreters should take full advantage of the privilege to work with deaf people through training, and through gaining access to knowledge about what deaf heart really is and how it shows itself. They must fully comprehend deaf heart to be a successful interpreter.