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Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters

Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters

Decoding language requires linguistic competence and flexibility. Jessica Carter discusses the importance of flexible bilingualism for sign language interpreters, especially those working in K-12 and educational settings.

 

As bilinguals, as in having proficiency in two languages, ASL interpreters code switch on a daily basis, at a moment’s notice. ASL-English interpreters typically do this by borrowing English lexicon or formats for specificity, to match the language considerations of consumers, and to derive equivalent messages from the source to target language. However, code switching goes deeper than that.

[View post in ASL.]

Applied Linguistics

Code switching is defined in linguistics as the mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in production. This term is often used interchangeably in the various fields of linguistic study with the term code mixing. It is displayed throughout phases of language learning, both holistically and as new vocabulary is introduced in order to fill gaps in language skills. While in the past we may have thought of code mixing as a weakness in the target language, e.g. borrowing an English word by fingerspelling or not knowing the English term and choosing to display the concept in ASL, more recent sociolinguistic research is suggesting that code switching is a tool of bilinguals. This has been seen in bilingual education and TESOL settings worldwide. Discussions conclude that bilinguals (and multilinguals) use this tool repeatedly in various ways: unconsciously as a bilingual individual, to fit in with others, to develop skills and relationships, to tell a secret, and to help express a thought. On a personal and professional level, I believe that we can all derive at least one of our own stories of code switching for each of these five reasons. This is what is being called flexible bilingualism1,2. Some examples might include:

  • matching a consumer’s language preference whether that means transliterating PSE, tactile signing (TASL), SEE-like signing, or ASL
  • stealthy signing to a friend across a room of non-signers
  • classifier-like iconic gesturing while speaking in English to describe an object

Flexible bilingualism is the thought that pragmatic language in the bilingual brain is adjustable, accommodating, and even pliable. ASL/English users are bilingual and multimodal; we are able to use the aspects and lexicon of two languages to achieve our goals rather than being constrained by one set of rules and expression. The Deaf/hard of hearing community exhibits this diglossic behavior and way of thinking instantaneously as a way of life and means for education and communication. Diglossia is explained as using two languages, or language varieties, under different circumstances. For the ASL using community this is seen in their need to have knowledge of two languages in order to socialize within their community and access interpreting, as well as in order to read, write, and access education, and/or to independently communicate with non-signers. This community exhibits code switching as diglossic people by using both ASL and English as a means for daily life by shifting between the two languages on a constant. Not to mention their abilities to switch between signing variations in the U.S. (SEE, PSE, etc.) in order to meet the needs of communication in their given circumstances while navigating the Deaf and Hearing worlds. This is a powerful tool and communication advantage – keep it close by and refine it.

The flexible bilingualism that native users of ASL have, and will develop throughout their lives and education, is an aspect of their variation and language power as a community. To notice this as interpreters is a descriptivist point of view. Descriptivists take a nonjudgmental point of view that accepts language as it is used and can be tweaked in use for a variety of reasons. A previously noted trend in sign language interpreter education to lean toward prescriptivism3, a predetermined notion of the rules that govern a language to create a pure or superior form of language, limits an interpreter’s opportunity for flexibility. Prescriptivism has its place in language. When writing an academic paper, I am a prescriptivist; when interpreting, I am largely descriptivist. Native English speakers exhibit flexibility in language (L1) use often with diverse speech patterns. For example, we may speak in an accent for affect, stress an atypical phoneme in a word, or toss in a word or phrase of a second language known. Capisce? Now, we can use the same techniques as a bilingual to create similar effects in our L2, ASL, production patterns – similar to the ways that we observe native ASL users.

Educational Interpreting

In an educational setting, most particularly K-12 educational interpreting, flexible bilingualism is an advantage that can be elevated beyond matching students’ language needs. It can be used in a variety of settings that students may be in, i.e. speech and language pathology settings, reading programs, English lexicon decoding, English phonics/syllable learning, affect and intonation, academic vocabulary recognition, etc. Keep thinking and expanding this list.

I encountered a student who uses flexible bilingualism in order to display phonetic aspects of English by applying syllabic fingerspelling in a functional way at the decoding level. That is POWER. At the sight of this power, I adjusted and learned from the student to both meet the student’s needs and enhance my interpreting skills. This is how educational interpreting should be – flexible. The idea is for sign language interpreters in education to heighten flexibility skills to allow for further accommodation of language modeling and teaching in academic settings. Educational interpreters can supply students and educators not only with an interpretation, but a closure of the power imbalance by modeling language, including strategies of flexible bilingualism, and improving academic language in a parallel and equivalent manner between English and ASL.

As interpreters, we are guided to understand that “qualified educational interpreters/transliterators are a critical part of the educational day for children who are deaf or hard of hearing” (RID, 2010)4. Part of being qualified is knowing our students and using our tools appropriately. The ingenuity of our tools and our flexibility in using them can guide in facilitating learning in all settings. When a sign language interpreter fingerspells key words and academic language, he/she is providing access to academic English vocabulary and contributing to the students’ ability to decode English words and recognize them by signs and concepts5. Meanwhile, the students’ knowledge of ASL, a visual, conceptual language, provides them with an on-the-spot dictionary in their bilingual brain as they read in English. The leverage that an educational interpreter holds in providing a parallel between English and ASL has an effect on children’s language skills in both decoding and fluency. This is influential, especially in regards to their diglossic status. So as educational interpreters, let’s start thinking in terms of language education. We can do this by focusing on our status as bilinguals and the advantages that status offers us. It takes years for people to develop fluency in their native language and users have mastery at various levels dependent on education, ability, and efforts. Language development for bilinguals is similar, requiring continuous cultivation and expansion of the L2. Bilinguals are lifelong language learners.

Addressing the Linguistic Minority Dilemma

Whether we have experienced the subjugation of ASL ourselves or have only seen/heard stories of misunderstandings and the language oppression of ASL users, we know that it exists. Varying autocratic behaviors which portray Sign languages as inferior (e.g. “not a real language,” “a language of disability,” “a manual representation of English,” “universal language,” etc.) exist heavily in mainstream education. This may be one of the most difficult parts of an educational interpreter’s job, linguistic advocacy. Educational interpreters must possess the linguistic competency to explain the comparison of languages, bridge sociocultural gaps, and support deaf literacy and academia in order to ameliorate this issue. To expose mainstream educators to the diversity in language, the limitations of translation and assistive technology, the tools of a bilingual, and to what interpreters do is to lead the change in their knowledge and perspectives on educating the deaf/hard of hearing. Admittedly this is a heavy burden to carry, so as professionals we must humanistically approach each linguistic encounter to learn. It’s high time we raise the expectations and reputations of interpreted education. Keep cultivating your tools, be rooted in the Deaf community, and exhibit flexibility in educational interpreting.

Questions to consider:

  1. Can you recall an experience when you adhered to a prescriptivist view of language?
  2. How familiar are you with the IEP/504 processes?
  3. On a personal note – what is your involvement with the Deaf community outside of your 9:00 am – 5:00 pm profession?

References:

1An excellent study on identity and language prejudice in regards to flexible bilingualism, Preece, Sian. “An Identity Transformation? Social Class, Language Prejudice and the Erasure of Multilingual Capital in Higher Education.” The Routledge Handbook of Language and Identity.

2For flexible bilingualism in schools relating to bilingual education see, Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2011, April). Separate and Flexible Bilingualism in Complementary Schools: Multiple Language Practices in Interrelationship. Retrieved November, 2016, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251586617_Separate_and_Flexible_Bilingualism_in_Complementary_Schools_Multiple_Language_Practices_in_Interrelationship

3For thoughts on prescriptivism in sign language interpreter education see “Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists” by Steven Surrency, available at http://www.streetleverage.com/2015/11/respecting-language-sign-language-interpreters-as-linguistic-descriptivists/

4RID standard practice paper for K-12 interpreting, An overview of K-12 educational interpreting. (2010). Retrieved November, 2016, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3DKvZMflFLdcFE2N25NM1NkaGs/view

5Educational interpreting guidelines of the EIPA from www.ClassroomInterpreting.org

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Designated Interpreters are Different: Examining a Growing Field

Designated Interpreters are Different: Examining a Growing Field

Alicia Booth outlines the unique relationship between Deaf Professionals and Designated Interpreters, particularly in medical environments. Role adaptation and flexibility are key to this new and evolving specialty area of sign language interpreting.

For half a century, the field of sign language interpreting has been steadily advancing, yet the interpreting needs for Deaf Professionals are developing at an even faster pace. Deaf Professionals (DPs) are achieving their academic and career aspirations in technical fields such as medicine, law, and engineering. Many DPs who achieve their career goals fought to have interpreters alongside them in graduate level classes, practicums, and clinicals. After securing accommodations, the next hurdle is finding a sign language interpreter who has the unique skill set and the willingness to adapt to a career specialty; thus the need for Designated Interpreters (DIs) for Deaf Professionals grows.

[View post in ASL.]

Since DPs are not traditional clients, it would make sense that neither are their DIs. Data from surveys of institutions of higher education, documentation from court cases[1], [2], [3], and anecdotal evidence suggest that a DP’s success benefits from a unique approach to accommodations. Personality and adaptability often rank as the most important qualities for their DI to possess, while mastery of ASL rank much lower. The willingness of the DI to linguistically specialize and assimilate into the DPs field is crucial.

Designated Interpreters are Different

Perhaps you may be asking yourself how DIs are so different and why those differences matter? Since I am drawing from my experience as a Designated Interpreter for Healthcare Professionals, I will share an environmental scenario in the hospital; however, these examples can be globally applied for DPs in most technical professions.  

Trauma Scenario: The DI and the DP (medical student) are both sitting in the doctor’s call room working on patient notes. Suddenly an overhead page indicates that a Level I trauma is expected to arrive in three minutes. You both rush out the door and head towards the trauma bay. There is exactly now two minutes left until the arrival of the patient, whom, you learned while rushing to the bay, was in critical condition from a motor vehicle accident, is unconscious, and is losing blood rapidly. With those two minutes, the DI’s preparation is crucial for the team’s outcome. There are also a dozen or more medical staff present to assist in stabilizing the patient. As a DI, you are filtering multiple conversations at once. You are also independently (without the direction of your DP) putting on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), setting up mics for better audio access in the room, introducing yourself to the trauma team, explaining your role, and establishing placement so that you are not in the way, but visually accessible, to the DP. The DP in those two minutes may have been on the opposite side of the room looking at incoming x‐rays, EMS reports, and also getting on their PPE. If that DI was to wait even a second (stuck in the traditional role of not acting on one’s own autonomy), the patient’s care could be jeopardized, as well as the DI’s own safety. The DI might even be kicked out of the trauma bay as an unnecessary bystander, still waiting for the DP to introduce you and for them to indicate what you should be doing and to whom you should be speaking. That DI’s inclusion with the medical team is actually what elevates the DP to be on an equal level with peers and supervisors. When there are only two minutes to designate roles and lives  are depending on efficiency, you simply cannot respond as a traditional interpreter does.

Now, this was an extreme example to indicate how DI’s must abandon roles taught to us by  ITPs, but re‐examined, we could certainly apply this type of autonomy in a less life-threatening  situation. That was a little on how DI’s are different. You may now have already guessed why it matters. Now, Iet’s dissect these questions a bit further.

Adaptability is Key

The traditional role provides a lot of safety for sign language interpreters but it works against the success of Deaf individuals in professional careers. With that said, some DPs do prefer traditional interpreters. We must always keep that in mind when customizing our approach to our clients’ needs. DPs share a common concern that sign language interpreters’ lack of adaptability and limited skill-sets are what prevents them from climbing the success ladder[4]. Some will overcome the odds, but may remain isolated amongst their hearing peers. Eventually, this will lead to plateauing in their chosen field.

DPs and DIs Develop Close Partnerships

The traditional approach to sign language interpreting shields us from encounters that challenge our neutrality. As DIs, our neutrality is still intact but our humanity is exposed. You can not hide your humanity as a DI when you are covered with blood from a patient, interpreting a terminal diagnosis, or witnessing a birth. Being exposed to death and birth will bring us closer to the DP and the medical staff supporting those patients. The DI may be invited to debrief with the staff after trauma. They may also cry or laugh with the DP and his team. That is part of the partnership. The role of a DI exposes their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths which, in turn, can create a stronger bond between the DP and DI. It also helps level out the natural power dynamic that exists in the hearing and deaf world. In a partnership approach, you both have stakes in successful outcomes. Additionally, as a healthcare DI, you are taking up precious space that would otherwise be utilized by another doctor, nurse or student. Standing idly in “neutrality” is not considered a good utilization of resources.

Partnerships are created through on‐the‐job relationships with the DP and their peers. We are friendly, communicative, and responsive to questions. If we do not communicate autonomously and openly with or without our DP around, it will create immediate isolation for that professional. In other words, we are considered an extension of that DP. Stay with me here, I am not speaking on existential terms. Simply put, we are behaving as we normally would amongst colleagues. We are working to close the formal and informal conversational gap that often occurs with peers who do not share a language. DPs and DIs might finish each other’s thoughts on occasion – this is teamwork.

Either way, we are acting on acquired instincts and, together, our collaborative communication “closes the deal” for a PAH work environment to run smoothly. It becomes obvious why the DI’s personality and adaptability skills are highly desirable. Neither the DP nor DI wants to be stuck together if they are not able to effectively work together. Of course, the only way to create this level of trust is getting to know the DP on both a professional and personal level. How else could a DI read the DP’s thoughts and know when to share a favorite deaf joke, “Why did God create farts? So that Deaf people could enjoy them too!” to a doctor while performing a colonoscopy. It’s always a good laugh, and the doctor may be more likely to request the DP on another assignment because their experience with “our team” went smoothly.

Embracing Change

These scenarios only scratch the surface of the depth of this type of teaming environment. DPs are eagerly awaiting sign language interpreters that are ready to embrace change. An interpreter with the aptitude for learning, who is also humble enough to adapt to the DP’s needs will succeed in this role. While not all sign language interpreters are a good match for this work, those few that have this privilege are honored every day to be part of the DP’s world.

Let’s work together to advance our careers and DPs too!

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How are the current traditional interpreter roles holding back deaf professionals?
  2. What are the challenges of interpreters acting on their own autonomy?
  3. How does a Designated Interpreter adapt their role?

References:

[1] Swabey, L., Agan, T., Moreland, C., & Olson, A. (2016, May). “Understanding the Work of Designated Healthcare Interpreters” Retrieved August 11, 2016, from http://www.cit-asl.org/new/ijie/volume-8-1/#toggle-id-4

[2] U.S. Medical Schools’ Compliance With the Americans with Disabilities Act: Findings From a National Study. (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2016, from https://uthscsa.influuent.utsystem.edu/en/publications/us-medical-schools-compliance-with-the-americans-with-disabilitie

[3] Eligon, J. (2013, August 19). Deaf Student, Denied Interpreter by Medical School, Draws Focus of Advocates. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/20/us/deaf-student-denied-interpreter-by-medical-school-draws-focus-of-advocates.html

[4] “Breaking Down Barriers: Professionals and Students in Healthcare” (n.d.). NADMag, Spring(2016).