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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.”

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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.