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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Hearing, Mother Father Deaf: Hearing People in Deaf Families

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Many people assume that because I can hear, I interpreted for my deaf parents as a child; but as a matter of fact, I did not do that much interpreting. Of course I did some, as it is common for any child to want to assist their parents with communication if they cannot access the majority language. This is prevalent among children of immigrant parents, as well as children with deaf parents.2 Children who take on this role have been described as language brokers (Acoach & Webb, 2004; Castaneda, 2005; McQuillan & Tse, 1995; Morales & Hanson, 2005; Weisskirch & Alva, 2002).

Rather than have the role of interpreter or language broker foisted upon me by my parents, I used to offer to interpret because it made me feel grown up. Research shows that, typically, the eldest female child in a family functions as the interpreter (Preston, 1996; Singleton & Tittle, 2000). I fell into that category. I did interpret when someone came to the front door, during telephone calls, and for parent-teacher meetings. I particularly enjoyed the latter, as my teachers were softer in their criticisms when I was sitting in front of them! I always liked interpreting and found it to be a positive experience. When surveying 55 Latino adolescents about their perceptions of their language broker role, Weisskirch (2005) found that, generally, the participants regarded their role positively, which possibly led to stronger feelings of ethnic identity.

I know that my experience is very different from that of other hearing people who grew up with deaf parents, who have described to me how they would come home from school and their mother would be waiting with a list of phone calls for them to make. They would then bicycle to the local phone booth, make the calls, bicycle back, and report the outcome of each call to their mother. Or they would be asked to interpret the news on the television, even when they were only five years old and could not understand most of what was said. I was born into a generation where technological advancements made a difference in the lives of my parents. By the time I was ten years old, we had a text telephone typewriter (known as a minicom in the United Kingdom), closed captioning was available on television, and a national telephone relay service had been established. Thus, access to information was much improved.

My teenage years in the mid- to late 1980s coincided with the professionalization of sign language interpreting in the United Kingdom, where the role of interpreters was separated from that of welfare workers (Pollitt, 1997; Scott Gibson, 1992). The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP), which was established by the British Deaf Association in 1980 to develop BSL teaching curricula, courses, and assessment, established a register of interpreters. Initially, any person who had attained their advanced-level BSL certificate (Stage 3) had their name included in the register. CACDP then divided the register into two tiers (Registered Trainee and Registered Qualified) and introduced an exam to assess actual interpreting skills, which served as the mechanism for full qualification.3 Given that I attained the BSL Stage 3 certificate when I was 16 years old, my name went on that register as a trainee.4

I had never aspired to be an interpreter. When I interpreted for my parents, it was just something I did to assist with communication. I certainly never thought I would make a career out of it. Due to the fact that my name was on the CACDP register of interpreters though, I kept receiving phone calls inquiring if I was available to interpret. One day, I relented and accepted a job interpreting for a staff meeting at my mother’s place of work (when I was about 17). I have a very clear memory of the meeting. In particular, I remember how challenging it was, yet how exciting. I realized it was very different to the interpreting I had done for my parents, and I was determined to get better at it.

After that, I took interpreting work while I studied sociology at university, and I read books about deafness and sign language. I still was not sure whether I wanted to interpret as a career, which is why I opted to study something that could lead me into various vocations. The more I studied, and the more I interpreted, however, the more I realized that I was fascinated by language and that I loved interpreting. When I graduated from university, I began working full time as an interpreter and attended a part-time training course, where I went to class one day a week for a year. I learned a lot from the course, and my interpreting significantly improved.

By this time, the CACDP had introduced its interpreting exam, so that people who passed could become fully qualified members of the register of BSL interpreters. I took the exam and passed. The pressure to succeed was enormous—people assumed I would pass because I had deaf parents. Although I recognized that I had an advantage, I did not think that having deaf parents necessarily made me a good interpreter. As I mentioned earlier, being bilingual does not mean that one has the skills to interpret. In fact, I wrote an article in the magazine of the Association of Sign Language Interpreters of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ASLI) in response to an anonymous article written by an interpreter with deaf parents who asserted that bilinguals had no need for training (Napier, 1997). I was insulted by the assumption that if I was a good interpreter, I had not worked for it; that I had not focused on developing my skills; that my job had been handed to me on a plate. I knew (and still know) many hearing people who have deaf parents who can sign well, but cannot and choose not to interpret as they struggle with the interpreting process (i.e., message transfer).

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