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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Innovative Practices for Teaching Sign Language Interpreters

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However, when educators have advanced training in language study, such as linguistics, and are also researchers, formulating studies to answer questions about learning, their teaching expertise combines with acquired knowledge. They grow professionally as teachers and report that their teaching improves with a new awareness of why students learn the way they do. When successful teachers—those who base their teaching strategies on theory and research—are invited to demonstrate and discuss their own best practices, the profession benefits from their insight and expertise.

An educational reform movement already in practice in the United States—the National Writing Project—elicits the best techniques of classroom teachers and asks them to connect their practice to theory and research. This successful professional development model can also work for teachers of interpreters. Thus the contributors in this book each share a teaching practice that they consider particularly effective with their students.

A Brief Overview of ASL/English Interpreter Training

The first collegiate sign language interpreter-training programs were established in the mid-1970s and were located in speech communication or deaf education programs in universities or community colleges. Most programs started with one or two interpreter training classes, usually taught by individuals who were experienced interpreters but who had little or no advanced academic training in related fields. The curricula of such programs developed gradually. Most started by teaching sign language, whether American Sign Language (ASL) or contact signing. After a year or more, students were deemed ready to begin interpreter training regardless of their general level of education, their abilities in English, or their exposure to Deaf adults or children.

As these programs developed, linguistic discoveries defining American Sign Language as a language with the same descriptive and structural levels as spoken languages emerged. During the 1970s and 1980s, linguists described grammatical structure in ASL that was so new and interesting that it became the main focus of teaching interpreting. Now that ASL and English were defined as two languages across which interpreters worked, educators began to look at spoken-language interpreter training and noted that in those programs students had to possess a high degree of fluency in both languages as well as a broad, liberal-arts background. At interpreting conferences and in newsletters, educators began to call not only for greater fluency in ASL but also a fluency indicative of heightened mastery in spoken English (McIntire 1980; Yoken 1979). At that time, the only way to raise the level of mastery or fluency in both languages and to obtain a liberal arts background was through university bachelor-degree programs.

However, many programs remained at the community-college level. Because community colleges have open-admission policies, fluency in either ASL or English could neither be required nor achieved in two years. Universities also allowed students who had no fluency in ASL to enter interpreting programs but then had to focus a great deal of attention on teaching ASL. In many such programs, beginning interpreting classes were actually advanced ASL classes.

That meant, practically speaking, that the interpreter-training segment was really a program of increasing fluency. Bringing students to adequate levels of fluency consumed so much program time that few instructors had to consider what they would teach a student who was fluent in ASL and had an adequate command of English. In addition, the texts used for interpreting practice focused on story-telling rather than the type of talk interpreting consumers would use in a doctor’s or a social security office.

When students eventually moved into interpreting classes and attempted interpreting to and from English, vocabulary and sentences were the focus - they learned which signs were “conceptually accurate” for specific English words, phrases, and sentences. Decisions about meaning focused on the word level and the production of an interpreted message that accurately mirrored the source message. Although easier for students with little training in linguistics (Baker 1992, 6), this


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