Are most ASL interpreters working in their C language?

TerpTrans logoI began writing this as a comment to C is for… – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part II), a follow-up to Learning your ABCs – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part I)— both posts from the blog The Interpreter Diaries. The comment got so long, though, I decided to make it a post on my own interpreting blog. So, here we go.

The American Sign Language interpreting profession has a lot of catching up to do to bring it on par with foreign language interpreting international conference interpreting. I would venture to say that most ASL interpreters are working not only from but also to their “C language.” You have to understand that until the ’60s and ’70s, there was no ASL interpreting profession, and those who interpreted for the deaf were usually family, friends, or neighbors. Deaf people counted themselves lucky to get anyone to interpret for them— free of charge, no less! Unfortunately, here we are in the 2010s and deaf people still find themselves lucky to get an interpreter to provide the service even for pay.

There is a shortage of interpreters to fulfill the demand for “qualified interpreters” required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are very few native hearing signers. Even those with deaf parents do not all learn the language fluently; in fact, it has been seen that one child may learn ASL fluently and the other siblings will rely on that child to interpret between them and their parents. And then, even the CODAs (children of deaf adults) who are fluent in ASL are not always as fluent in all registers of the language that they would need to be to call ASL their A language. What’s more, CODAs often have English as a B language because it is their second language. (Babies are developmentally able to learn signed languages at a younger age than spoken languages, so for many CODAs, sign language is their native language.)

To make matters worse, CODAs account for a small percentage of ASL interpreters. Most interpreters don’t learn ASL until college or high school at the earliest. I will speak for myself: I started learning ASL when I was 21. I have been interpreting for 21 years. Most people are very happy with my interpreting services, but I by no means possess native-like fluency in ASL! I always have to work on my fluency, and I honestly don’t know if my ASL will ever be even good enough to even call it my B language. And, if I may venture to say so, I am by no means alone in this.

In my defense—and so as not to be so hard on my colleagues—the ASL interpreting profession is still nascent. For decades, one didn’t even have to have a high school diploma to be an ASL-English interpreter. Only a few years ago did an associate degree become a prerequisite to stand for national certification exams. All of the already certified interpreters were “grandfathered” in. As of June 2012, candidates will have to have bachelor’s degrees to sit for the national exams– and their degrees don’t even have to be in interpreting. We still have a situation in which both entrants and graduates of interpreter training programs do not possess the fluency in ASL required to be an interpreter. Things are getting better, but we have much work to do.

Consider, finally, one last thing about sign language interpreting in America: most deaf people are non-native users of ASL. Many deaf children have limited, if any, exposure to spoken, written, or signed language until elementary school! I have heard the expression semilingual to describe deaf people who are native in neither ASL nor English. According to your terminology, the word would be alingual. I think that is too strong a word, and one that Deaf people would take umbrage to because the Hearing world tells them that if they don’t have English, they don’t have language. Deaf people are very proud of their sign language, even the 90% of them who did not learn it from birth (only 10% of deaf people are born to deaf parents). And many deaf people who are not native in ASL still have what would be considered to be native-like fluency— better than what I and many other hearing sign language interpreters possess. All in all, though, a fair number of the deaf people we interpret for do not sign more fluently than us C language hearing people do. Deaf education and ASL interpreter education both have a long way to go. I do honor our consumers and my colleagues for doing the best that can be done given the circumstances, and I look forward to the better future we are working toward.






7 responses to “Are most ASL interpreters working in their C language?”

  1. Ariel Havanah Avatar

    HAZA! I am now 21 and learning ASL and looking into furthering it and yes! I’ve found it very hard to a find a college that offers it as a degree. Not to mention highly qualified in offering it.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Try the Find Interpreter Education Programs search tool on the RID website.


      1. Ariel Havanah Avatar

        yes, that’s one of the sites I used to find them


  2. Tabitha Avatar

    I would like to add a bit of information to your blog post. When you brought up the degree qualifications for RID, you did not mention that one can opt for a alternative education application. This would still enable a applicant with CODA experience or other to pursue National certification through RID without a Associate’s degree.

    I also am opposed to your thoughts on language inquisition. I would be curious how studies are conducted on ASL users to consider whether or not they are native language users. I do believe Sign Language to be a native language of most Deaf individuals. Many deaf of hearing parents resort to using home sign. Does home sign not qualify as language growth. Curious what your thoughts are on this matter. Thanks for your insight.


    1. Daniel Greene Avatar

      Tabitha, you are right that I didn’t mention the alternative education application. I think it is odd that a CODA in the U.S. can get away without even an AA when a NERDA (not even related to a deaf adult) has to get a BA, and not necessarily in interpreting. Being a fluent native signer is not the same as being a trained interpreter. And being a high school graduate is not the same as being a college graduate. The international conference interpreters I write about have to be fluent in a second language (their “B” language) before they even enter the master’s degree program to become conference interpreters. If we were to follow such a program, being a CODA would be just the beginning; you would still have to be trained as an interpreter and get a master’s degree before you could even work. I’m not saying it has to be that way with American Sign Language interpreting, but it just goes to show how different our profession is from theirs.

      I am no expert on language acquisition, but as the deaf man in the video in the adjacent comment says, there are critical stages in language development that are missing in many (or most) deaf children’s upbringing. That is not to say that deaf people who learned ASL at a residential school for the deaf do not sign beautiful and fluent ASL. They simply cannot be called “native” signers because the definition of “native” is “born to parents who speak the language.” I suppose home sign qualifies as some language growth, but it is no substitute for fluent ASL being used in the home of the deaf baby from the day she is born.

      Thanks for commenting! I appreciate your perspective and questions.


  3. Daniel Greene Avatar

    I just got turned on to this video, and it’s apropos to this topic!


  4. Interpreter Diaries Avatar

    Thanks for a fascinating post! I’m honoured to have served as the inspiration for it ;).

    Steven Pinker writes in The Language Instinct about sign language fluency levels. He says they are (logically) dependent on the age at which the sign language is learned, and also makes interesting observations about how children who are “native” SL speakers use and evolve the language in a way that later learners can never imitate. I must confess that I had never made the logical link between what I learned from Pinker and te challenges that many SL interpreters must face as “C speakers” of the sign language they work with. Thanks for making the point so eloquently.


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