Sign language interpreters are spoken language interpreters too
To talk about our work, it helps to have efficient terms that accurately define it. Typically, we ASL/English interpreters call ourselves “sign language interpreters,” while we call (for example) Spanish/English interpreters “spoken language interpreters.” Yet signed language is only half our language pair; the other half is spoken language; therefore, we are also spoken language interpreters.
How to distinguish, then, between interpreters who work with two spoken languages and interpreters who work with a spoken language and a signed language? Saying “signed-spoken” and “spoken-spoken” is a mouthful. Luckily, there are better terms for this comparison: bimodal and unimodal (Emmorey, Borinstein, Thompson, & Gollan, 2008). What we share with unimodal interpreters is that we are bilingual. What sets us apart is that we interpret between two modes: signed and spoken; therefore, we are bimodal interpreters.
Visual language interpreters are aural language interpreters too
I like the name of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada better than the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf because we are interpreters for the H/hearing as much as we are interpreters for the D/deaf. Yet the term visual language interpreters fails to acknowledge that we are also aural language interpreters. This is where bimodal is more accurate. We interpret in two modes: call them aural and visual or audible and visible; either way, we are bimodal interpreters.
We are also bimodal when we do sight translation; i.e., interpreting from written text to signed language for those who have difficulty reading. An interpreter might also do tactile sight translation for a Deaf-Blind person who does not read Braille or cannot obtain a certain document in Braille. There are many different ways we facilitate communication; not all of them are visual, but they are all bimodal.
We need terms as inclusive and specific as our work
Bimodal is an accurate and comprehensive term for what we do to facilitate communication between D/deaf and hearing people. We, as a collective of individuals, serve a diversity of deaf (not always Deaf) consumers using a variety of methods to make audible language visible and vice versa. Some use American Sign Language (ASL); some use manually coded English (MCE), a.k.a. pidgin sign English (PSE), or, preferably, contact language; some use oral methods such as mouthing and gestures; still others use cued speech. Whatever opinion people have of these modes of communication, there are D/deaf people who use them, and there interpreters and transliterators who serve those D/deaf people and their hearing interlocutors. Not all of these methods are bilingual, but they are all bimodal.
To be even more accurate, some of us sometimes interpret using audible, visible, and tactile methods between hearing, D/deaf, and Deaf-Blind people, so when we do that, we are trimodal interpreters.
Let scholarship inform our practice
The demand for bimodal interpreting services has always outpaced the supply of available practitioners, and consequently, federal funding has primarily been directed at increasing the number of available practitioners, not on research and development. As a result, we contend that the field has adopted and maintains a “culture of practice” rather than a “culture of scholarship.” (Nicodemus & Swabey, 2011)
There is a time and place for specialized terminology. I am not suggesting we start calling ourselves bimodal interpreters outside of the profession. I do not plan to say to hearing clients, “Hi, I’m your bimodal interpreter!” I will continue to call myself an interpreter first, and an ASL/English interpreter second. I might even slip and call myself a sign language interpreter if I am careless. However, when talking about our work vis-à-vis the work of interpreters who work in spoken languages only, I would like to see us compare bimodal interpreters with unimodal interpreters instead of sign(ed) language interpreters and spoken language interpreters. Fellow interpreter educators could start by introducing the term bimodal bilingual, if they have not already done so, and fellow interpreters could use the term in professional discussions. It would be ignorant to use the same terminology we have always used when scholarship informs us of a better option. We are professionals, and part of professional practice is scholarship. I believe it is time for us to take a more global, research-based view of what we do, and start talking about it in ways that demonstrate greater awareness.
Emmorey, K., Borinstein, H. B., Thompson, R. and Gollan, T. H. (2008). Bimodal bilingualism. In Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11(1), 43–61. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2600850/
Nicodemus, B. & Swabey, L. (2011). Bimodal bilingual interpreting in the U.S. healthcare system: A critical linguistic activity in need of investigation. In B. Nicodemus & L. Swabey (Eds.) Advances in Interpreting Research. Inquiry in action, 241–259. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5270051/