Introduction to The Langauge War by Robin Tolmach Lakoff

The Language War

The Language War

I have added this introductory chapter from The Language War by Robin Tolmach Lakoff because it is an eloquent description of the history of the field of linguistics, the effect of Chomskyan linguistics on the field and the ways this approach to linguistics affects what linguists study and how they see things. I did not edit out sections that refer to later chapters in the book, but have left it intact, even though it does not directly relate to discussions about interpreting, interpretations and how the field of linguistics affects us. I encourage you to read (and buy) this book.

I believe this summary describes very well how Chomskyan linguistics has affected the field, and therefore how it has affected research on ASL linguistics. When we remove the people from our study of language what is the effect? What happens when we take linguistic research that removes people and then turn around and apply it to real people in real situations?
I invite you to leave comments in the Discuss It! section with your reflections on this chapter.   – Marlene Elliott

What I Am Doing Here, And How Am I Doing It?

A question may occur to my fellow linguists and to others as they examine this book: What is an ivory tower denizen, a linguist like me, doing in the notoriously real world of politics? Is this what linguists do? Can do? Should do?

While the Ebonics debate of 1996 – 97 (see Chapter 7) served to bring the field of linguistics to popular awareness (or at least more awareness than it had enjoyed previously, about -9 on a scale of 1 to 10), its workings are still not familiar to everyone. Moreover, even linguists argue among themselves and within themselves about what the field can and should do, what it is about. A book suggesting rapprochement between language and politics is bound to raise questions among the uninitiated and hackles among the initiates.

The popular use of “linguist” is very different from its professional acceptation. If you tell a layperson that you’re a “linguist,” you are very likely to be asked, “And how many languages do you speak?” A “linguist” is someone able to use several languages, that is, use them practically – speak, read, and write in them. In this sense, the consummate linguist must be Francis E. Sommer, described in the New York Times (Honan 1977) as “fluent in 94 languages.”

The Times article calls Mr. Sommer “the Babe Ruth of the Linguistic Society.” But in fact, were Mr. Sommer (who died in 1978) to have attended a meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), he would have found himself both bewildered by the papers presented and the discussions of them, and ignored or patronized by the professional linguists (in the second sense) who belong to the Society and attend its meetings. The one thing most of us seldom do, in our professional capacities, is use a lot of languages. Many of us, to be sure, know more than one language. A few know many. But we know them in order to study them, rather than to communicate in them. Therefore we are often less concerned with individual languages than with what the totality of languages can show us about language – that it is, what properties all languages necessarily share, in what ways languages may differ and what those facts may tell us about the makeup of the human mind – pardon me, brain (that being the fashionable consideration at present).

Linguists of the LSA type therefore tend to be interested in discovering the abstract properties of languages, the grammatical rules that make them up, and the structures that make them different from one another, yet basically similar. Even this is no easy task. English is, for obvious reasons, the best studied language in the world, and yet we are nowhere near a complete grammar of English, nor in all probability will linguistics produce one in a lifetime of anyone reading these words.

The Times article mentioned what I think is a first: eminent members of LSA talking about their interest in people like Mr. Sommer (as objects of study for LSA-Linguists rather than as potential colleagues). Linguists are quoted as saying that Sommer-linguists have never been studied scientifically by LSA-linguists. But we are beginning to see them as special cases who, if their abilities could be unraveled and scientifically explained, could shed light on the processes the rest of us use with varying degrees of competence when we attempt to learn languages other than our native one.

But even if LSA-linguists agree on what we aren’t, there is less consensus on what we are. Are there natural boundaries to our field? How do we differ (if we do) from rhetoricians, literary critics, psychoanalysts, appellate courts, political spin doctors, and others who, theoretically and practically, determine what language means or accomplishes?

When I entered linguistics some thirty-five years ago, the answer was fairly simple. The field had a well-marked turf that distinguished it from other areas in the humanities and social sciences and thereby justified its independent existence. In recent years that certainty has been under some pressure.

Linguistics in this century began, in the early years of this century, as an offshoot of anthropology, another newish area. Both reflected the growing realization that many of America’s indigenous cultures were nearing extinction. While earlier observers tended to see this as a good thing (the cultures were “primitive” and non-Christian, the languages not possibly the equals of Indo-European and therefore not much interest or worthy of preservation), by the early twentieth century scholars were starting to become more sophisticated. They saw these indigenous cultures and their languages as expressions of the complexity and variety of the human mind, and therefore not only worthy of study, but essential to study if we were to understand ourselves as a species. To this end it was necessary to develop objective and scientific methods of investigation, so as to avoid the subjective perspectives that caused earlier scholars to understand other societies and their ways from the vantage point of their own (and thus necessarily as unintelligible or inadequate). The new science of linguistics also had to devise empirical methods of discovery and analysis, in order not to force the data uncovered in the field into the Cinderella’s slipper of preexisting theories, themselves often based (knowingly or not) on the Indo-European habits of thought innate to the scholars, all speakers of European languages and members of Western cultures.

So American linguistics was created as empirical and antimentalistic, fitting nicely (as intended) with the new notion of “social science.” “Science,” then as now, was ipso facto a good word. A field that could claim scientific status had the right to legitimacy. So linguistics identified itself as belonging to the social sciences rather than the humanities, using the empirical methods of the former rather than the interpretive (“mentalistic”) techniques of the latter. Ideally, linguistic analysis was concerned with form, not function; structure, not meaning; the concrete artifacts of language, not the abstract deeper structures that gave it sense and purpose. During the first half of the century, therefore, linguists concentrated on word-lists (lexicons) and inventories of sounds (phonology) and affixes (grammatical endings, prefixes, and such – that is morphology). Syntax involved relationships between constructions (e.g., active and passive voice), and therefore required assessing whether two sentences had similar meanings (that is, were paraphrases), and so could be done only in a very rudimentary and unsatisfactory way in an antimentalistic field. Therefore, in the field’s antimentalistic period, it received little attention. Within linguistics proper (excluding philosophy of language and general semantics), semantics (the study of the relationships between language forms and their referents, that is meaning) and pragmatics (the study of the relation between language forms and language function, to use one definition) played a role that was minimal to nonexistent.

This began to change with the advent of Noam Chomsky in the later 1950’s. Chomsky’s theory, transformational generative grammar (TGG), permitted – indeed, required – a limited amount of mentalistic analysis. Syntactic relationships were evaluated in part on the basis of paraphrase relations, which required the analyst to make judgments about meaning, albeit on a superficial level. The changes wrought by Chomsky and TGG were spectacular, both on linguistics itself and on many related fields. Not least was the change in the importance of linguistics in the university.

Before the mid-1960’s American linguists was tiny and obscure. Very few universities had full-fledged linguistics departments; some had programs, while many had a linguist or two on their faculties, situated, often uneasily, in anthropology, language, or English departments. But transformational grammar, with its promise that language could be a window into the mind, a glimpse into the universality of language capacities, and hence a way of achieving fundamental understanding of what it means to be human, seized the intellectual imagination. (Chomsky’s emergence in the late 1960’s as a radical critic of the Vietnam War also helped to popularize his still-infant field.) At the same time, during these economically flush years many universities were starting from scratch, and others upgrading themselves from small colleges into major institutions. To get recognition, it was essential to acquire intellectual respectability, as quickly as possible. That was most efficiently accomplished by creating a few prestigious departments filled with “name” scholars who could attract the best graduate students and large research grants.

But large and traditional departments are difficult to change. Tenure made it hard to replace older (often undistinguished) faculty members with respondent new stars. Even for a new university, staffing a first-rank large department was a daunting expensive task. But a first-rate small department would put a university on the intellectual map at once, particularly if the department was in a hot field and had ties to other departments and a bit of extra-university glamour. What fitted those definitions better than linguistics? The field prospered exceedingly, so that today virtually every serious research university has its linguistics department, typically with a faculty of ten to twenty tenured or tenure-track professors.

But as linguistics grew exponentially, we tended to ignore the fact that it was now made up of at least three very different kinds of people, who had entered linguistics with at least three very different assumptions – and therefore had diametrically opposite notions of what we ought to be doing, or even what this “scientific study of language” we claimed to be doing was, what “language” consisted of, and what “science” included. There were still many who had been trained as social scientists, anthropologists interested in learning about languages other than the familiar Indo-European ones as a way of understanding cultures very different from their own. They found the exoticism of the surface forms of those languages compelling, the idea that languages could differ from one another in seemingly innumerable and unpredictable ways. Others (like me) had been trained as humanists, and our interests lay in the hermeneutic potential of TGG. We wanted a way to determine, from their superficial form, what sentences “really” meant at a deeper level, why people made the choices they made, and what those choices signified about ourselves. Still others entered the field from mathematics or formal logic. For them, language was above all a system whose properties could be formalized in equation-like rules. They were less interested in the relationships between language and culture, and language and thought, than in the relations that held between the parts of sentences. This was the centerpiece of the Chomskyan project, as those of us who had entered it under one of the other auspices would ruefully discover. The three kinds of linguists made strange, increasingly uneasy bedfellows, and the field has yet to achieve a rapprochement among them.

In the 1970’s social-science-minded linguists developed other concerns. Just as sociologists like Erving Goffman had been looking inward into their own cultures and finding them pretty exotic, linguists began to collect and study familiar yet unanalyzed language forms like nonstandard dialects or ordinary conversation. In this they broke away from TGG, which certainly concentrated on English, but in a very different way.

To the formal (that is strictly Choskyan) TGGian, the linguist’s task was discovering the abstract grammar of the language, the grammar of the “ideal speaker-listener in a completely homogenous speech community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance” (Chomsky 1965, 3). While variants were known to exist, they were deemed of little importance; and while the context in which words were uttered might affect both their form and their understanding , TGGians saw that as essentially irrelevant to the abstract grammar they were seeking to intuit. Hence empirical data, painstakingly gathered from real people’s actual utterances, was not only not necessary, it was undesirable: it might be corrupt, tainted by trivial external influences, “performance factors.” Transformational theory directed its practitioners to produce the data that they then analyzed, and those analyses then formed the basis of their theories. If this sounds like a dangerously corruptible (and circular) system, let me assure you that today I find it scandalous. The acceptance of these theories and methods drove a wedge between the TGG “mentalists” (both formal and humanists) and their purported colleagues, the empirical social scientists.

None of the parties was then asking a major question about language: how do we use it to construct ourselves, make deals with one another, and weave our social fabric? To the social science end of the field, the fact that language was social was indisputable, but to answer that question was to wallow in the slough of mentalism, surfacing with analyses that were unreliable because not based directly on superficially observable data.

It might seem that that question would occur naturally to the TGGians and their descendants, especially given Chomsky’s extradisciplinary concerns with the politics of language and vice versa. But they had a conservative idea of “meaning.” For them, not unlike their more empirical colleagues (Chomsky after all had himself been trained as an American structural linguist), evidence had to be linguistically observable at the surface or not far below it. The assumptions speakers had in mind when they spoke, or their intentions in choosing one form rather than an apparent equivalent, were not part of “linguistics,” that is, grammatical analysis. These restrictions made for simplicity and elegance, but created in some of us a gnawing desire to see linguistics work as the “window into the mind” Chomsky had promised us it could be.

So both sides – the social scientists and the mathematicians – were to varying degrees antimentalistic and anti-interpretive. A reasonable justification, for both camps, was that to abandon their use of only superficially accessible data was to go back to that dangerous yesteryear in which anything could be related to anything on the analyst’s say-so – the awful results of which could be discerned not only in pre-twentieth-century linguistics, but in contemporary psychoanalysis and literary theory. It also moved linguistics further away from “science,” where rational people who craved respectability wished to resided.

The only problem (for me at least) was that accepting these constraints entailed accepting the impossibility of saying almost everything that might be interesting, anything normal people might want or need to know about language. For instance:

– Why do men and women, who “speak the same language,” regularly misunderstand each other?
– Why do we late-twentieth-century sophisticates, after a century’s barrage of advertising, still find ourselves bedazzled by the language of persuasion, economic and political?
– How do we use language to avoid responsibility for ourselves and allocate it to others?
– How can lawyers on either side in a trial describe the same events in such different ways that jurors fail to agree on a verdict? Or reach a verdict that, to an outside observer, makes no sense at all?
– How do the stories we tell and hear, privately and publicly, give us our understandings of ourselves and the society we inhabit?

And much, much more. Answers to any of these questions must start with close analysis of actual linguistic data and show how the specific forms speakers select have the precise effects they do on social, economic, or political reality. Analyzing the superficial linguistic form of a communication alone cannot explain why these particular words, in those specific combinations, operate to this exact effect on the minds of hearers; much less can it teach us how to be discriminating hearers and responsible creators of language. Looking (like political scientists and communication theorists) only at the effects of linguistic choices as demonstrated in polls and focus groups leaves open the question of what exactly happened to create this effect. So if linguistics is going to raise interesting questions and answer them in useful ways, and exist as more than an ivory tower curiosity, linguists must find ways to bring these different forms of analysis together, to look at language closely, but not to stop with language; to consider the complexity of cause and effect in everything we do that involves linguistic expression (which is pretty nearly everything we do). Analysts of language must use their minds, like transformational grammarians, as a filter or conduit: we must ask ourselves how we are affected by particular uses of language. But as social scientists we must use real, spontaneously created language as the basis of our analyses; and we must be sure that our individual mentalities, producing our own interpretations, are not idiosyncratic; the effect that I describe language having on me should elicit an “aha!” from you a good part of the time. Even when you disagree, you should see that my version might work for someone who brings to the interpretations a context different from yours (for discussion of this issue see Tannen 1984).

Modern “core” linguists still shun such endeavors as unscientific, tending to confine their analyses to the safe havens of relatively small and concrete linguistic artifacts: the sound, the word, the sentence. Even many sociolinguists have been loath to engage in analyses that involve intuition or introspection. Occasional linguists (as opposed to, say, discourse analysts) have alluded to the existence of “structure above the sentence level,” but mostly in the same tones as pre-Columbian Europeans speaking of what lay beyond the Ocean Sea. There be dragons – don’t go there.

Yet we don’t make meanings or express intentions at those smaller levels. Meanings become visible in discourse: connected language used for a purpose, whether in the form of a conversational turn, a haiku, a how-to-manual, a courtroom cross examination, a novel, or any of the innumerable other linguistic actions in which all of us engage regularly. To do so, we have to have internalized a set of rules or principles dictating what is a possible utterance within the relevant genre and what is not. These rules are part of our linguistic knowledge as much as the rules about what constitutes a permissible cluster of sounds in a language or what makes a string of words intelligible as a sentence. Traditionally linguistics has been unwilling to consider the processes by which we understand larger and more abstract units of language (text or discourse) as a part of a speaker’s knowledge of language that linguistic theory must account for. But it seems to me that there is no natural reason to cut off “linguistics” before meaning enters the picture, except as a reflex of the old antimentalism and the desire to keep a tightly formalistic hold on the meaning of “grammar.” True, adhering to the old ways will avoid the dangers of solipsism and incoherence (unless you believe, as I do, that formal statements can be just as incoherent as informal ones). But in simplifying your life this way, you make linguistics an artificial field, condemned to turn away just as things get interesting, unable to make a true rapprochement with literarily analysis, or psychology, or anthropology, or political science. I know some of my colleagues want it that way, and I wish them success; but they should not force us all into that Procrustean bed.

For this reason, I see all the topics I deal with in this book as “linguistics,” ways of understanding “language.” Most linguists would go along with me through Chapter 3, which looks at “political correctness” and therefore hovers around the safely linguistic level of the word or phrase. Even Chapter 4, on “sexual harassment,” as defined by Anita Hill, still relatively small-scale and concrete, may pass muster. Chapter 7, on Ebonics, will seem unexceptionable as an examination of dialect differences and attitudes toward them – a respectable topic for sociolinguistics. But many esteemed colleagues will part company with me there.

The other chapters all cluster at a more abstract linguistic level. They are about the social and political construction of narratives. Who makes our stories, and how do they develop over time and through an assortment of media venues? What happens, more particularly, when groups or individual members of those groups (the O.J. Simpson jury, Hillary Rodham Clinton) who previously were accord no right to self-definition through language, take for themselves that right, in very public ways? I see the appropriation of narrative-construction rights as parallel to, and a natural development of, the earlier appropriation of definitional rights at the word level. The narrative-controlling strategy of Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed in Chapter 5 is, in this view, the direct lineal descendant of the reappropriation of “Black” by the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s. I’m not saying that the linkage is conscious, just that the recent one could not have occurred at the abstract level of narrative had not the earlier one, more readily graspable at the lexical level, familiarized our society with the idea that language could be reclaimed.

Some linguists  will be troubled less by the objects of my analysis than with my analytic procedures. How do I justify my interpretations? Language is the transference of meaning form mind to mind (among many other things). A satisfying theory of how we use language to make and change public and private meaning (which is what this book attempts) can only be tested by what it illuminates and communicates to those who encounter it. There is, alas, no extrinsic, objective, “scientific” test of the claims I will be making. Some might argue that, therefore, what I am doing is not “scientific” and should therefore be read out of both linguistics and decent society. But the scientific method is not the only way we can arrive at understanding. As we enter a new century and a new millennium, it behooves us to keep our eyes open and raise again some old questions: What exactly makes an endeavor “scientific”? And must every way of knowing be “scientific” according to the traditional definitions? Is it, finally, possible to have a linguistics that does what the study of language must: weld the interests and methods of “pure” science, “social” science, and the humanities into one, taking from each what it needs?

Other questions follow from the foregoing. Where do I get my data and what do I do with it? These too are problematic.

Over the history of linguistics, linguists have been of two minds about the collection and use of data. For transformational syntacticians and their descendants, it is important to determine the limits on the applications of grammatical rules, and therefore it is essential for the investigator to construct sentences that would never occur naturally, as well as sentences that might occur but that might not show up in a normal-sized corpus of naturally occurring data. Hence the syntactical must construct sentences and test their grammaticality as a prelude to proposing rules and grammars.

Empirically minded linguist avoid this mentalism and its hazards, at least overtly. But often they find that, in order to say anything of significance, they must work interpretation (i.e. mentalism) into their analyses in covert form. That can create even greater opportunities for corruption than outright mentalism.

Being forced to choose between these possibilities (often framed by their proponents as Manichean opposites) means that, inevitably, valuable opportunities for understanding will be lost. Eschewing mentalism forces the analyst to forfeit the use of the tool humans naturally use to understand language – the mind. So motives, ambiguities, and subtleties are off limits, and linguistics becomes (to my mind anyway) a sterile enterprise.

On the other hand, if we admit deep interpretation into our armamentarium, whose do we choose, since each of us enters every discourse with our own context and perspective, which necessarily color (some might say distort) our interpretations? How do we justify our results? Can they be verified, or falsified? And if not, can they be “scientific”? And if they are not scientific, can they be useful? Area interpreters of human communication (whether linguists, literary critics, or psychoanalysts) engaged in scientific or humanistic enterprise? I want to answer, whether flippantly, greedily, or properly, both. But how can the methods and perspective of those very different discovery systems be welded together into a harmonious whole that yields reliable results?

Who, if anyone, is in charge here? Who certifies the interpretation of discourse? At one time many of us thought the responsibility for meaning (in Western culture at least) lay with the producer: the speaker/writer produced the meaning; the hearer/reader might or might tnot perceive the speaker’s meaning correctly. 1 But increasingly, I think that the speaker does not necessarily encode a single meaning, and that the business of making sense with language is a collaborative and indeterminate business. For most circumstances, though not some of the most interesting ones, if speaker and hearer get close enough to some sort of agreement, that will be fine. 2 But that still leaves open the question of who decides what things “ought” to mean, or “must” have meant. Both speaker and hearer are suspect: they have their own interests. So should we trust an “objective,” uninvolved interpreter? She is, to be sure, outside the immediate fray. But she also has an interest, albeit a theoretical one, in the conclusion. And worse, the interpreter is an outsider, and thus inevitably never privy to the totality of shared context between the participants themselves. Without some form of participant observation, meaning is necessarily lost. It is paradoxical but true that the greater the objectivity, the greater the unreliability.

Some scholars, for instance Deborah Tannen (1984) and John J. Gumperz (1982), have tried to circumvent this impasse by making interpretation a several-stage process. Some time after the initial speech event that they have record, they go back with the transcription or tape to the original participants. The latter are asked to assess what was going on: Why did you laugh here? What about that long pause there? How did you feel at that moment? How did you take the interlocutor’s remark? What did you mean by your response? Then the analyst interprets the participants’ interpretations, whether agreeing, offering alternatives, or disagreeing, and explains what’s going on at all three levels: the original discourse and the two levels of interpretation. But it’s not clear that the original participants are any more reliable interpreters of their own intentions than is the professional linguist, especially some time after the fact. Freud showed that we are unreliable interpreters of our own behavior. And of course the analyst is not above suspicion on several grounds. She might argue that her special knowledge compensates for her distance from the original utterance. But does it, or might it just introduce additional uncertainty?

These questions at present, and perhaps forever, are unanswerable. Arguably this problem destroys any hope of using language as a true window into the mind. Yet much work has been done that seems to the majority of readers, professional and lay, to be rich in insight and even helpful in daily life. Perhaps we are overly pessimistic; perhaps, just as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about “good enough” mothering, we can talk about “good enough” linguistic analysis. And if we are aware of the dangers, we can take steps to minimize them if not ever completely avoid them. The awareness of solipsism may enable us to avoid it. I have learned to question my first take on anything, to be alert to the possibility of alternate understandings. Then, almost invariably, any idea that makes it into print has been subjected to a fair amount of discussion with friends and colleagues; offered to students in classes, presented to groups of various kinds as lectures, and explored in the media in interviews and talk shows. Very often my interlocutors offer new insights that I can incorporate. I have learned, finally, this is almost never true that an utterance has only one possible interpretation. Rather, I am offering here (as elsewhere) understandings of public language that I hope will be plausible. Then too, it is important to realize that I am not trying to state unequivocally what any speaker “meant”: that is impossible. Rather I am trying to explain my understanding of that utterance, and thus the understandings of other hearers or readers, but by no means necessarily everyone. I hope thus to be making plausible interpretations, those likely to have been made by people sharing a fair amount of psychological and/or social context.

This conundrum, originating within linguistics as purely methodological dispute, has connections to an argument raging in the rarefied air of literary theory: who is responsible for the making of meaning (if that is even a rational question)?

On one side are the deconstructionists, for instance Jacques Derrida and his followers. In its strongest form, deconstructionism asserts the undecidability of meaning in any text. Neither the original author nor any subsequent reader holds the key to “the” meaning of anything. Anyone who claims that power can do so only through the illegitimate exercise of political superiority or brute force. This is a highly subversive position, denying as it does the legitimacy of both political and cultural authority, and thus has been the target of much conservative critique of the “liberal” or “radical” university (see Chapters 2 and 3). These critics feel betrayed, having been brought up with the comforting certainty that all was knowable, you just had to know someone who knew. If you were the right kind of person, that could be you! In any case meaning is stable and determinate. Life is serene.

But neither deconstructionist chaos nor authoritarian certitude represents the commonsense world that readers and hearers know. When competent speakers engage in any kind of discourse, they form ideas in their minds about what it means and respond accordingly. Sometimes, to be sure, later evidence reveals that an interpretation is at odds with an intention, with resultant embarrassment. But more often there is sufficient consensus for the discourse to proceed to a satisfactory conclusion: “good enough” understanding.

That commonsense consensus matches Stanley Fish’s (1980) idea of the “interpretive community.” As in literature, so in communication more generally: we understand what we encounter based on shared contexts and experiences. In its most obvious form, a linguistic interpretive community is a “speech community,” defined as consisting of everyone who, in some sense, “speaks the same language.” 3 But communicative interpretative communities may also be based on more abstract similarities: gender, political sympathies, aesthetic preferences, occupations. Over the last thirty years feminists have demonstrated the existence of a (formerly private) women’s interpretive community whose presence became public and explicit as a result of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991 (see Chapter 4). Hence the rallying cry of those times, “You just don’t get it!” signifying the emergence of a community ready and able to make and insist on its own interpretive rules. Conservatives predictably decry such developments as “special interests,” “tribalism,” or “balkanization,” but as I will argue in Chapter 3, they demonstrate something much deeper and more positive, if initially uncomfortable. special speech communities have always been a part of human existence, but only recently have they emerged into widespread public recognition.

The interpretive community is the best model for the way we as speakers participate in discourse, as well as for the way we as scholars interpret that discourse and in turn create our own. We must see ourselves, in all our language-using roles, as participants in several always shifting communities of meaning-making. As long as our interpretations work, as long as most of the time, most people respond in a way tha mostly seems appropriate, we are doing well enough. Meaning is made by consensus: the original speaker contributes form, the original audience response, the analyst an explanation linking the two.

There is seldom a need for, or a possibility of, complete overlap of intention and understanding. A general sense of cohesion among participants suffices for most human purposes. The scholar attempts to identify all latent as well as patent understandings, eventually discarding those that are unlikely in the context and/or disputed by the original participants. But we should never flatter ourselves that we have created the complete or ideal interpretation of anything. Our work is particle and provisional. But it’s good enough.

Another controversy arises out of the data I have chosen as the basis of my analyses: largely written, generally mass-media, most often planned discourse. Since the early twentieth century American linguists have seen spontaneous small-group oral communication as “real” language, the only worthwhile object of study. That assessment represents an overreaction to an earlier assumption that only literate communication was worthy of study. Now it’s time for the pendulum to return to the center. In a literate society like ours, meaning is negotiated through a wide array of communicative channels: written language and oral; public and private; formal and informal; spontaneous and constructed; direct and mediated. All of these together create our identities as individuals and members of a society. Each contributes to the totality that is us. If we are interested in the way language creates and constructs us all, we must consider all the forms our language takes. Any claim that some forms of language are “realer” or more legitimate objects of analysis than others is misguided. The question to ask is, how do all the forms language takes in our time work together to produce the results we see around us?

One more caveat: this book is written with what some will allude to 9with a sneer) as a “liberal slant.” I realize that true scholars are supposed to display “objectivity,” seeing things from both sides, or all sides, or none. Along with many postmodern cultural commentators, I wonder whether there is such a thing as true objectivity, or at least whether, if objectivity exists, it is ever true. Often beneath the objective surface a writer’s real beliefs exist in distorted and covert forms, presupposed rather than asserted and therefore difficult to identify and critique. Even in the best case, objectivity creates disengagement, and disengagement is deadly in every sense. So get it: I’m a liberal.

As I write the foregoing, I wonder about it. In doing the research for this book, I read my way through a lot of conservative discourse: George Will, Peggy Noonan, William Bennett . . . I could go on. (What I have suffered for you, dear reader!) However elegantly written, however smartly argued, there is one thing lacking in every example I have encountered: any kind of apologia for its political stance, or even, generally, any explicit acknowledgment that the work is written from any political stance at all.

That is puzzling. Why do I feel a need to explain, if not apologize for, my politics, but George Will doesn’t? Despite the wails of conservatives (see Chapters 2 and 3 especially on this point), there is no case to be made for liberal control of public discourse via a conspiracy of the “liberal media.” If that were so, “liberal” would be what linguists call the unmarked value, requiring no justification, and conservatives would feel a need to confess. I speak about  this issue sat some length in Chapter 2.

The foregoing are my assumptions and ground rules. If you can accept them, reader, read on.

Sabotaging Success by Mary Cook, M.A., R.A.S.

This article was originally published by OmTimes, an on line magazine in their October 2010 issue and is reprinted here by express permission of Mary Cook. Thanks Mary!

Typical definitions of sucess include having a loving partner, financial wealth, and a thriving career. These are admirable goals and there is nothing inherently wrong with them. The problem lies in the false belief that through obtaining them, we will feel happy and fulfilled. Furthermore, we want our fantasy of these goals, and the desired emotion, to manifest permanently.

Not only are we aware of countless people that have achieved far more than the above goals, yet remained unhappy and unfulfilled, we have personally experienced this as well. After a brief exhilaration, we typically realize that we have failed to reach a new positive emotional plateau. We might feel disappointed that our goals did not measure up to our fantasy of them. Our achievements may require unwanted ongoing maintenance, responsibilities, learning or growth on our part to sustain them. Or they may present us with a whole new set of problems. If they indeed meet our highest expectations, then we fear changes, diminishment or loss of what we’ve acquired. And yet, despite the lack of lasting happiness and fulfillment, we set new goals for success, with the same delusion that they will be our emotional deliverance.

When our attention is focused on wanting something different from what we now have, we will fail to arrive anywhere that gives us an improved emotional and mental state. In fact, the new places, faces and outward circumstances have the uncanny ability to stimulate the same old internal themes, thought and feelings from which we tried to escape.

We have the idea that success resides in the future, yet the only power we have is within the present moment. And although the standards for success consistently and persistently rise above wherever we are now, we fail to question our primary assumptions. Instead, we continue to reinforce negative and stressful feelings of insufficiency. Thus we end up sabotaging true success and happiness.

Primary personal beliefs begin in childhood, in circumstances where our well being is in the hands of other people and external events. The ideas that we are not “enough” and we do not have “enough,” and we are dependent upon the external world to correct this, are deeply embedded in our minds and behavior. The more stressful our childhood is, the more tightly we hang onto fear based beliefs and protective defense mechanisms.

When life expands and deepens, instead of amending our earlier assumptions, we generally distort new information or fail to apply it to our personal circumstances. Thus it is the energy of past fears of inferiority and insufficiency from our childhood dependent state, which propels us toward achievements with false hope. The motivating energy of a goal will create an achievement that holds the same energy. So we are in a cycle of sabotage.

We must transcend ordinary thinking in order to resolve the problems created by ordinary thinking. We believe that external factors will bring us happiness and fulfillment. We think that the more intensely and frequently we yearn for these external factors, the more quickly they manifest. We assume that we do not have to change ourselves, in order to attract desired external change. We expect that happiness and fulfillment will be permanent upon the achievement of future goals. When these beliefs are proven wrong time and time again, we pursure them even harder. When confronted that we have these false beliefs, we deny it while our behavior confirms it.

True success is internal. True success is right now. True success is not dependent upon external factors. True success changes into many forms. True success is meeting outward circumstances with the healthiest, most positive response. True success is recognizing that the point of life is learning and growth, not complacency, or stagnation.

Happiness and fulfillment exist within our higher consciousness. Our soul shines light on perceived darkness, and shows us external abundance for perceived deprivation. We must notice and value our own feeling of happiness whenever it arises. We must become aware of the places in our life where we feel fulfilled. External factors that stimulate these feelings are reminding us of the treasure that is always within us. There is no outward success to capture, which will insure our happiness and fulfillment. When we practice experiencing the positive feelings that we associate with our desired goals, we enter higher consciousness. When we take realistic actions that are in sync with these positive feelings, we enter higher consciousness. This is where true success without sabotage exists.

Mary Cook is the author of “Grace Lost and Found: From Addictions and Compulsions to Satisfaction and Serenity,” available from Barnes and Nobles bookstores,, etc. She has 34 years of clinical practice and 29 years of university teaching experience. She is a national speaker and has a private practice in San Pedro, CA. Mary is available for telephone and office counseling, guided meditation, speaking engagements, and in-service training. Contact her at and see her website for further information

If Language is Power: Why Aren’t We Using Ours?

By David N. Evans, RID CI & CT, NIC Master

To view the article on the Bridge Communications site click  HERE

reprinted by permission from Bridge Communications, originally published December 2006 in RID VIEWS.

When I’m escorted into a building to interpret, I’m often asked what type of interpreting work I do. I’m sure this is a common experience for those of us who interpret in community settings. Many practitioners probably respond with the term “freelance,” as I did for years. Yet I wonder whether this is the most accurate description of the reality of our employment.

In order to frame my discussion of the term freelance, I think it’s first important to have a foundational understanding about the type of field I believe ours to be: a practice profession.

ASL-English Interpreting is a relatively young field—being organized professionally only since 1964 (Quigley & Youngs, 1965). The majority of ASL-English interpreter programs (IEPs/IPPs/ITPs) have traditionally been housed in community and/or technical colleges. This has reflected the thinking that ASL-English Interpreting is a trade or skill. That programs are still housed in community/technical colleges today helps perpetuate such a belief. Recent research into the field of ASL-English Interpreting (Dean & Pollard, 2001, 2004; Metzger, 1999), however, has begun to view ASL-English Interpreting through a different lens, that of practice professions. Dean & Pollard (2004) state the following.

We view interpreting as a practice profession, like medicine, law, teaching, counseling, or law enforcement, where careful consideration and judgment regarding situational and human interaction factors are central to doing effective work. We contrast the practice professions with the technical professions, such as engineering and accounting, where knowledge and skills pertaining to the technical elements of a job are largely sufficient to allow the professional to produce a competent work product. Interpreters function more like practice professionals than technicians due to the significance of situational and human interaction factors on their ultimate work product; that is, factors beyond the technical elements of the source and target language (p. 259).

The variables relevant to interpreting work are much more extensive than those pertaining to language and culture alone. If we view the field of interpreting as a practice profession, the terminology we use to reflect that view ought to appropriately describe our work, especially to those unfamiliar with what we do.

In looking at the term freelance, definitions from online dictionaries (Cambridge, Ultralingua) note the idea of working independently but also mention trade work or creative professionals, i.e. journalist, programmer, writer, graphic designer, etc.

In contrast to this, terminology employed by other practice professions includes community-based, independent contractor, practitioner, and private practice. In discussing this topic with other ASL-English Interpreters, I have frequently encountered negative reactions to these terms with remarks about “putting on airs,” or “trying to make ourselves seem more important than we really are.” Another common response has been, “Well, freelance has always worked for me. Why change it?”

Comments about putting on airs seem to reflect the prevailing view of ASL-English Interpreting as a trade or profession based on skill—in this case the ability to interpret between ASL and English—rather than a practice profession that deals with human interaction.
Out of curiosity, I polled people who do not know sign language and do not work with interpreters about the word freelance. People associated freelance with writers, graphic designers (especially web-based), and “work on the side (of a regular job).” What I found interesting was the number of times “starving artist” was mentioned. Coincidentally, in Wisconsin (as well as other areas of the country) the sign used for FREELANCE is a sign that can be glossed as TO-MAKE-DO. This sign, produced with the middle fingers alternately brushing the chin, has a meaning of “having just enough to get by,” in this case monetarily. While this has been true in our history when wages were low and jobs were scarce, are these the associations we want for our profession today? By extension, how do these ideas reflect on our signing (d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing) consumers?

Studies (Lawrence 1998, and McIntire & Sanderson 1999) have shown that interpreters have an impact on the non-signing (hearing) person’s perception of the signing (deaf) person. This can be extended to more than just the interpreted act; the ways in which ASL-English Interpreters comport themselves—both positively and negatively—also reflect on the signing consumer.

A colleague (Lightfoot, 2005) recounted a story about interpreting at a multi-day conference for Ph.D.-level attendees. Due to the fact that the group would be meeting for multiple sessions, everyone took a turn introducing him/herself. Rather than saying nothing, the interpreters introduced themselves, stating that they were private practitioners who held advanced degrees in ASL-English Interpreting, held national certifications in the field, and would be present throughout the conference for communication needs.

Instead of the all-too-typical, “Did you drive her here?” or “Do you get paid for this?” types of questions, my colleague noted how respectful the attendees were of their presence, and how questions directed to them reflected an appreciation of the task at hand. They were also, in her opinion, more assertive in approaching the signing consumer to initiate conversation. She contrasted this with other encounters (including other conferences) where people’s questions and interactions reflected a lower view of interpreting and of the signing consumer (Lightfoot, 2004).

I, too, have noticed a difference in my own interactions with non-signing consumers on the job. When I refer to myself as a community-based interpreter in private practice, I find I don’t get the types of questions that equate interpreting with volunteer work; rather, a level of respect is given to me appropriate with the type of work I perform. I believe we potentially limit ourselves and our work in the eyes of the non-signing consumer by using the term freelance, which could potentially affect perceptions about our signing consumers.

But this change in terminology is not without its own potential pitfalls. One colleague (Nygren, 2006) expressed concern that referring to ourselves in the manner this article suggests could further estrange us from our signing consumers. I initially assumed she was only considering blue-collar consumers, and wasn’t taking into consideration the myriad consumers we may encounter. However, the recent article discussing the move to view our field as a profession (Brunson, 2006) in the Journal of Interpretation helped to clarify her concerns.
Only the elite are able to engage their doctors or lawyers on an intimate level. Is this the move we would like to make in the interpreting field? … We must be clear. Being a professional is about power (p. 8).

Additionally, there is a schism in the field of spoken language interpreting between conference interpreting and community interpreting, with the latter being viewed as a less desirable career path. Perhaps we might have a positive effect on our spoken language colleagues by embracing this terminology?

Of course, the language we use to define ourselves and our work is only one piece of the puzzle. Interpreters, in all settings, need to get past the idea that we are either (a) not really present or (b) don’t have an affect on the interaction. Unfortunately, these very ideas have been reinforced in this publication in the “Encounters With Reality” monthly segment (RID VIEWS, September, 2006; RID VIEWS, October 2006).

In the conference anecdote above, it was not only the verbiage the interpreters used to introduce themselves, but also the fact that they chose to introduce themselves and the manner in which they did it that raised their status from that of well-meaning volunteers to professional service providers (for more insight on the issue of introductions, see Lightfoot, 2004).

In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s Freelance Committee (MRIDFLIC) is discussing a possible name change. Some of the options we are considering include Community-Based Interpreter Committee (CBIC) and Committee for Community Interpreting (CCI). The latter seems more flexible as to allow people to join who work full-time in a staff setting, i.e. educational, but who also do some work in the community.

I propose that we begin to think about referring to our profession differently. I believe this can positively impact perceptions of ASL-English Interpreters as a profession versus a trade, and potentially improve perceptions of the signing community. I welcome ongoing discussion and feedback on this topic. Please feel free to contact me at or 612-229-8377.

Articles and Books
Brunson, J. (2006). Commentary on the Status of Professional Status of Sign Language Interpreters: An Alternative Perspective. In Journal of Interpretation. D. Watson, ed. Alexandria, VA: RID Press.
Cartwright, B. (Ed.). (2006). Encounters With Reality. RID VIEWS, 23 (8), p. 30.
Cartwright, B. (Ed.). (2006). Encounters With Reality. RID VIEWS, 23 (9), p. 26.
Dean, R., Pollard, R. (2001). Application of Demand-Control Theory to Sign Language Interpreting: Implications for Stress and Interpreter Training. In Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6 (1).
Dean, R., Pollard, R. (2004). Consumers and Service Effectiveness in Interpreting Work: A Practice Profession Perspective. In Sign Language Interpreting and Interpreter Education.
Lawrence, S. (1998). The Effect of Sign Language Interpreters on Audience Perception of Deaf Speaker’s Credibility. In The Keys to Highly Effective Interpreter Training. Conference of Interpreter Trainers 12th National Convention, November 4-7, 1998.
Lightfoot, J. (2004). Introducing a Grander Purpose. RID VIEWS, 21 (2), p. 25.
Lightfoot, J. (2005). personal communication.
McIntire, M., Sanderson, G. (1999). “Look Who’s Talking: Perceptions and Credibility.” Workshop handout. RID Conference, 1999.
Metzger, M. (1999). Sign Language Interpreting: Deconstructing the Myth of Neutrality. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Nygren, P. (2006). personal communication.
Quigley, S., Youngs, J. (Eds.). (1965). Interpreting for Deaf People. Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Assessment: Getting Inside the Black Box

Getting Inside the Black Box: A tool for diagnostic assessment of interpreters

This article was originally published by the Conference of Interpreter Trainers in 2006


Interpreters are often assessed, but rarely given diagnostic evaluations capable of guiding their professional development.  This paper describes a diagnostic tool based on the belief that the answers to how interpreters improve can be found inside the interpreters.  Guided by a respect and understanding for the difficulties of change, the interpreter and diagnostician engage in a collaborative process of dialogue and observation to discover how the interpreter would like to grow and outline a plan to make that growth a reality.  By analyzing how the interpreter habitually divides his/her available energy to perform the various, simultaneous parts of the task, ineffective mental habits are discovered and remedies suggested.  Finally, a comprehensive professional development plan designed to match the learning style of the individual interpreter is written.  Each individual plan provides a framework for professional development that supports deep, lasting growth.

A Framework for Facilitating Change
Signed language interpreters engage in professional development activities for a variety of reasons – sometimes because they want to, sometimes because they have to.  Some interpreters participate in professional development simply to collect continuing education credits and maintain their certification. Some are required by employers to document on-going efforts in professional development.  However, many interpreters truly want to improve their work.  They have goals, or at least wishes for what they would like their work to look like. This is not only true of novice interpreters, but also those with varied degrees of experience, including accomplished practitioners.

The important question for these interpreters is how to make their desired changes a reality.  Most interpreters have no clear idea how their desired change could happen, let alone have a well-articulated plan to get there.  For most busy professionals, their development activities are sandwiched between very full schedules of work, family, and personal commitments.  At best, they manage to attend workshops that happen to be offered in their area, regardless of the topic.  When fortunate, they may be able to squeeze in working with a mentor or schedule a team interpreting assignment with a respected colleague.  They may take a college course, on-line course, or use self-directed DVDs or videotaped materials with study guides.  However, these activities do not necessarily translate into observable differences in an interpreter’s work.  As the years go by, interpreters may become more and more aware of this fact.

When interpreters approach their development in this way, taking “a little bit of this” and “a little bit of that” from whatever is available to them, it is a smorgasbord approach to development.  This approach is one where interpreters work at improving a variety of aspects of their interpreting all at once.  They may watch a DVD about fingerspelling, attend a workshop about classifiers, and read an article about team interpreting, all within the same time period.  These are all aspects of their work that could improve, but they are not necessarily connected.  If they are fortunate enough to work with a mentor or colleague, they may identify a number of ways they are dissatisfied with the work they produce.  However, they seldom know how to move beyond identifying aspects they are unsatisfied with, and change the way they interpret to get different results.
For interpreters who are late learners of American Sign Language (ASL), it is especially common to conclude that what needs the most improvement in their interpreting is their second language fluency.  Deaf consumers who view the quality of the interpreter’s work often confirm that, indeed, there needs to be improvement in the interpreter’s command of ASL.  There can seem to be an infinite number of mistakes that need to be fixed in the target language production when the interpreter works from English to ASL.  However, many interpreters have put tremendous effort into improving ASL fluency and still see no substantial improvement in the basic quality of their interpretation.
Improving ASL fluency is very important. However, for most interpreters, improved language fluency alone is seldom sufficient to produce substantial improvement in overall interpreting performance.  Problems naturally associated with second language acquisition, especially at a later age, can distract us from other major changes that are also both possible and necessary if the interpreter is to grow and improve.  For interpreters seeking substantial improvement, they must balance the continuous task of addressing language fluency while also placing it within the context of the entire interpreting process.
Thomas Guskey, in his text Evaluating Professional Development (2000), identifies the defining characteristics of truly effective professional development.  In Guskey’s view, professional development needs to be intentional, ongoing, and systemic if it is to produce desired results. When development is intentional, it has clearly stated goals.  Helping interpreters define these goals is a first step to change.  Identifying clear goals can also help interpreters stay focused in the ongoing process of development.  Interpreters have a better chance at improving when they have a clear idea of where they are going and how they will get there.  In Guskey’s words, the best professional development is accomplished by “small changes guided by a grand vision.”
Essentially, the act of engaging in professional development is one of seeking out and embracing change.  Facilitating professional development is a process of helping people change behaviors. In this case, we are talking about performance behaviors.  These behaviors are often old and even treasured habits.  They are difficult to change.  If we want to help people improve we will do well first to consider how people change.
For the most part, people are doing things the way they are doing them, because it makes sense to them.  Individuals are rarely as unthinking, uncaring, stubborn, or ignorant as others characterize them.  However, it is good to realize that sometimes people simply do not want to change.  They like things just the way they are.  Even when they do want something different, people can only experience a shift in the things they are willing to change. In other words, it does not work to try to coerce people to change.  Motivation to change must come from inside.  However, we can help others find their motivation if they are willing.
The only way we can help people change is by first accepting them where they are.  The answers to the difficulties that keep people from changing are inside that person.  What we can do is assist people in going inside and finding their answers.  What we cannot do is go inside their mind and change them to suit us.  We can best assist those who seek change by helping them define their goals, find their enthusiasm, find a belief in the possibility of change, and identify the specifics that they want to change.  If we do this together, in collaboration, we will have come a long way towards change.  This collaboration is made possible by engaging in dialogue, by listening and by asking questions.  In doing so, we can help others clarify what they want to change.  We can understand where they have been, where they are, and where they want to go.  This will give us the insight we need to help them get where they want to go.
The well-known Prochaska change model identifies 5 stages to change – precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance (Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross,1992).  It is interesting to note that his first two steps towards change happen completely internally.  Precontemplation even suggests that someone has not yet begun to consider change, yet Prochaska views this state as part of the process of change.  Precontemplation appears to be so thoroughly internal that even the person in question is not entirely aware of it.  Contemplation is the first conscious movement towards change, and it is mainly internal.  Even the third stage, preparation, is largely internal.  Though it can include some outward action, preparation mainly consists of producing the mental state necessary to begin an external, behavioral change.  When we encounter interpreters in these first three stages of change, it is easy to throw up our hands and think that we cannot help them.  Overcoming this attitude in ourselves is an important step towards being ready to facilitate change in others.
If we are to engage in helping people grow, we need not only to accept them where they are, we also need to orient ourselves in finding their strengths.  Any positive growth will start with identifying and building on the strengths already present.  In the helping professions, strength based assessments have become quite popular and for good reason.  They work. Identifying and building upon strengths in any person attempting to change often produces faster, more effective and more satisfying results.
A few things we know about engaging strengths is that people rarely change by being torn down.  We know that no one likes to be told something they already know, especially about themselves.  People change when they believe they can change.  Also, when people feel understood, they are more able to handle the truth.  People comprehend the truth best when they discover it themselves.  Therefore, if we want to help we must tell the truth, but we need to know when and how to do it.  This is why it is most important to become skilled at asking good questions.  Asking an elegant question is an art.  If you can master this art, you can often help where no one else can.
In working with interpreters, it is important to consider their own assessment of their work.  By and large, interpreters have a good sense for their own weaknesses.  Having an evaluator affirm what they already know to be true is a positive experience.  “Yes, you’re right. I see you are having trouble with fingerspelling reception.  You really do have a sense of your own work,” is an affirmation.  Receiving criticism from someone else when he/she is already aware of the problem is a negative experience.  “You are really having a problem with fingerspelling reception and you need to work on that,” is a comparatively negative, unnecessarily critical experience.  Interpreters who have been affirmed are much more likely to embrace the feedback they are receiving than those who are being told what is wrong with them.  Approaching interpreters from a strength based perspective also clears negative emotions the interpreter may have from past experiences of assessment that were mainly critical or evaluative processes. Separating these experiences from diagnostic assessment clears the field of dialogue.  This often allows interpreters to digest and make better use of the assessment process.

What is a Diagnostic Assessment?
Interpreters are assessed in many ways – this begins in training programs where performance must be graded, then initial job placements are often based on passing a “screening” test of some sort.  Many employers and agencies utilize their own version of a “test” to determine if an interpreter can be hired.  Then comes the question of certification.  Can you pass this test for certification?  So much is riding on this question – status, money, opportunity.  Then there are performance appraisals, like the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA) that are sometimes required and may happen periodically.  In all these situations, interpreters have a single performance judged.  Decisions are made, based on the judgment of that one performance, that have major implications.  This method of evaluation is akin to taking a photograph and is a “snapshot” approach to answering the question of competency.  These snapshots of a specific moment in time are often not even actual real time interpreting performances.  Most of the time, these are simulated events where interpreters perform simultaneous interpreting of frozen texts, from audio taped or videotaped sources.  They do represent an authentic interaction between people and do not require all the same skills as real time interpreting.
Also, none of these assessments are diagnostic in nature because they do not tell the interpreter precisely what is sufficient or deficient in their performance. They do not define for the interpreter how he/she could or should change. They do not engage the question of what the interpreter should set as goals for change, let alone how the interpreter could proceed to attain these goals. Instead, they are meant to answer a question about whether or not an interpreter will most likely be able to perform up to a certain standard, or whether or not an interpreter may be hired, fired, rewarded, or reprimanded in their employment.  It is important to separate these kinds of evaluations from diagnostic assessment.
In all of these evaluations, interpreters are judged based on what is present and what is not present in their work.  The focus is on what is observable.  However, most of the work of interpreting happens inside the mind of the interpreter.  While focusing only on what is visible makes the job of evaluators much easier, more quantifiable, and ostensibly more standardized, it is insufficient to help interpreters who seek to improve.  Granted, it is difficult to explore or talk about something we cannot see – the inner workings of the mind of the interpreter.  However, it is precisely what lies inside this black box, the mind of the interpreter, which holds the key to change.  Any evaluation tool that does not help an interpreter get inside their internal process is of limited value in producing change.
Some evaluation tools have done a thorough job of describing specific items of language competence in both ASL and English that should be present in the final rendition of a fluent interpretation.  Catalogues of features can be useful.  However, if an evaluation indicates only what should or could be improved, but offers no theoretical base to guide the necessary changes, it is still unlikely to facilitate change.  Any assessment that avoids the inner workings of the interpreters’ process is a partial assessment.
It is worth mentioning that there is an assumption inherent in assessments that deal only with what is observable.  The assumption is that if specific features of a target language are not present, then the interpreter simply lacks fluency in that feature.  In fact, there can be a variety of reasons a needed feature is not present in an interpretation.  Of course, one is lack of fluency.  However, an interpreter may possess control of the feature in natural language use and still not use that feature in interpretations.  We must go deeper within the black box of the interpreter’s process to find out why the feature was not present when it could or should be used.
My own investigation has led me to conclude that often interpreters produce word for word transliteration that lacks fluency, because of conceptual constructs they hold about the relationship between English and ASL, power, and the users of these languages.  It is more often their beliefs about the people and the politics of language that hold them back rather than their inability to do something different.  They simply do not feel free to use their own language competence to produce equivalent messages (Elliott, 2002).  If we are to help interpreters overcome this, we must enter this black box of the interpreter’s process.  But how shall we get in?  How shall we help them find the freedom to claim their competencies as well as develop new competencies?
In both the Western medical and mental health systems, when we help people reach for greater health or change, we step back and take a systematic look at their history, their current condition that needs changing, and identify or label the condition, which then enables us to prescribe the proper steps to improve or ameliorate that condition.  In a nutshell, this is the diagnostic process.  People in the position of helping others change or heal, conduct a thorough assessment of the situation through a combination of interview and examination.  Following a standardized system, they use the information they gather to decide what to call the current condition.  This is the diagnosis.  Diagnosis is the first step to change, because it tells us the course to take to treat this condition.
If we apply this model to helping interpreters change and improve the quality of their work, we must engage in a dialogue and examine the current condition.  The diagnostician seeks to understand how and why the interpreter came to be in their current condition.  In this way we can work with the interpreter to get at the root causes of what is observable and discover the process that is functioning to produce what we see that is less than ideal.  Diagnostic assessment helps interpreters identify where they are, name what they would like to change, and recommend strategies to make those changes a reality.  Through a thorough interview and examination of the interpreting work, a diagnostician and interpreter can collaborate to identify areas for change.  Once these areas have been agreed upon and observed, the diagnostician can recommend the appropriate “course of treatment.”  In collaboration, an articulated professional development plan can then be written to help the interpreter get from where they are to where they want to be.

The Key to Unlock the Black Box – Division of Energy Theory

The interpreting task is highly complex.  To be effective, it requires fluency in two languages and two cultures, an ability to interact in complex settings, knowledge of content being conveyed, knowledge of the structure in which the content is conveyed, complex cognitive skills to make the transfer from one language to another, and the ability to make continuous split-second decisions.  It is important for us to remember how complex this task is.  It is not possible to perform it perfectly and it is not possible to improve all these portions of the task simultaneously.
In order to perform this complex task well, an interpreter must divide whatever energy he/she has available into at least five parts: 1) understanding the setting, goals, rituals, and relationships of the context where the interpreted event is happening; 2) establishing and maintaining relationships with the persons present; 3) taking in messages, either spoken or signed; 4) processing the meaning and function of those messages along with the intent of the speaker; and 5) producing equivalent renditions of those messages.
Truly advanced interpreters can also spend at least some portion of their energy in a sixth task of monitoring their output from the perspective of the receiver.  This is an especially advanced skill that differs from the less sophisticated kind of self-monitoring practiced by many interpreters.  Monitoring from the interpreter perspective means that the interpretation is geared for someone who is fluent in both languages and has access to both languages.  If the work makes sense only in the context of having access to the original utterance, it is not likely to be adequate since neither receiver is completely bilingual.  However, if interpreters are able to see and hear their own work from the perspective of the receiver, it enlightens the interpretation in a way that allows it to be tailored to the specific recipient.  This is interpreting in the ideal.  For interpreters who master this skill, it often makes the other portions of the task less demanding.
Regardless of how many of these tasks the interpreter is performing simultaneously, this division of energy is not simply a matter of dividing the available resources into equal parts.  Instead, it is a dynamic division that changes constantly with the demands of the work.  The amount of energy required for each portion varies greatly from one assignment to another and also changes frequently throughout an interpreting assignment.  The manner in which an interpreter manages this division of energy greatly influences the quality of their interpretations.  While this division changes frequently, interpreters tend to perform this division in fairly consistent, habitual ways.
While observing an interpreter working, we can detect trends or patterns in how he/she habitually divides his/her energy.  Looking at these trends gives us insight into the interpreter’s process.  Discovering these underlying patterns in the division of energy usually illuminates the problems that are observable at the surface level of the interpretations.  Through a combination of observation and dialogue, diagnosticians can then guide interpreters in improving the foundations of their work by redistributing this division of energy more effectively.
Most interpreters tend to put the greatest amount of energy into the portion of the task they feel most comfortable with.  When stressed or struggling, many interpreters will tend to put even more energy into that same portion.  Yet, the place they need the most energy is where they are least competent.  For example, some interpreters have native or near-native competence in ASL.  Yet, when they interpret they put so much of their focus and energy on sign language that little is left to spend on processing messages or attending to English.  The result is an interpretation that does not look nearly native because it is processed at lexical or phrasal levels.  Other interpreters who enjoy the thinking and processing part of the task may spend the bulk of their energy there.  When stressed they process and think even more.  The result can be interpretation that is unclear and overly wordy or over-processed.
Along with developing patterns in how they divide their available energy, interpreters can also experience serious drops in the overall amount of energy available to do their work.  If the energy available were contained in a vat, this drop of energy would look like something pulling the plug in the vat.  The total amount of energy is reduced, because pulling the plug creates a leak.  The cause of energy leaks can be physical, mental, or emotional.  For example, being tired from lack of sleep reduces the overall amount of energy available and reduces the effectiveness of the interpreter.  Likewise, being hungry, upset, or worried would also reduce the total amount of energy available for the task at hand.
Energy leaks can also be psychological, as in situations where an interpreter has fears about their own performance.   When an interpreter has a fear of sign to voice interpreting he/she often spends large amounts of energy mentally repeating, “I can’t do this.”  As soon as a Deaf person lifts their hands to say something, “I can’t do this,” feels true because the interpreter’s anxiety uses so much energy that he/she does not have enough left to perform the task well.  Consequently, the performance is poor, the interpreter knows it, and his/her confidence is further undermined.  This leaves the interpreter with even less energy to perform the task the next time.
Energy leaks reduce an interpreter’s ability to perform competently and interpreters simply cannot do their very best work while energy is leaking.  However, these leaks can be plugged and energy conserved for the task.  This begins with identifying the leaks.  Diagnosticians can work with interpreters to identify the leaks and interpreters can begin to plug or prevent their leaks by both disciplining their mental activity while interpreting and dealing with emotional and/or physical leaks before beginning to interpret.
Again, when interpreters struggle, most will tend to continue to put more energy into the part of the task that feels most comfortable or the part where they feel most competent.  This tendency to play to one’s strengths is natural, but in fact it seldom helps improve one’s performance when the demands of interpreting become overwhelming.  Recognizing how energy is being distributed and taking steps to redistribute that energy is usually more effective.  Interpreters will tend to do their best work when they have the most energy available for the parts of the task where they are weakest.

Applying Division of Energy to Diagnostic Assessment
Diagnostic evaluations based on division of energy analysis involve a process that can take various forms.  Like many good diagnostic processes, it is an in-depth conversation and exploration that responds to the specifics of the person being diagnosed.  However, there is a framework that guides the process and informs the diagnostician:
Interpreter requests an assessment.
Diagnostician dialogues with the interpreter to determine goal(s) for the assessment.
Diagnostician and interpreter determine the most appropriate observation site(s).
Interpreter completes self-assessment (strengths, areas for improvement, and persistent problems.
Diagnostician and interpreter have a pre-observation meeting for diagnostician to explain division of energy and allay fears.
Diagnostician makes observation and takes notes.
Diagnostician and interpreter have a post-observation meeting and schedule results delivery.
Diagnostician reviews tape and analyzes division of energy .
Diagnostician writes up evaluation parts I, II, III, and IV.  (See Appendix.)
Diagnostician meets with interpreter to deliver results.
Diagnostician and interpreter write the professional development plan together.
A few points about this process merit elaboration.  The ideal observation site is live, face-to-face interpreting that can also be videotaped.  Face to face interpreting is preferable as it allows the opportunity to observe how the interpreter attends to the context and the relationships with the persons involved and how this affects the interpreting product.  Without observing an interpreter handling these real life demands, we can only observe them translate.  Real life interpreting takes place within an interaction that is contextually located. In order for us to be good diagnosticians, we must take these interactions into account.  Some Deaf consumers have said that relationship, sometimes expressed as the sign ATTITUDE, may be the most important quality of a good interpreter.  In order to assess accurately, we need to see the interpreter handle all the parts of the task.  Then, in order for the interpreter to really grasp how they are performing, it is best to be able to show it to them on videotape.  Watching their videotaped performance also gives the interpreter a chance to engage in their own analysis and invite a dialogue with the diagnostician.  There are many comments that do not have to be made when interpreters can see themselves.  At the same time, the interpreter can grow in their self-analysis skills.
While observing the interpreter’s work, notes can be taken.  A three-column approach is very helpful. The first column is “They Said” or the source for the interpretation.  This can be either signed or spoken utterances, hopefully retained as completely as possible.  The second column is “You Said,” meaning the interpretation that was performed, again, as completely as possible.  The third column is “My Comment.”  This is a broad category that may include many kinds of comments, such as questions, observations, corrections and guesses, about the division of energy that can be used later for dialogue.
This retention of the source language text and the level of specificity it provided to interpreters trying to improve their skills is often very helpful.  However, the remarks are most useful when they represent clear examples of the foundational structures that we are seeking to illuminate – some aspect of the black box.  The more we can tie our comments and questions to the division of energy, and the inner working of the interpreter’s mind, the more likely they will be helpful.  Of course, the comments should also help reveal any weaknesses in any of the portions of the task.  This will help us later in writing the professional development plan.  Any skills that are insufficiently developed will need to be addressed.
At the point in this process when the diagnostician develops the final write-up, it is important to refer back to the interpreter’s self-assessment.  It is interesting to note that for experienced interpreters, the strengths that they depend on to function well are often the very same qualities that hold them back from achieving greater competencies.  Thus, the strengths they identify and the areas the diagnostician identifies as needing to change are often one and the same.  This is good to remember when we deliver the results of our analysis and lay out a vision for change.  Often the things we will ask advanced interpreters to give up are the very skills that have brought them this far.  We should remember that this could be a disturbing suggestion and approach it carefully.
For the final meeting to deliver the results, diagnosticians should allow at least 1 1/2 hours for the session.  A good way to start this meeting is by going over the goal and the first section of the write up together.  This will simply reconnect with the dialogue you have already had.  Next, look at the videotape together to set the stage for your analysis.  Choose the important examples that support your conclusions and ask the interpreter what they see.  Affirm their observations.  Go over your results by using both their own comments and the examples from the tape.
This is also a time that can be used to teach.  For example, you can introduce topics like discourse analysis, levels of processing, or discuss interpreting models, especially if you are going to suggest activities in these areas.  You can also show videotapes of other interpreters who are already producing the kind of work the interpreter desires.  If the professional development plan has not yet been written, do it now.  Ask questions about what the interpreter has done in the past for professional development.  Find out which activities have been helpful and which have not.  This is a chance to explore the interpreter’s learning style.
As Howard Gardner (1983) described in his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, people have a variety of ways of learning.  Some interpreters learn best by observation – either through watching Deaf people or other interpreters.  Some learn best by reading or understanding things analytically.  Some learn best by having something explained verbally.  Some learn best by doing. If the development activities you suggest do not match the learning style of the interpreter you are evaluating, they will be of little help.  Familiarize yourself with Gardner’s work and then, while writing the plan, ask the interpreter what they know about what has helped them learn.  Through dialogue, again, asking good questions, help the interpreter identify what types of activities are most likely to fit their learning style and, therefore, be most effective.  Of course, you can write the best plan by knowing the local resources.  If you are very familiar with the interpreters, Deaf community, and available resources, you will be most able to make specific suggestions about who and what will help the interpreter grow.
Professional development plans are highly individual.  There is no template for what they should look like.  The watchword is simple – to ask good questions, listen to the information the interpreter is giving you, and work together to come up with a plan that inspires the interpreter to believe he/she can experience the change he/she seeks.

Assessing the Assessment Tool
While feedback from interpreters who have received division of energy diagnostic assessments have thus far been nearly universally positive, there are some aspects of the tool that need further development.  It would be helpful to have a more precisely defined process for the observation and documentation section of the assessment.  While the three-column approach of observation can be useful it is definitely not comprehensive and likely relies too much on the intuition of the diagnostician.  Lists of features of either language might not tell us the cause of what we see, but it would be helpful to have such a list at that point; ideally, one that corresponds to the portions of the task and the energy divisions.  Such a list could help ensure that diagnosticians do not overlook important aspects of the work.
To be most useful, a diagnostic system needs to be standardized.  In this respect, the division of energy analysis framework for diagnostic assessment of interpreters is far from complete.  There is preliminary data to support the idea that there are common problematic patterns in habitual, ineffective division of energy.  Ideally, these common patterns could be classified according to general type and a manual could be published describing both these patterns and guidelines for corresponding remediation of the difficulties.  The work needed to identify these patterns and the corresponding redistribution of energy would take a comprehensive team of trained professionals several years to produce a truly standardized, verifiable diagnostic manual.  Certainly, this work has been accomplished in other fields. We should have every reason to
This work is a culmination of a long learning process with contributions from several wonderful colleagues.  Special thanks to David Krohn who first used the term “ball of energy” with me.  Look what you started.  Thanks to Rachel Colaprete who told me that strengths and weaknesses are one and the same.  Thanks again to all of the women of the mentorship research project, Lisa Menard, JoEllen Clark, Deb McQuinn, Karen Finch, Cathy Widlund, and Miriam Nathan.  I’m still using what we learned together.  And thanks to the interpreters who took my Diagnostics course at RIT – Carol Sirkovich, MB Kitzel, Theresa Jones, Ellen Cooper, Jennifer Horak, and Beth Midavaine.  I finally found all my notes after the move!

Elliott, M. (2002). Skill development for advanced interpreters: An attempt to unlock the puzzle. In Swabey. L. (Ed), Proceedings of the 14th National Convention, Conference of Interpreter Trainers, New Designs in Interpreter Education (pp. 95-105). Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN: Conference of Interpreter Trainers.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: A Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Guskey, T. (2000). Evaluating Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.
Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C., & Norcross, J. (1992). In Search of How People Change: applications to addictive behavior The American Psychologist 1992 Sep; 47(9):1102-14.


Diagnostic Assessment

Assessment by:
I.         Interpreter’s Goal:
Interpreter’s Self-Evaluation
A.  Areas of Strength –
B.   Areas to focus for improvement –
C.   Persistent problems –
Allocation of Mental Resources
Source Language Understanding
Processing Skills
Target Language Skills
Tailoring output to consumers

Major Areas of Focus
A.  Strengths
B.  Areas for Improvement
C.  Other Comments
Professional Development Plan

Individualized items here

Skill Development: Unlocking The Puzzle

This article was originally published by the Conference of Interpreter Trainers in 2002


Advanced level ASL/English interpreters often struggle with skill development. Most of these interpreters spend a great deal of time and money investing in their development through the same strategies that helped them as less developed interpreters. Often advanced level interpreters experience only minor improvements through these efforts. This study sought to discover what strategies advanced interpreters could use to experience significant improvement in their work.
The study was a collaborative project between the investigator and six advanced level interpreters on the liberal arts team of the Department of Interpreting Services at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf/Rochester Institute of Technology (NTID/RIT). The project consisted of an intensive mentorship that spanned the full academic year along with diagnostic evaluations, workshops, and in-service training courses.
Through this intensive process some interpreters experienced a painful deconstruction/reconstruction process that led their work to a higher level while others experienced a continuation of their steady growth. The project concluded with the insight that all the participating interpreters were well skilled at making the most of any technique/theory they were taught. Therefore, the most significant skill development came from the introduction of new frameworks and new theory underscoring the need for advanced interpreters to keep current in this ever-changing field.

Who is an Advanced Interpreter?

Since there is no standardized method of entry into the field of sign language interpreting and no standardized descriptions of the various skill levels found among practitioners I had to develop my own definition of advanced level interpreter. For the purpose of this study I felt the following functional definition of advanced interpreter best suited the needs of the project.
Advanced interpreters are those who function at a level where many Deaf people request them and other interpreters respect their work. In addition to being well respected in both the Deaf and interpreter communities, these interpreters often do the bulk of the difficult work in their geographic location. They are expected to perform in a wide variety of settings. They are usually certified interpreters who are often called upon to mentor other, newer interpreters. They may also support newer interpreters by teaching them in other ways, either formally through classes or workshops or informally through maintaining close and supportive relationships. Advanced interpreters are often the backbone of their local interpreting community and are often called upon to provide leadership and modeling in all aspects of their role.

The Challenges That Advanced Level Interpreters Face

Most interpreters reach a plateau in their skill development at some point in their career. For those who plateau at levels lower than the advanced interpreter there are a myriad of supports available that have been proven effective for moving interpreters past these plateaus. However, when an advanced level interpreter reaches a plateau there is usually no one available to help them through this phase of their development. Since they are usually in the role of mentor or instructor, others may brush off their expressions of dissatisfaction with their work or desire for growth. Indeed, some may wonder why the interpreter feels it necessary to reach for more growth at all. When advanced interpreters find themselves in this predicament there seems to be no one who can tell them what to do to move to a higher level of skill. The lack of models of master interpreters available to those who have exhausted their local resources is a serious deficit. Without someone to lead the way these interpreters are unlikely to improve beyond their plateau.
Usually, these advanced interpreters have made good use of the traditional methods of skill development throughout their career. They have likely continued to take classes and workshops when they are offered, though their professional development time is as likely to be consumed teaching as learning. They have used traditional mentorships with other interpreters and relationships with the Deaf community and Deaf consultants. They do the “right things.” However, the effectiveness of these efforts diminishes over time. While engaging professional development activities the interpreter is likely to experience only minor changes in his/her work. Especially for adult second language learners of ASL this “tinkering” with improvement can last indefinitely. While continued language development is important throughout the career of these interpreters, it is rarely sufficient to significantly improve the quality of interpretations once the interpreter has reached the advanced level. A common response to this dilemma is to engage the same professional techniques that worked in the past with even more enthusiasm. Thus, the advanced interpreter often puts more and more energy into improving with less and less visible result.
After nine years of interpreting with the last seven in private practice specializing in legal and psychiatric interpreting, I found myself in this situation. My work had hit a plateau and I had no idea how to move past the point where I was stuck. When I started my career I had believed that something more was possible for me than this. I shared my dissatisfaction with colleagues, some of whom thought I was being ridiculous. I was often requested, respected among my peers and Deaf consumers but I was not satisfied. 
Some colleagues suggested that my real dilemma was that I was not accepting my limits. Still, I believed there was more I could do, I just didn’t know how to get where I wanted to go. I knew I had stopped short of what was possible for me. When I saw the work of other interpreters who had that “something more” I could recognize it. That fact alone gave me hope.
For several years I worked with another interpreter who was doing something very different than what I was doing. That “something” was head and shoulders above where I was working, and it was painfully obvious to me when we worked together. Still, I worked with him at every opportunity, making a mental picture of his “something more” and keeping it close to me heart. He later left our area but not long after another interpreter came to town who I asked to mentor me. She assigned me a task that opened up my thinking about everything I had learned about ASL. She taught me to see beyond the sentence structures I had learned and rethink what I saw Deaf people produce. While we worked to further my understanding of ASL, a more important lesson became ingrained in me. Perhaps not everything I had been taught in my interpreter training program was true. It was time for me to go back and re-examine my foundation.
I had been thinking that the answer to my dilemma was better processing. That is what I thought I had seen this other interpreter do. Now I began to doubt that observation. I began to really hunt in earnest for this key to improvement. At the same time, I joined the staff at NTID/RIT of over 100 interpreters. I began to formulate the idea that bringing together a group of interpreters facing my same dilemma could be a way to find the answers to my questions. I believed that it was possible through working together to find and define this “something” that I had seen but not understood.

The Project

The Department of Interpreting Services at NTID/RIT is divided into four content area teams called core teams. At the time of this project I was part of the liberal arts core team. RIT operates on a quarter system with three ten-week quarters per academic year. Interpreters are expected to provide 20 hours per week of interpreting service plus be available for 2 additional hours each week in the event that some of the other hours are cancelled. The other 18 – 20 hours are designated for staff meetings, preparation for assignments, committee work, professional development activities, and other duties. This schedule allowed for a group of interpreters to make time together and seemed ideal for my project.
My original conception of the project was to have ten participants and myself working together over an entire academic year. My idea was to team interpret a class with each participant each of the ten-week quarters at RIT, giving feedback and making videotapes of our work for analysis. We would have a workshop during each of the three quarter breaks along with an in-service training class during each quarter. We would also need to have time together as a group separate from the course or interpreting time to reflect on and debrief this experience.
As I started to pitch my idea to my supervisor it became clear right away that my original conception was more than my department could support. However, my supervisor did feel it would be possible with modifications to make the project possible. We worked together using my concept and his knowledge of the system to come up with a workable project. It was not possible for me to be released from my regular interpreting load of 20 hours per week. Likewise, all participants would need to keep a normal workload while participating in the project. In order to make the scheduling of team interpreting possible I would need to work with interpreters from my own team. Involving ten interpreters in a project was also a considerable challenge to scheduling, and it seemed unlikely that all the participants could be available for every quarter break since this is the time available for staff to take vacations.
The final configuration of the project consisted of six participants from the liberal arts core team. Diagnostic evaluations were provided for each participant at the onset of the project. I team interpreted assignments with two participants each quarter, and they teamed with one another where possible. We had one in-service training course together each quarter and one workshop during the fall break. Then we had a final evaluation and feedback session during the month of June.


I asked interested interpreters to apply to the project as I wanted to assemble a group that was as cohesive as possible. Six applicants were selected to participate in the project. The selection process was based on two criteria – motivation and current skill level. The work of each prospective participant was compared to the description of advanced interpreter given previously. The manager of the liberal arts team and I made judgements on skill level based on our experience with each applicant.


The materials used in this project included the following:
A diagnostic assessment tool I developed myself (see below).
My own curriculum for a course entitled “Advanced Processing Skills: Deepening our work together”,
Participants’ notebooks for finding difficult translation concepts and phrases to form the basis of the course, “Sociolinguistics for Interpreters,”
A curriculum for the final theory course,“Contemporary Perspectives in Sign Language Interpreting” which included the following texts:
Deaf People In Context, unpublished dissertation by Theresa B. Smith (1996),
Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters by Anna Mindess (1999), and
Excerpts from Interpreting as Interaction by Cecilia Wadensjo (1998).
Activities on the RIT campus also became “material” for this study as interpreters were observed while working.


During the spring quarter of the year preceding the project, I provided a diagnostic evaluation for each participant. The tool I used was one I developed myself in the preceding year, which was well suited to looking for ways to achieve foundational growth. It is based on my theory of the division of energy. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe it fully but the steps involved are outlines below.
I met with each participant and gave guidelines for her to complete a self-assessment. I arranged for an observation in a classroom assignment, watched and videotaped the work, then reviewed the videotape afterwards. I wrote my assessment based on my division of energy theory that I developed the previous year.  I then met with each interpreter and delivered my report. This was a highly collaborative process based on adult learning theory; each participant was an integral part of her own assessment.
All of the participants of the group along with myself as facilitator met with the coordinator of the liberal arts core team to discuss scheduling. One of the most difficult parts of executing this project was coordinating the schedules of seven staff members. We needed to have two hours of time together once a week, two interpreters assigned to a team assignment with me at least one class per quarter, and we also asked that other team assignments be given within the group when possible. Completing the assessments and addressing scheduling concerns before the beginning of the academic year of our project allowed us to begin our work in earnest as soon as the year began.
The group convened in the fall quarter and commenced the work of the project. Three simultaneous components occurred during each academic quarter. First, I team interpreted assignments (on-going classes) with two participants each academic quarter, providing detailed feedback to the interpreters over the quarter. This included working toward the goals set by the interpreters as a result of the diagnostic evaluations from the spring, providing suggestions for improvement, and providing detailed feedback about the interpreter’s progress. The amount of feedback given to each interpreter in these teamed assignments was dependent on the demands of each situation.
Second, participants requested team-interpreting assignments with one another as much as possible. Not everyone was assigned teamed assignments with other participants. The amount of team interpreting between participants varied from quarter to quarter.
Third, I provided an in-service training course for each academic quarter either personally or by arranging for another instructor to provide the training. Departmental policy dictated that each course would meet for two hours each week for the ten week period. During the fall quarter, a fourth task was also added. As described in the materials section, all interpreters were asked to keep a notebook of words, phrases, concepts, and situations where they felt less than fluent in ASL. Each participant produced a collection of questions under the heading “how would a Deaf person say this.” I planned to deliver these notebooks to the Deaf instructor before the beginning of winter quarter for the second in-service training course, Sociolinguistics for Interpreters.
My concept for the course sequence was partially based on direct observation of the participants’ work and partly on assumption. My idea was to provide the opportunity to deepen processing skills, provide more language through the second course, then put the new skills together using theory in the third course. My assumption was that each participant could enhance processing and language skills through these two courses. Once they possessed more skills they could be taught new ways to use these skills. My previous observations for the diagnostic assessments had brought out evidence for the need for improvement in both areas for all of the participants.
The Processing Skills course started by looking at various interpreting models, including Colonomos, Cokely, and Gish. I also presented a method for giving feedback and asked all participants to use this method for the processing exercises. Each participant was asked to provide several five-minute talks on the topic of their choice. During each talk the other interpreters were asked to work in pairs, interpreting the material according to directions. The first set of talks were interpreted from spoken English to spoken English. Five minutes of waiting/processing time was required between the talk and the delivery of the interpretation.  Then we reviewed some ASL linguistic principles which included parts of speech and ASL sentence types and started consecutive interpreting from spoken English to sign language.  Again there was a five-minute waiting interval forced between the talk and the delivery of the interpretation. Finally, the five minute talks were interpreted simultaneously. After each exercise participants gave one another feedback. I would then bring the entire group back together and facilitate further discussion of what the interpreters had just discovered about their own processing during the exercise.
During the first break between quarters, I arranged for an all day workshop on the topic of register with Deaf instructor and native Deaf signer, Ray Parks. This workshop was open to the entire liberal arts core team but all participants were expected to attend. The workshop was titled, “Interpreting: Formally or Informally?” Ray reviewed principles of visual accessibility of platform or stage interpreting, gross placement in the use of space in ASL, appropriateness of various consultative lexical items in formal settings, and suggestions for translations of commonly encountered concepts in formal interpreting.
During the winter quarter, I teamed with two more interpreters, and participants continued to team with each other as much as possible. The in-service training course for winter quarter, Sociolinguistics for Interpreters was taught by Sam Holcomb, native Deaf signer and instructor in NTID’s department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education. The notebooks that all participants had kept during the fall quarter formed the basis of the curriculum along with exercises provided by the instructor. One participant was absent from the group on a pre-arranged, one quarter professional leave of absence during the winter quarter. She did sometimes attend the course in sociolinguistics but was otherwise absent from the group’s activities.
Finally, in spring quarter, I teamed with the last two interpreters while participants continue to team assignments with one another. The participant who had been gone on leave returned, and we had the final in-service training course, Contemporary Perspectives in Sign Language Interpreting. Participants were assigned readings from the three texts listed in the materials section and asked to come to class ready to discuss the materials. The final class period was then dedicated to reviewing the course and its effectiveness as part of the project.
After the final course was over, a final evaluation exercise was conducted to discuss the effectiveness of the entire mentorship experience. We spent two hours together reflecting upon the experience. I asked the interpreters to answer two questions – If we had this to do over again, what would we do again? And – If we had this to do over again what would we change? One year later I sent questions to each participant to reflect upon. I asked each participant to assess the value or impact of the mentorship project on her overall interpreting using a scale of 1 – 10. I also gave one open ended question, asking participants what ways the mentorship experience impacted their work.


The diagnostic assessments revealed that four of the six interpreters were processing mostly at the phrasal level and two of the six at the sentential level. None were aware of discourse analysis or techniques for incorporating textual level cues. Only one participant of the six possessed native or near-native fluency in ASL. However, this one participant was really only fluent in conversational register. Even she needed additional work to achieve greater fluency in consultative and formal registers. Thus, all six participants needed additional language development in ASL. One of the most surprising findings of the diagnostic assessments, and of the project, was the degree that target language considerations impacted the interpreters.
Four of the six felt truly hamstrung by what they saw as the competing language needs of the diverse Deaf student population at NTID/RIT. In nearly all RIT classrooms, interpreters face several Deaf students from diverse educational and language backgrounds. This includes Deaf students from hearing families and mainstreamed educational settings, Deaf students from Deaf families and residential schools, and Deaf students from every other combination of education/language background. In addition, there are foreign Deaf students for whom ASL is a second sign language and English is a third or fourth language.
The interpreters’ training had taught them to label these students as either “English” or “ASL,” and adjust their target language appropriately to fit either mode, yet these students from diverse backgrounds sit in class together. Each interpreter must find a way to serve the needs of all the students with a single interpretation. Thus, the interpreters felt compelled to preserve as much of the spoken English as possible in their work for the “English” students. At the same time, they felt the need to produce as much ASL as possible for the “ASL” students. This was a dilemma for the interpreters. The result was that most of their work was processed at the phrasal level, retained English word order as much as possible, and attempted to add ASL features to help clarify the message. Some interpreters expressed extreme dissatisfaction with this scenario and with their work but saw no other way to resolve their dilemma. It was obvious that helping the interpreters resolve this problem would need to be part of our work together.
Another surprise for me came during the Processing Skills course. In my original assessment, I incorrectly assumed that the interpreters lacked the skill to process more deeply than the phrasal level. During the class it became obvious that the interpreters could process at deeper levels. What prevented them from doing so was their concern over target language choices, not lack of skill. All of our practice exercises in processing were mostly superfluous, as the interpreters already possessed the skill we were practicing. This was a particularly frustrating experience for me. I could not convince some of the interpreters not to worry about target language decisions, and I did not have the resources at that point in the mentorship to help them through this difficulty.
During the team interpreting in the fall quarter I quickly discovered that the demands of the assignments did not allow us the time I had expected for our own work on skill development. I assumed that we would be able to observe one another and write detailed notes during classes. However, the classes we were assigned were often highly interactive with 1/2 hearing and 1/2 Deaf students in small classrooms where it was not possible for everyone to see each other. We alternately needed to copy sign, support one another while voice interpreting, sit next to each other during group circles, and to split up to work with small groups.
It also became quickly apparent that having other assignments and meetings directly after our teamed work detracted from our goals. Not only did we not have time for feedback during our assignments, we often had no time for it afterwards either. This was frustrating for both the interpreters and myself, but once the quarter had started there was no way to change our schedules.
The first interpreter I teamed with worked on deconstructing her former interpreting style. In order to significantly improve her work it was necessary for her to let go of her former strategies even though they had served her well for many years. While she had developed these strategies as well as anyone could, they were not sufficient to allow her to serve all Deaf students. She was adept at representing nearly every word of spoken English in the classroom and using features of ASL to clarify these very literal transliterations. However, some students found these transliterations vague and struggled to extract meaning from them.
This interpreter committed herself to serving all students and found her lack of breadth unacceptable. Using my suggestions to process more deeply, let herself use the natural language she possessed, and trust that this new style would be more intelligible to more students she commenced her work. She worked diligently at letting go of her former style and endured great feelings of awkwardness while she reconstructed her work on a new foundation. Despite the struggles of this period, she persevered. One magical day all her new skills came together for a time. She reconstructed a new interpreting self that was able to serve a much broader audience. This was an exhilarating day for both of us. The very next class period her struggles resurfaced but we had both seen what was possible for her to accomplish. We were no longer simply hoping that these strategies would help; we had seen proof. She continued to work on her goals throughout the project with the help of the other participants.
The second interpreter struggled with my suggestions for change. At this point in the project I had no theoretical base for the changes I was asking her to make. She was not convinced that what I was suggesting was valid. It conflicted with what she had been taught and what she had believed for many years. I was still searching for resources and was asking her to go simply on faith. In particular, our work together on target language decisions was a struggle. I had not yet read the book Language Contact in the American Deaf Community by Clayton Valli and Ceil Lucas. This book later proved to be extremely helpful to the target language dilemma, but at this point in the project, I was only going on instinct.
During the winter break Ray Parks came for his workshop, “Interpreting: Formally or Informally?”  This did not directly address the target language struggles but he did greatly clarify which aspects of ASL we needed to focus on developing in ourselves. In particular, I found his demonstrations of the use of space to represent main concepts or topics throughout a presentation helpful. This was a way to begin focusing our attention outside of sentences and into the larger text being presented.
The “Sociolinguistics for Interpreters” course in winter quarter was probably the most enjoyable component of the project for all concerned.  Sam Holcomb is a consummate teacher. He worked not only with the material we provided him in the form of questions, but based on his many years of observing interpreters also developed his own materials. We also asked him countless questions during class about how Deaf people express every concept under the sun. He patiently drew upon his native language fluency to answer each of our questions. Near the end of the course, he asked all participants to videotape themselves interpreting the same text. He reviewed our work in class, giving feedback and suggestions. This exchange around translation issues was very rich and instructive to all of us, including Sam. While the experience was very helpful it did not solve the problems of our second language learner status. Instead, it stood as an example of what must be an on-going process – the identifying and collecting of our own weaknesses and consultation with native Deaf signers.
The winter quarter teamed interpreting assignments were as demanding as the assignments in fall quarter. The third interpreter I worked with had been teaming with me over a two-year period so our work together was nothing new. She had been interpreting a shorter time than many of the other participants and was still in a pattern of steady growth. In addition, I was passing everything I was reading to her as I found it, with great excitement. She had all the theoretical information I had and was busy incorporating it in her work. While our teamed assignment was enjoyable, it produced no great change for her.
The fourth interpreter was in a process of deconstructing her former work. She worked diligently at it but was left with so few skills that work became painful for her. At one point in the quarter she decided to quit the profession altogether. This was a frightening moment for me. I encouraged her to have faith in this deconstruction process, she withdrew from the class we teamed together, and she continued in the group. In the end, she reconstructed her work with the help of other participants in teamed assignments during the spring quarter. At that point, she experienced a dramatic improvement in her work that has remained to this day.
At the end of the project, we looked back at the entire experience. It was clear that the “Contemporary Perspectives” course was the most useful component for most of the participants. Reading new theories provided new ways of thinking about their work. This, more than anything else, seemed to be the key to change. By the time we came to this course, all of the participants had struggled greatly with their own stuck places. Trying harder, even with support, was not helpful. This course finally provided solid support for new ways of thinking about the work. It was this shift in thinking, rather than any technique, that helped the most.
Several of the interpreters found that their work opened up in unexpected ways. The readings provided them with words to talk about their work in new ways. They discovered first hand how helpful it can be to keep up with reading. The interpreters especially benefited from Theresa Smith’s chapters on discourse analysis, Cecilia Wadensjo’s eye-opening descriptions of top-down interpreting, and Anna Mindess’ wonderful scenarios that helped us put it all together.
In spring quarter I teamed with the last two participants. The fifth interpreter and I suffered through a class that was nearly impossible to interpret well. There was very little room for focusing on our work but she took all my suggestions graciously. We did talk quite a bit after classes, discussing how to apply the theory we were reading in “Contemporary Perspectives.”  The changes she experienced during the project were more a process of steady growth than deconstruction/reconstruction but she did experience a particular growth spurt from the process.
The teamed interpreting experience with the sixth interpreter was similar to the third interpreter. Though she had been interpreting longer, she was in a process of steady growth at the time of this work. She had good control of her process and was incorporating what we were learning together all along. This was not a process of deconstruction for her. Our work did not have significant impact. We did experience some awkwardness in teaming together that was instructive for me in the long run. She was not comfortable with my particular way of supporting her while working, so we spent a good deal of our time working out that difficulty. She was open and communicative through the process. We did eventually work out our difficulties together.
The participants’ teamed interpreting assignments with each other turned out to be as demanding as the ones teamed with me.  Still, several of the participants found this additional time together very helpful. For the fourth interpreter, experiencing the painful deconstruction process, this was the most helpful part of the project in reconstructing her work. Many found the mutual support helpful in keeping a focus on their goals for their work.
The final evaluation session brought the project to a close. The participants agreed that the most useful component of the project had been the readings and discussion of new theory. They also agreed that the time spent with native Deaf signers was important, and they wished we had spent more time in those kinds of activities. In addition, there was a desire to include Deaf participants in our discussions of new theory.
We all agreed we were exhausted from the additional work that we had added to our schedules. Yet, we all wished for more time together during the quarters teaming assignments and processing our experience. We also wished for more time for workshops between quarters. The participants desired more time for teaming with one another in less demanding assignments along with more time to set goals and process the experience afterward. While most of us agreed it would have been nice to have diagnostic assessments at the end of the experience, we all agreed we were too exhausted to complete them. The two participants who experienced the deconstruction/reconstruction were not at all ready to have assessments at the end of the project because they were still in the process of reconstruction. They did admit that they found this process painful, though very much worthwhile.
The one-year follow up information was gathered mostly through email. Some interpreters gave me hand written responses and I had brief conversations with one or two to help me understand their comments and their perspective on the project. The two interpreters who underwent the deconstruction/reconstruction process along with the fifth interpreter, who experienced a growth spurt, felt they had grown the most from participating in the project. Both of the interpreters involved in steady growth described the experience as helpful, though neither felt any major change occurred in their work as a result. The second interpreter did describe changes in her work, but she was not sure if they were attributable to the project experience.
During the entire project I was undergoing my own process as the investigator of this question and the leader of this group. I was reading new texts and gathering new information while the project was progressing. I really did not know where we were going, only that I was willing to lead. I had faith that we would find answers and I believe we did. I had one terrifying moment when the fourth interpreter told me she had made up her mind to quit interpreting. We made it through that moment; today this interpreter credits the project experience for dramatic improvements in her work.
My own work changed tremendously as a result of this investigative process. For me, the reading was definitely the most helpful of all our activities. Smith’s dissertation Deaf People in Context, Wadensjo’s text Interpreting as Interaction, and the Valli/Lucas book Language Contact in the American Deaf Community were all key to my improvement.
I found Valli and Lucas’s description of contact variety sign (CVS) extremely helpful in the RIT environment.  For years I could see that Deaf signers from diverse backgrounds could understand one another quite well. And yet, when I used the strategies I was taught to interpret with Deaf consumers from diverse backgrounds, everyone seemed to be confused. Understanding CVS as a rule-governed system helped me focus on learning that system from the people who use it.  In retrospect, I wish I had used this text with the group though, at the time, I did not feel confident to lead us through a book I had only read once.
The combination of Wadensjo’s top-down theory and Smith’s discourse analysis work also had a tremendous impact on my work. Truly, when I hear people speak today I do not listen in the same way I did before reading these two works. Since that time I have continued to explore both top-down theory and discourse analysis. They are a permanent part of my work now. The work I do feels more fluent and more cohesive than ever before. I don’t know if I have achieved that “something more” I saw so long ago but I do know my work is greatly improved. I also know there is no reason to believe that I have to accept any plateau in my development. As long as I continue to read, especially relevant research, I know that my growth need not end.


In any field, professional development is, ideally, a well-articulated strategy to accomplish clear, measurable goals. Too often it becomes an exercise in collecting credits. This project started with only a good question, high hopes, an energetic group, and a good assessment of where we were. Despite the obstacles we faced, we ended our journey with some measurable success and some answers to our question.
We learned that it is possible for advanced interpreters to improve and move past developmental plateaus, no matter how long one has been there. We found that the most helpful strategy for moving past those plateaus comes from expanding our conceptual frameworks about our work. Thus, it is critical for us to keep reading in our own field and in related fields. Today, top-down theory and discourse analysis are raising our expectations for our work. In addition, linguistic research on language contact can help us begin to explore some of our old concerns about target language with new eyes.
We also discovered that there seem to be two paths to growth. One path, deconstruction of the old interpreting self followed by reconstruction, is a painful but effective process. The other path of steady growth is much easier, much less painful, and just as effective. It requires an open mind and sometimes the suspending of old belief systems to try on new frameworks. However, once new information is absorbed most advanced interpreters already have the skills to integrate these new frameworks into their work.
We learned that steady growth is much less painful than deconstructing oneself. Thus, it only makes sense to embrace the moment and move past our plateaus as quickly as possible. Since our field is still in its infancy, we will no doubt have many more discoveries along the way, and our expectations for our work can continue to be realistically raised.


I would like to thank my co-conspirators in unlocking this puzzle: JoEllen Clark, Karen Finch, Miriam Lerner, Deb McQuinn, Cathy Widlund, and the incomparable Lisa Menard. You were all so brave when I had so little to offer. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Ray Parks and Sam Holcomb generously shared their language and their patience with us – thank you both.
This project would not have been possible without the support of Steve Nelson, manager of the liberal arts core team and Colleen Freeman, coordinator of the liberal arts core team and scheduling magician. Thank you both for your support.
Thanks to M.B. Kitzel for helping me write and for the endless cheerleading.

Thanks also to Aaron Brace, my old role model, who patiently endured my awkward work while remaining ever encouraging. I don’t know how you did that either.

Thanks to Patricia Clark for supervising my independent study that became this project and allowed me, finally, to finish my bachelor’s degree. Thanks also for tolerating me trying to cram a mentorship into a schedule that had no time for it, causing me to erratically come in and out of the process.
A final word of thanks goes to my long-time colleague and interpreter extraordinaire, Susan Chapel, who taught me long ago not to be ashamed of my passion to grow, my curiosity, or my commitment to excellence and who shared the same parts of herself with me for many years.


Mindess, A. (1999) Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press
Smith, T.B. (1996) Deaf People in Context. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington
Valli, C. and Lucas, C. (1992) Language Contact in the American Deaf Community, San Diego, California: Academic Press
Wadensjo, C. (1998) Interpreting as Interaction. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Ltd.