How to Become an ASL Interpreter
With about 1 in 20 people in the US population being considered Deaf or Hard of Hearing, it’s critical that our friends, peers, and coworkers get the critical language access that they need through effective Signed Language interpreters. Maybe you’ve seen a classmate with their interpreter or have a friend or family member that’s Deaf or Hard of Hearing and are thinking about this field.
The nation has experienced considerably more American Sign Language interpretation on their screens and phones due to the many COVID press events and national crisis coverage over the last 2 years. Films and Netflix shows also highlighting Signed Languages has further brought attention to these unique languages.
But did you know that there is a dire need for new, diverse Sign Language interpreters and plenty of room to grow in this exciting field. So how does someone go about becoming a Sign Language interpreter?
Our Deaf & Hard of Hearing team will lay out how a hearing person can become an effective ASL interpreter!
Hearing people’s exposure to Signed Languages varies. Some people usually have a link to a Deaf person through their own family line – a parent, a sibling etc. Perhaps they saw Sign Language on TV, whether it was an episode of Sesame Street or Blue’s Clues. People are usually really drawn to it from the uniqueness of seeing a 3-D language.
Knowing that you want to pursue learning this language and how to interpret it is tied to realizing that there is a rich and broad community behind the language. By aligning yourself with the goals of community members, it demonstrates your desire for allyship with the Deaf community.
There are a few key routes and steps you can take once you realize the above:
Meet with Deaf people and learn about their language and culture. Get to know their goals and align yourself with them. Gaining a broad and authentic understanding of this massive culture and its many groups is crucial.
Education comes first! That goes for learning the culture and the language.
Most high schools offer ASL as a foreign language credit, so if you can start this early go for it. Colleges also require a certain amount of language credit as well, so you have a great opportunity to continue your ASL education or start it here.
You can also get into learning the language and culture in community groups and workshops such as ASL Social. There are also great online community resources and apps like the ASL app to help buttress the above.
Alongside the pedagogical knowledge is the cultural component, the process of enculturation. This means that next to learning the language you must learn and saturate yourself in Deaf culture and its many subsections and histories. Deaf culture is not a monolith, so as you begin your journey, be mindful of the perspectives and experiences of the Deaf Black community, Queer Deaf community, Deaf Plus community and more.
Just remember, the best education is from the Deaf community.
How to Get Good at It
So you’ve dedicated yourself to the language, the people, the community. What’s next? Your total commitment is. This is key for helping you grow in the field according to the leading interpreter education book “You Want To Be An Interpreter?”, commitment means the following:
Attend – go to as many workshops and trainings as you can afford.
Network – get known (in a good way!) get to know your classmates. Mingle, chat, and make connections with the people in your groups, classes, workshops, and beyond.
Join – There are local and national Sign Language interpreter organizations that you can benefit from.
Mentor – find a language mentor or an interpreter mentor (or both!). The language mentor can help you with your ASL production and understanding. The interpreter mentor can help you with better understanding the interpreting process and develop skills.
Own it! – Own up to your mistakes. Any person learning a new culture and language is bound to make mistakes. How you learn from those mistakes makes you a better person, student, and interpreter.
Your education in this field and culture never stops. To be a good ally and interpreter you have to keep up with the linguistic and cultural shifts that inevitably happen. Signed Language, like all languages, evolves – so words, slang, scientific terms, technology and other concepts change. Remember, there is also the linguistic and cultural intersectionality of other groups that comprise the Deaf Diaspora.
Interpreting is broad! Deaf people are everywhere, from the science lab, academic institutions, art museums and comedy clubs. So, use your strengths to fit competently into whatever niche you choose. Say you’re a nurse that makes the jump to be an ASL interpreter in the medical field, or you have a theater background and feel comfortable bringing your love of ASL interpretation to this medium – it’s important to work within fields or culturally appropriate settings that authentically benefit the people you are serving. The expertise you bring to the field enriches the product you deliver and the experience of your consumer.
So, your interest is piqued! You should consider pursuing the certifications and additional education it takes to become a skilled interpreter. A Bachelor’s Degree is required in order to qualify to take the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) Exam.
This certification ensures minimum competencies are present and ethical guidelines are respected among ASL/English interpreters. It is made up of two prongs – a written knowledge exam and a performance exam. The written knowledge exam ensures that the candidate possesses the requisite historical and ethical acumen. The performance piece measures the candidate’s ability to negotiate interpreting strategies and demonstrate essential skills to effectively interpret between ASL and English.
Next to having a true appreciation for Deaf culture, the other incredibly important traits that any Signed Language interpreter should possess are that of self-perception of competence and emotional stability.
So, what do we mean by this? A 2011 research study by Karen Bontempo and Jemina Napier explored the connection between certain traits and the aptitude for Signed Language interpreting. Their findings revealed that a greater sense of self-esteem without arrogance lead to more effective interpreting outcomes. The trait of emotional stability ensured that the interpreter could effectively manage cognitively demanding and emotionally charged situations.
If you want to know if this field is a good fit for you, these are two of the most prevalent and salient traits that go well with the role of interpreter. If these come natural to you, then there is a greater chance that this job would be a good fit for you.
Now you have a better sense of the path towards becoming an ASL/English interpreter! The main points that really will let you know if it’s the right job for you is your understanding that you must truly appreciate Deaf culture and develop authentic connections and allyship within the community. You’re also buckling into a lifelong journey of learning and improving, you’ll be working in a language and culture that’s not static, so be ready!