by Melissa Smith, Ed.D.Professor of ASL-English Translation and Interpreting Studies
Perhaps you have a child who is Deaf or hard of hearing. Even if you know a lot about the Deaf community, there are a myriad of complex factors involved in making sure your child is surrounded by rich language opportunities. Maybe your child is mainstreamed in a classroom with an interpreter for part of the school day. If so, or if you care about the educational access provided through interpreters, please continue reading!
I am a full-time interpreting professor, and this is my public confession. I cannot teach students to interpret effectively. I am very good at my job, but the system of interpreter education is flawed. I have been recognized as Outstanding Interpreter Educator of the Year by Region IX of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf twice. On behalf of myself and interpreter educators around the nation, Deaf and hard of hearing students need your help to change interpreter education and ensure that our kids are getting the services they need.
Below are seven important facts to get a clear picture of why interpreter education is failing. In case you don’t read to the end, I will begin with my final (and most important) fact:
Fact 7: Interpreting assessments are designed to determine if a candidate meets minimum qualification standards to interpret for a student who is performing at grade level.
If your children are not reading or writing at or near grade level, they will need services beyond what can be provided by an interpreter who has merely met minimum qualification standards. If not, you are likely to experience the agony and helplessness of watching them fall farther and farther behind every year.
Fact 1: Graduates of interpreting programs are not ready for employment as interpreters.
Interpreter educators, researchers, and leaders have been writing about this problem for decades. In 1994, Dr. Carol Patrie published the term “readiness-to-work gap” to discuss the gap between graduation from interpreting programs and readiness for employment as professional interpreters.
Fact 2: Language proficiency is needed prior to learning to translate and interpret.
Because it takes 5-7 years to develop the language proficiency necessary to discuss academic subjects, spoken language translation programs require proficiency in both working languages prior to admission. Spoken language translation programs are rarely offered at the BA/BS level, and none exist at the AA/AS degree level. If an applicant does not have a high level of fluency in their weaker language, they are not accepted into a translation and interpretation program. According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, there are currently 83 programs that award Associate’s degrees and 56 programs that award Bachelor’s degrees for sign language interpreters. Four years does not even allow sufficient time for students to become fluent in sign language, much less develop expertise in translation and interpretation.
Fact 3: Moving interpreting programs to BA/BS programs will not solve the problem.
Almost all of the nation’s American Sign Language-English interpreting programs used to culminate with an Associate’s degree. Today, more than 1/3 of the programs are at the BA/BS level. Although having universities take on the primary responsibility of preparing interpreters is definitely an indication of progress, these programs are not better equipped than most community college programs.
The truth of the matter is that AA/AS programs, like my own program, have figured out how to tack on additional courses to help address the problem. Interpreting students earning Associate’s degrees at most community colleges must complete four years of coursework in order to earn their two-year degree. For example, four semesters of ASL coursework (4 units each) and a Deaf Culture class are required before students can enroll in interpreting courses. This means that they complete two years of pre-requisites and then two years of interpreting coursework in order to earn their Associate’s degree. This is unfair to students, who earn a two-year degree for four years of study.
Fact 4: Too much money is being wasted for undesirable results.
Many community college programs are not allowed to have strict entry requirements because the philosophy is one of supporting open enrollment. Because of the rigor necessary to try to promote academic language proficiency in both English and sign language within a program that is four years or less (even though research has shown it takes more than seven years even for immigrant children immersed in a new language to gain that level of fluency), attrition is high. In our program, less than 50% of the students who enroll in Interpreting 1 successfully complete the program. Of the 50% who make it, only 30-45% actually are able to navigate the gap and become professional interpreters. These statistics are representative of a strong, reputable program.
Here is a hypothetical breakdown of those statistics into the number of successful graduates. At my college, about 30 students enroll in the first semester of interpreting. This means they have completed four semesters of ASL. In the 22 years that I have taught interpreting, only twice have more than 20 students made it to the second year of interpreting. The others either leave the program because it is too time intensive, too difficult, or they are not able to pass the class and move to the next level. Typically, approximately 15 students begin the second year of interpreting. Twice, as few as five students began the second year. No more than half of the graduates end up becoming employed as interpreters. I don’t know how to do a cost-benefit analysis, but it seems evident that these numbers don’t add up to a good investment.
Fact 5: Most states’ minimum qualification standards for interpreters are dishearteningly low.
There are several assessments used to determine whether an interpreter has met the minimum qualifications to interpret in K-12 settings in various states. One of the most reputable is the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA). More than 30 states have adopted a minimum qualification standard of a score of 3.5 or less on the EIPA. This means that only that 80% of a message will be interpreted accurately (8 out of 10 words). Interpreters with a 3.5 will produce a coherent message, but there will be frequent errors in vocabulary, grammar, and fluency. Even worse, the information omitted from the interpretation may not be based on strategic decision-making based on the interpreter’s own limitations and/or the teacher’s intent. The test developers, interpreter educators, and researchers agree that interpreters who achieve a 3.5 are not yet ready to work without ongoing supervision, support, and additional training. As a parent who knows what an interpreter with a 3.5 knows and is able to do, I can tell you without any doubt that my son’s academic needs would not be met. A score of a 3.5 is an insufficient minimum qualification.
Fact 6: Underprepared and underqualified interpreters are probably interpreting for your kids.
Even though interpreter education is egregiously inadequate, most graduates of interpreting programs find their first jobs interpreting in K-12, early education, and/or community college classrooms. These under-prepared graduates are interpreting for your Deaf and hard of hearing kids. If your Deaf or hard of hearing children are not reading and/or writing at grade level, then not only do they need an interpreter, they need an interpreter who exceeds your state’s minimum qualifications.
Minimum qualifications are simply an entry point, but it leads to lifetime employment with benefits. Once an interpreter is hired by a school district, few states require their interpreters to participate in ongoing professional development. Even more rare are subsequent assessments to measure professional growth in expertise. Perhaps an interpreter with a low score is hired. That person will continue to work in the school district until retirement. They may never have to demonstrate their proficiency again.
In closing, the most important implication of the first six facts is Fact 7: Interpreting assessments are designed to determine if a candidate meets minimum qualification standards to interpret for a student who is performing at grade level. If your children are not reading or writing at or near grade level, they will need services beyond what can be provided by an interpreter who has merely met minimum qualification standards. If not, you are likely to experience the agony and helplessness of watching them fall farther and farther behind every year.
Editor’s note: Dr. Smith can be reached at or . She presents and publishes on educational interpreting in the United States and internationally. She is the parent of a Deaf teenager adopted at age 5, and holds these Certifications: Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Certificate of Interpretation, Certificate of Transliteration; National Association of the Deaf Level V – Master; Educational Interpreting Performance Assessment (EIPA) 4.9 – Elementary ASL. She is the author of More than Meets the Eye: Revealing the Complexities of an Interpreted Education