Bridging the communication gap: WCC students training to become sign language interpreters

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Seven students sit silently in a circle at Wilson Community College.

A blue ball is bounced between them as they take turns asking a hypothetical question and getting a reaction from classmates.

Their communication is done exclusively with their hands and facial expressions using American Sign Language.

In unison, the silence is broken with a chorus of laughter as one of the group members delivers a comical answer to the question.

The exercise is part of the first-year instruction in the interpreter education program where students are learning how to become educational interpreters in public schools or in the community.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act states that all people who are disabled have the right to effective communication and typically that would be a sign language interpreter,” said Debbie Batts, interpreter education instructor at WCC. “We are called auxiliary aides under that law but most of the time, if a deaf person does use sign language for communication, their effective communication would be a sign language interpreter.”

“We are kind of challenged with an impossible task,” said Catherine Johnson, an interpreter education instructor who handles first-year students.“We teach students a foreign language in a two-year time period. It is very difficult to be fluent in a foreign language. Not only that, we teach them the skill of interpreting.”

Some assume anyone who knows sign language should automatically be able to serve as an interpreter, but Batts and Johnson say that’s not true.

“We start with the basics of American Sign Language and then we scaffold on that with each semester a different skill required for interpreting,” Johnson said. “So they have to be able to process the source language that they are hearing. What does that mean? What is the point? They have to be able to produce an accurate equivalent message in the target language which will be in ASL or sometimes in English.”

Every semester, students work on a specific skill to get them to the preferred level to be able to interpret in the community and in the educational system.

Students do a lot of hands-on work including discussion about what they see, what they hear and what it means. They are then asked to produce an equivalent message in English or ASL for their consumers.

“It is a special skill set,” Johnson said. “Everyone cannot listen to a language coming in and be able to change it in their head to something and put it forth in a way that makes sense to the deaf person who is watching them.”

There are also varying degrees of formality in the presentation of the language, called registers, that include formal, consultative or intimate as well as casual and frozen communication.

Interpreters have to be able to work between all of those different registers.

Having appropriate facial expressions and body language in concert with accurate hand gestures is paramount to an interpreter’s success, said second-year student Laura Chinboukas, of Apex.

“You don’t ever want to convey something that’s serious and have a smile on your face or something that’s sad and have a smile on your face. You want to convey what the hearing person is trying to get across to that deaf person,” Chinboukas said. “You have to match everything, their tone, their facial expression, their speed, how they are talking. Every situation should be taken seriously and that includes the look on your face and your body language and how that’s coming across to that deaf person.”

One of the exercises second-year students are asked to do is interpret for a deaf or hard of hearing person who is filling out an application or a legal form.

“When you are filling out legal forms or documents, it doesn’t matter, hearing or deaf, you want to make sure that that paperwork is correct,” said student Meghan Lane, of Wilson. “It’s legal and its binding and it makes a difference for when you are trying to apply or do different things, so you want to make sure there are no communication breakdowns. You want to make sure they understand the information that they are applying for, all it entails and that everything’s correct and accurate on the forms. You want to make sure that the process between the hearing person that’s speaking to them and the information that they are giving is conveyed correctly.”

Second-year students do mock interviews and a job-seeking skill session where a referral agency representative for deaf and hard of hearing interpreters is brought in to give pointers to students about what she is looking for in an employee.

Students are encouraged to attend silent socials every month.

“I feel like we have a vigorous program as far as our expectations,” Johnson said. “The people who are graduating are going to be an asset not only to the interpreter profession but to be advocates and allies for the deaf community. We are sending them out into a very specialized, very intimate, close-knit community. We want to make sure that our students are culturally aware and are very able to go from the hearing culture to the deaf culture.”

“We talk about the power of an interpreter, how to be an ally for deaf people as well as an interpreter and just to be culturally aware and sensitive and to be able to mediate cultural differences between hearing and the deaf world,” Johnson said.

Alyx Sporski, of Wilson, wants to become an interpreter within an educational setting or work as a freelance interpreter.

“I got involved in the program because my mom was actually involved in the program. I learned about it through her and I decided that I wanted to do it as well,” Sporski said. “It gives me the ability to interact with people at various levels and various situations.”

Lane got involved in the program because of her love for the deaf community and bridging the communication gap between hearing and deaf people.

“A lot of deaf people are viewed by different communities and looked down just because there is a language barrier there and so to help bridge that gap and help the hearing culture see how smart, skilled and diverse the deaf culture is and I just have a love and appreciation for the culture itself,” Lane said.

Lane’s goal is to be able to freelance within the Wilson community and surrounding areas as a community freelance interpreter.

In the spring semester of their second year, students complete an internship. They have to have 160 hours of actual interpreting experience out in the community or in a school, wherever they choose, Batts said.

For more information about the program, call WCC at 252-291-1195 or visit www.wilsoncc.edu.