Spoken Language Education Interpreting at a Tipping Point: Let’s Not Reinvent the Wheel

(The following was originally posted on the InterpretAmerica blog and is reprinted here with permission, http://bit.ly/InterpretAmerica.)

Spoken language education interpreting is here. The signs are everywhere. And now is the critical moment for those of us who work in its sister specializations—health care and legal interpreting—to stretch out a helping hand and bring education interpreters into the fold.

Why do I say “spoken language education interpreting?” Because sign language interpreting has a long and established presence in education settings in the U.S. There are many areas of overlap, but as a specialization for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting, education interpreting reached the tipping point in terms of professionalization long ago.

The Example of Health Care Interpreting

In the fall of 2002, I arranged hard-to-find childcare for my preschool-aged children, got into my car, and drove five hours south to attend the second annual conference for the California Healthcare Interpreting Association (CHIA). That was the year that CHIA published the California Standards for Healthcare Interpreters, an important milestone that helped professionalize health care interpreting. To me, the standards were a revelation.

I had spent years being pulled from my regular job as a case manager for county mental health to help out down the hall at victim services, or for social services, or for the domestic violence agency. I sat in on sessions between the department psychiatrist and patients, attended doctors’ appointments, health fairs, and, eventually, early intervention assessments, physical and occupational therapy sessions, special education evaluations and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. Lots and lots of IEPs.

In the 1990s the simple fact of being bilingual made me, and many others, an interpreter. But I had no professional home, no formal training. It wasn’t until I started going to conferences that I began to understand that the side gig I was constantly being pulled into was in fact a possible career.

Fast-forward almost 20 years, and health care interpreting is a transformed profession—with national ethics, standards of practice, training standards, and not one but two national certification programs. I didn’t know it then, but I entered the field at the precise moment it was ready to tip. I was more of an education and social services interpreter than a health care expert, but it didn’t matter. Health care was developing first, so that’s where I made my home.

Education Interpreting on the Rise

Education interpreting in 2018 appears to be experiencing the same moment that health care interpreting hit in 2002. Again, this is for spoken language interpreters.

  • Education interpreters now make regular appearances at regional and national interpreting conferences.
  • School districts have dedicated interpreter and translation staff positions and are seeking professional training for them.
  • Education interpreting tracks are popping up in community interpreting certificate programs.
  • Education interpreting conferences are: a) being offered, and b) attracting significant attendance.
  • The availability of short course and conference sessions on education-specific interpreting topics is growing.
  • For some language services companies, filling education-related appointments makes up the majority of their business.
  • Demand is up for a code of ethics, standards of practice, and training curriculum targeting the unique demands posed by education settings.

In just my own professional sphere, in the past 18 months I’ve been paid to:

  • Give a 40-hour community interpreter training for a county office of education.
  • Provide individualized training in simultaneous for education interpreters.
  • Create workshops on note-taking and mediation skills for a large school district with over 180 languages and 150 dedicated interpreters and translators on staff.
  • Collaborate on a curriculum-writing project for education interpreting.
  • Keynote and train at an upcoming regional education interpreting conference.

It’s incredibly gratifying to see this important area of community interpreting professionalize. After all, education settings fall under the same Title VI language access requirements as health care and legal settings. Immigrant families and their children who don’t have the same access to the education system’s complex structures, policies, and practices face real harm. The diversity of terminology, setting, and cultural and legal dynamics is every bit, and sometimes even more, complex than in health care interpreting. Interpreters, translators, and bilingual staff are in dire need of training, support, and resources.

Figure 1: A Timeline of Medical Interpreting in the U.S.1

Figure 1: A Timeline of Medical Interpreting in the U.S.1

We Don’t Need a New Wheel

The good news is that education interpreters don’t need to start from scratch. They have almost 50 years of the hard-won professionalization of legal and health care interpreting specializations on which to lean. (See Figure 1 above.) For many currently working in seeming isolation, it’s important for them to get connected to the broader profession. Likewise, those of us who have worked diligently over these past decades to build the infrastructure of legal and health care interpreting should be proactive and generous in making those connections in return.

Without a doubt, education interpreting is a specialized area that merits the creation of its own framework. Much like interpreting in mental health settings is considered an advanced part of health care interpreting, education settings pose unique challenges that need the development of targeted protocols, strategies, and terminological resources. At the same time, it falls squarely under the community interpreting umbrella. In the U.S., we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the interpreter’s role, how to apply ethics, appropriate adaptations of modes and other skills, as well as handling complex cultural and environmental dynamics. Now it’s time to welcome education interpreters into the fold and work collaboratively with them.

  1. Allen, Katharine, and Marjory A. Bancroft, Marjory A. “An Overview of Medical Interpreting.” In Marjory A. Bancroft (Editor), The Medical Interpreter: A Foundation Textbook for Medical Interpreting (Columbia, Maryland: Culture & Language Press, 2015), 26.

Katharine Allen is a health care and community interpreter with over three decades of experience interpreting, training, and designing curricula. She is co-president of InterpretAmerica and a regular contributor to its blog (http://bit.ly/InterpretAmerica). She is the lead developer and licensed trainer for The Indigenous Interpreter 60-hour training course. She has helped train interpreters for medical missions in Mexico. She teaches for the Glendon College Masters in Conference Interpreting Program and the Professional Interpreter Online Program. She is co-author of The Community Interpreter International: An International Textbook and The Medical Interpreter: A Foundation Textbook for Medical Interpreting. She has an MA in translation and interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Contact: sierraskyit@gmail.com.

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