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

Spoken language education interpreting is here. The signs are everywhere. And now is the critical moment for we who work in its sister specializations - healthcare 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 United States. There are many areas of overlap, but as a specialization for ASL interpreting, education interpreting tipped long ago.

The Example of Healthcare 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 2nd 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 healthcare 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, speech 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.

Figure 1*

Used with permission: The Medical Interpreter. Bancroft et al, 2017

Fast forward almost 20 years and healthcare 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 the field at the precise moment it was ready to tip. I was more of a education and social services interpreter than a healthcare expert, but it didn't matter. Healthcare 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 healthcare 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 service 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 have 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 healthcare and legal do. Immigrant families and their children who do not 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 healthcare interpreting. Interpreters, translators and bilingual staff are in dire need of training, support and resources.

We Do Not Need a New Wheel

The good news is that education interpreters do not need to start from scratch. They have almost 50 years of the hard-won professionalization of legal and healthcare interpreting specializations to lean on. For many currently working in seeming isolation, it is important for them to get connected to the broader profession. Likewise, we who have worked diligently over these past decades to build the infrastructure of legal and healthcare 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 healthcare 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 have come a long way in our understanding of the interpreter role, how to apply ethics, appropriate adaptations of modes and other skills, as well as handling complex cultural and environmental dynamics. It's time now, to welcome education interpreters into the fold and work collaboratively with them.

Education Conference in Orange County

This Friday, September 28, I have the honor of speaking at the upcoming Orange County Department of Education Interpreters and Translators Conference. In just their second iteration, registration is over 250 participants! As someone whose been helping to plan interpreting conferences since 2003, that's an impressive turnout.

For me, this is an opportunity to listen, learn and share whatever lessons I've learned over the past three decades. I have come full circle, but now I have the benefit of much greater perspective. I encourage all of us to take advantage of this moment and help our fellow interpreters in any way we can. Their rising ship can only raise our own.

*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.

1 opmerking

Gio Lester
Gio Lester
27 sep. 2018

I agree wholeheartedly. For a few months I assisted a couple of children in my daughter's school a few years ago, as a volunteer. When I looked into making that a more permanent situation, they requested a Master's degree... Really??? I was not teaching, I was only making a situation more bearable for the children in the classroom and helping them understand their homework. I do not think the School Board had a clue what they were talking about.

To add to your timeline: 1968 - Boston Hospital hires first full-time interpreters; about 10 years later the Massachusetts Medical Interpreters Association (later IMIA) came into the scene; around 1997 the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care came about; then…

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