Information about
Learning Sign Language
Interpreting as a Career

By Douglas Dunn, ASL Interpreter

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Copyright (c) 2000, 2005 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications -- all rights reserved

I want to express appreciation for the level of interest that has been generated from this website based on the volume of e-mail received. E-mail is welcome and I will continue to try my best to provide information or ideas in response to inquiries. Because many of the e-mails contain some of the same questions over and over, I will try to address some of the most common issues about learning sign language or seeking a career as a sign-language interpreter.

Changes in the Interpreting Profession

Update Spring 2005: the interpreting scene in Southern California, and many other communities, is experiencing dramatic and sudden changes on a revolutionary scale. As Video Relay Service providers (VRS) are establishing systems to provide relay services to Deaf and hard-of-hearing customers to let them link with telephone callers via video phone systems, there is a sudden demand for top interpreters in areas where service centers are opening. Video interpreting requires interpreters who can be prepared for any situation without advance notice. When an incoming call arrives, the interpreter does not know where in the country the call is coming from, the level of the signer's education or signing style preferences. The interpreter is unlikely to know the Deaf consumer. The subject material could be anything from highly technical (bio-technology, computer technology or advanced math) or deeply personal and emotional or just ordering a pizza. The interpreter has to be ready for anything. For the right interpreters, this is a great opportunity! For the interpreting profession in general, it presents a great opportunity due to the sudden demand for qualified interpreters. For interpreters who fit into this new opportunity, there are plenty of jobs in the exciting new field. And for those interpreters not ready for this challenge or who are just not a good fit for this kind of work, the loss of many interpreters to video interpreting will open up many new job openings, enhancing job security and pay rates!

For my part, I plan to continue community and educational interpreting as a freelance interpreter because I enjoy it and find it satisfying, but I have also begun working some video relay service (VRS) hours on a freelance basis and find I also enjoy this exciting new challenge.

After considering various options for work in video relay service interpreting, the company I have chosen to affiliate with is Sorenson VRS Sorenson provides high quality video relay interpreting services to allow Deaf consumers using ASL equal access to telephone communications. There are several companies providing this service, but I recommend and endorse Sorenson for several reasons: highest technical quality and ease of use of videophone equipment and software, along with free distribution, installation and service of proprietary equipment that is far superior and user-friendly than all other products currently in use, and because they provide the greatest overall access to top-quality interpreters. Additionally, they aggressively recruit and hire Deaf installers and tech support staff, providing broad-based economic opportunities to the Deaf community.

Learning Sign Language

Most community colleges and four-year universities (and even many high schools through regular classes and adult-school evening programs) offer instruction these days. Classes are a very valuable way to get started with sign language. While there are many excellent hearing teachers who are knowledgeable about American Sign Language, I also strongly recommend considering a Deaf instructor, especially one who does not use a voice interpreter beyond just the first two or three sessions, because you will not only get the information and explanations, but also see the constant modeling of sign language and the opportunity to use it in real interactive communications.

One of the most common questions I get is: "Where can I find a class in my area?"

I am familiar with some specific programs in my area (Southern California) but I am not familiar with all the other programs available in other areas around the country. Classes in both American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting are available at most two-year community colleges and four-year universities, so the first place I would suggest you check is a local school in your area. Even if the school you contact does not offer such a program yet, they may be able to direct you to one that does. Also I would strongly suggest contacting the local agency that provides services for Deaf people or state residential school for the Deaf, and they might be able to recommend the best programs that would meet your needs, and also keep you informed of events related to the Deaf community.
Nationally, some of the most prestiguius programs are:
1. Gallaudent University, Washington DC (all-Deaf college except for hearing students in the interpreting program)
2. NTID -- National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester, NY (affiliated with RIT Rochester Institute of Technology)
3. CSUN -- California State Univ Northridge, Northridge, California (where I first began interpreting in 1972)

In addition to taking classes, some students may be interested in finding books or videos and often ask for my recommendations. I have provided some recommended books and videos at the end of this web page.

But even though classes can be very valuable, and can help get you started, it is important to remember that it is possible to learn a language without classes. In fact, most of us acquired initial English fluency long before we ever had our first "formal" English lesson, though this is almost impossible if one does not begin the language acquisiton process very early in life, preferably as a native speaker. However, it is NOT possible to master any language without using it as part of your daily life. If you wish to become fluent in sign language, it is essential that Deaf people become a part of your real-world life. If you already have Deaf friends or relatives, then you can expand those relationships and use more sign language. If not, find out (perhaps from your ASL instructor, or through a local Deaf services agency) a good place to meet Deaf people -- perhaps in a social setting or in an organization such as a civic group, political organization, church or club with Deaf members. Find people with similar interests and values so that you have a substantive basis for friendship with someone you like as a person, and not just creating an artificial friendship based solely on the fact that the person is Deaf. Try to meet Deaf people who want to meet you. Some Deaf people are impatient with beginning sign language students, while others are very supportive and will provide encouragement and positive feedback. The combination of informal, natural interaction using the language plus formal classroom instruction will help you learn more quickly and in a meaningful way.

Getting Started as an Interpreter

Learning sign language is different from learning to interpret. Many people are able to master two languages and become fluently bilingual without learning to interpret. Perhaps they will use their bilingual skills in some other field -- teaching, counseling, or to communicate with friends or relatives. In order to become an interpreter, certainly it is necessary to become bilingual -- to master both of the languages that are to be interpreted. But merely becoming bilingual is not enough.

In addition to the bilingual skill one must also master the skill of interpreting, which is a separate skill. Beyond merely being able to use one language or the other, the interpreting process requires that both languages be held in consciousness at the same time, with constant interactive reference while listening intently to an ongoing feed of incoming informational content. Just the attentive listening process is difficult enough. When I am asked about the interpreting process by those who have never done it, I often suggest they try listening for 30 or 40 minutes or so to something relatively simple, such as a political speech or religious sermon which uses fairly common, everyday vocabulary, and try to repeat everything the speaker says. Add to that the process of having to analyze the grammar, syntax, morphology and vocabulary of the source language, reconstruct an equivalent in the target language that matches the mood, inflection, tone and cultural perspective of the speaker -- and all the time you are doing that, the speaker of the source language is still speaking, so you have to be listening to the new material while analyzing, reconstructing and speaking to the recipient in the target language. The two processes have to go on simultaneously, yet you must do it smoothly, seamlessly and try to capture the mood and inflection and tone of the speaker.

As with learning sign language itself, learning to interpret can be greatly helped by taking classes -- formal instruction in the skills and protocols of the interpreting process that are distinct from and in addition to the necessary bilingual skills. Most community colleges and four-year universities have excellent interpreter training programs. In addition, I also recommend taking a broad range of general education courses. While a college degree (or any formal training, for that matter) is not strictly required to become an interpreter (and many top interpreters became proficient even before such courses were offered), such courses are extremely valuable and it would be foolish for even the most skilled native speaker of ASL to miss out on the critical professional insights gained in such courses. Because this formal guidance is now available, no one today should attempt to become an interpreter without it, and in fact in the near future it will become a mandatory prerequisite for obtaining national certifications. Furthermore, because interpreters must be able to handle a wide range of situations and a wide range of vocabulary and subject material, the more education you have, the better you will be able to deal with this vast diversity of material.

The real key to becoming an interpreter, however, is to DO IT. So many times I have seen excellent beginning interpreters successfully complete an ITP, get a job at an agency, then because of fear or anxiety about real-life interpreting situations they drift into administration or dispatch or some other role that is valued and appreciated but doesn't make full use of their investment in interpreter training. While classes and training are critically important both for mastering the language and developing interpreting skills, most important to get the hands-on experience of real-life interpreting. DO IT! Don't compare yourself to more experienced interpreters -- everyone was a beginner once, and those of us who have achieved some measure of success owe that in large part to those who encouraged us through our first wobbly starts. Work with supportive Deaf people and supportive experienced team interpreters who will provide supportive encouragement and positive feedback, in situations APPROPRIATE FOR A BEGINNER when a qualified professional interpreter is not available and with Deaf consumers who are comfortable working with you in that situation. Again, the important thing is to make sure that the situation is appropriate for a beginner -- needless to say, you would not want to be working in a life-threatening medical situation, or in a legal situation where someone is accused of a serious crime, or a situation that is overly technical or simply where the situation is beyond your current ability to handle. The Deaf consumer(s), or the agency that employs you if you have been hired to begin your career, play a crucial role in making that determination.

It is also helpful to work with experienced mentor interpreters who recognize the need to develop the interpreting team. When working with supportive mentor interpreters, it is possible to work for short periods of time, such as brief five or ten minute shifts, and when not in the "hot seat" you can observe how the more experienced interpreter handles all aspects of the situation, from determining the appropriate selection of language, vocabulary and technique, to issues of ethics and following appropriate professional protocols.

While you must be careful in the selection of your beginning assignments, but don't be so overly cautious that you decide that nothing is right for you. Do what you can. Don't compare yourself to interpreters with many years' experience. We all started out somewhere and we have ALL gone through the process of being a beginner. Rely on feedback from your Deaf clients or mentor interpreters to help you determine what is appropriate.

The Interpreting Situation

Interpreting goes to the heart of human communication. An idea forms in one human mind which is to be shared with another human mind. If the two persons speak the same language, the idea is articulated in words and shared. If not, the communication in blocked unless a mediator can be inserted into the process to bridge the communication gap.

The role of the interpreter is to facilitate the communication between those who do not share the same form of language. It is to help those who are participating in an exchange of communication, but not to become a participant in that process. Because communication is facilitated, the service is highly valued. But because a non-participant is inserted into the process, this service is also highly intrusive. Interpreters who work with Deaf people need to understand the dichotomy of this double-edged sword they wield. Deaf people want interpreters. They fight for their right to have interpreters. But they clearly have mixed feelings about interpreters. They resent the intrusiveness of the interpreting process. They often resent being shadowed by this non-participant and they often resent the fact that they have to depend on interpreters in the first place. They resent the fact that their privacy is breached by the mere fact of using an interpreter, and they resent the many situations in which interpreters make mistakes, are inadequately prepared for the subject material they are dealing with, and especially when interpreters violate the Code of Ethics, especially when violating their confidentiality. Interpreters often try to assure Deaf consumers that they can open up and share personal or private matters with an assurance of confidentiality, but often the very fact of sharing the information to the interpreter (who is not actually a participant in the situation) feels like a breach of privacy. Perhaps a Deaf person does not want an interpreter who is also a friend to know about private matters or that the Deaf person was involved in a particular situation. Maybe a Deaf person doesn't want the interpreter to know about being arrested, or filing for bankruptcy, or having an abortion; after all, if the hearing interpreter were involved in any of those situations, the Deaf person wouldn't have an equal opportunity to know about it. And sadly, too many Deaf consumers have had direct experience with having confidential information spread by the interpreter in what is truly an unforgivable breach of ethics. Interpreters must be absolutely vigilant in resisting any temptation to share other people's private information, and must remind others of their important duty to respect privacy.

Interpreters must remember that, when communication barriers arise, we are part of the solution. But we are also part of the problem. We need to maintain the highest ethical and professional standards to ensure that we expand the ways in which we solve problems, and minimize the extent to which we make things worse and actually detract from communication.

Interpreting as a Career

Freelance interpreting is an exciting, rewarding and stimulating career, but like many other fields it includes both positive and negative aspects. Making the most of the good points, and minimizing the negative aspects, helps to make this a satisfying career.

You can work either as a staff employee or as a freelance independent contractor-- each has its pros and cons.

Beginning interpreters usually start entry-level jobs in staff positions because they have not yet established sufficient professional credibility and do not yet have enough professional contacts and networking connections to work freelance on a full-time basis. It is also true that some very experienced, established professional interpreters simply prefer the stability, predictability and benefits of a staff position. If you work as a staff interpreter, you generally have less flexibility in picking and choosing assignments; most of the time you are required to accept whatever assignments they give you. Working as a staff employee, whether for a school, a court system or an agency limits your range of experience just to what that organization does -- you may do only school classes, only court work or the selected clients of the agency. The advantages of working on staff are that you have steady employment and a regular pay check, and possibly benefits, and you don't have to prepare quarterly tax estimates, obtain business licenses, insurance, etc. Often, accepting a staff job is a good way to get started in the field and, as you start to network and get to know Deaf clients and other interpreters, you can gradually accept a few freelance jobs on evenings and weekends and eventually, especially after you get certified, work entirely on a freelance basis.

Working as a freelance interpreter, contracting with many different agencies (public agencies, private agencies, schools, courts, hospitals and directly with clients), I especially appreciate the opportunity to see a wide range of diverse experiences. The rewards are that you see so many dimensions of the community you live in, from the best to the worst, that you would never have seen if you had a different kind of job. Some of the best include interpreting for weddings, banquets, seminars on interesting subjects and for celebrities such as politicians (I've met three U.S. Presidents and two foreign heads of state and many other elected officials) and entertainment figures in sports, TV and movies; some of the least desirable situations include jails, courts, police stations, hospital emergency rooms, funerals and things like that. Most of the time the work more of everyday, normal business: routine medical, legal or psychiatric office visits, welfare or other government service agencies, job trainings, job interviews, conferences, meetings, classes, etc. But every day is different and you see many aspects of the community that you might not have been aware of otherwise. Some of the downsides are that you don't get benefits such as health insurance, vacation pay, etc. -- if you don't work, you don't get paid. On the plus side, if people like your work you often get lots of requests, even for overlapping time periods and you can pick and choose which jobs you want to do, either because it is the kind of job you like (or is particularly appropriate to your skills), or because you feel it is an important job that helps people during crisis moments and helps make their lives better.

Would I advise anyone to become an interpreter? It would depend if they are willing to work hard to gain the skills and experience and if they would enjoy it as much as I have. If they are attracted to this kind of work, then it is a great career and I would recommend it. We need more good interpreters!

One final note: people choose to become interpreters because they love sign language, love Deaf people, and enjoy exposure to a wide variety of interesting subject material and experiences. This is a fun job! No, it is not a job, it is a CAREER. People become interpreters for the same reason they become ballerinas, ice skaters, or professional athletes, because THEY LOVE THIS WORK. So, too often I see people who were fascinated with American Sign Language, fell in love with interpreting, spent years taking ASL and ITP courses, and finally their dream came true and ... within a very short time I see them complaining that they "have to" go to work, or they can't wait for the weekend, or they only have "x" number of years until retirement. Hello! This is a rewarding career. Enjoy it! Wake up every day and celebrate that you get to go out into the world, provide a valuable service that makes other peoples' lives better, and it is fun! This is what you wanted to do! If you can work two or three years and find yourself bored as an intepreter, you went into the wrong field! Celebrate the joy of signing, the beauty of sign language, and the love of Deaf people and enjoy this career!

As noted in the addendum at the top of this page, the interpreting profession is undergoing dramatic changes which will create increased demand, stronger job security and higher rates for interpreters. This is a great time to be getting into the interpreting profession!

View Samples of Doug interpreting and demonstrating American Sign Language
I have uploaded some samples of videos taken during actual interpreting situations and other demonstrations of American Sign Language.
Click here to jump to an index of video samples.

Recommended Books or Videos
In addition to products of DeBee Communications or Dawn Sign Press, I would recommend any book by Lou Fant or by Tom Humphreys and Carol Padden. Fant and Humphreys/Padden focus on the true American Sign Language used in the Deaf culture and go beyond merely showing signs to showing how sign language grammar is properly applied. Additionally, material from DeBee Communications is strongly recommended. In contrast, it is crucial to avoid books that use "Signed English" or "SEE" ("Signed English Exactly"), which use adaptations of ASL signs in English word order. Many Deaf people find this offensive because it seeks to subjugate ASL, which is a natural language. Just imagine how a native speaker of the Spanish would react if they went into a high school Spanish class and found an instructor teaching variations of Spanish vocabulary adapted to fit into English grammatical structure....

Lou Fant has produced a number of books and videos over the years, most notably "The American Sign Language Phrase Book." Lou Fant, born to Deaf parents, was widely recognized as the greatest sign language interpreter ever, and was active in education for Deaf people and in training other interpreters. I had the privilege of working closely with him during the early 1970s and his encouragement and positive attitude was highly influential in drawing me to the field of professional interpreting. He passed away June 11, 2001 at the age of 69 and will be greatly missed. Lou Fant memorials online, including additional info about his books/videos, can be found at:

James DeBee, for DeBee Communications, has produced an excellent series of ASL instructional videos, called "ASL Video Series." This is a high-quality series from a well-known DEAF producer who has produced numerous videos for television, videos and is highly regarded as a consummate professional by hearing and Deaf alike. This series works at a number of levels: there is introductory material signed by Mr. DeBee; there are several vignettes in each lesson in the series, which are acted by Deaf actors in ASL; there is a "classroom" lesson in which a Deaf instructor explains the vignette; then Deaf sign models demonstrate every sign used in the vignettes, then after this has been done for each vignette, all of the vignettes on the tape are again shown, run together in a seamless story line. Then they are once again signed by other Deaf models showing the variety of signing styles, from perfectly-formed textbook signing, to everyday "street" signs as used by real Deaf people. Following that, a grammar lesson is presented by a Deaf expert, and a lesson in Deaf history and culture is presented. It is comprehensive, works at multiple levels so both beginners and advanced students can enjoy it, and utilizes extensive quality resources from the Deaf community and Deaf academia. Strongly recommended.
For more information check out the DeBee Communications website:

The husband/wife team of Tom Humphreys and Carol Padden has also written several books, including the book/video combo "Learning American Sign Language" which is widely used in college and high school sign languages classes. Humphreys and Padden are both Deaf, and hold doctorate degrees in fields related to Deafness and education.

Irene Duke has written an excellent book "The Everything Sign Language Book" (Adams Media, 2004), which is a concise but excellent overview of the history, structure and practice of sign language, including an introduction to beginning signs. Used in conjunction with a qualified course on ASL, this is an excellent introductory resource that gives a clear, easy-to-follow view of what sign language is, where it came from, how it works, and how you can be a part of it!

All of the books mentioned above are widely available in most book stores or online book sales such as -- I strongly recommend them.

Send an e-mail to Doug:

For first-time contacts, initial contact is preferred through E-MAIL.
PLEASE NOTE: I am an individual, freelance interpreter, not an agency.
I do not employ any other interpreters.
Generally, for one-time jobs I prefer to work through agencies with which I am affiliated such as NIS or DCS, but am willing to arrange contracts for ongoing assignments such as through schools, churches, 12-step organizations, and employers who need recurring services for staff meetings, training, etc.

Tel: 760/ 781-1227

Post Office Box 300721
Escondido, California 92030-0721

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