Sunday, June 10, 2012


As a sign language teacher, I get contacted by many people who want to learn ASL as quickly as possible. Some want to learn just for the fun of it; others, so they can cuss out the people who make them mad without it resulting in them getting their face smashed in; still others are homeschoolers looking for a foreign language credit. But one of the most popular reasons for coming to Deaf Expressions to learn to sign is so they can become a professional interpreter.

This is a very admirable reason. The world would be a much brighter place if there were more certified sign language interpreters out there. But what most potential ‘terps don’t realize is that being an interpreter takes serious study and a good amount of time. Oh, sure—I’ve had my share of interpreters who went from knowing nothing about ASL and the Deaf Culture to trying to interpret in such places as the church service at my church in a matter of weeks or a couple of months. But trust me, these were scary experiences.

There are a lot of people who also don’t realize the difference between church interpreting—where anyone can get up there and wiggle their hands around—and professional interpreting—where you actually have to take a few challenging and in-depth exams (written and performance) and become certified before you can go out and wiggle those hands around for pay. NOTE: This blog post is not to encourage any old person to get out there and start signing sermons. The whole purpose of doing so is to attract deaf people to attend the service, not to confuse them and create a large amount of reluctance and hesitance to attend.

The thing you gotta remember is that ASL is not simply “English on the hands,” and learning ASL is not about being good at charades or mime. ASL is a foreign language—a complete language just like German or French—and is by no means easy to learn.

It’s also important to realize that, even if you do learn to sign and become pretty darn good at it, signing is by no means the same as interpreting. If you don’t quite understand my point, turn on your TV set to the local news and attempt to sign what the newscasters are saying as they are saying it. Be sure to keep up. Sign as they’re speaking and don’t fall behind. Sound easy to you? Show me. I have serious doubts, unless you’ve been signing for a long time, that this task is conquerable.

So, when people ask me if they’ll be certified to sign after my eight-week class (or even my 28-week course), it can become a little tedious to explain the path a wanna-be professional interpreter must take. I mean, really: Do you think if you took one semester of Japanese in college, you could go out and become a professional translator? Of course not.

But don’t let this stop you if ‘terping is what you want to do. We want you—we need you—but expect the road to be a bit bumpy and even winding. Expect to take your time. Expect to study for years. If you do that and you push yourself through the ups and downs, expect your career to be rewarding and fun. Adventurous even. It’s worth it. Just don’t be in such a hurry.

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