Posted by: sbilingual | December 7, 2012

The Art of Interpretation – Beyond bilingual to multicultural

If your school district is budgeted for a bilingual interpreter, there are a few things to consider before hiring someone to provide services to students for whom English is a second or third language. How will you collaborate with the interpreter? What does the professional interpreter know about speech-language pathology? What is the person’s level of training and expertise? Is the person culturally competent?

“No one should just walk into a clinical or assessment setting and say, ‘Hello, I am your interpreter,” said Li-Rong Lilly Cheng, PhD, CCC-SLP, a professor in the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at San Diego State University in San Diego, CA. A lengthy discussion is needed to assure that the clinician and interpreter are on the same page. In order to prepare themselves and one another for how to proceed, Dr. Cheng said, “There should be an interaction process before the actual interpretation process.”

The unfortunate reality is that the two professions are not prepared to work together. The reason, she toldADVANCE, is that most

interpreters (oral) and translators (written) do not know enough about speech-language pathology because they typically are not trained to know the ins and outs of the profession. The field is very specialized, and clinicians use specific vocabulary that may not exist in another language. Furthermore, the skills needed to interpret a parent interview vastly differ from those needed for assessing a child with language difficulties.

To be true to their work, interpreters and translators must only interpret the meaning of the two different languages of the student and the clinician. However, in many cases the speech-language pathologist is unfamiliar with the child’s background and may ask a question that is taboo in the child’s culture. What happens then?

“They would consult with each other, and the interpreter would say, for example, ‘In Thailand you do not ask this kind of question,’ or ‘In Sri Lanka you would make the person very uncomfortable by doing this.’ Instead of just translating the message in writing or orally, the interpreter should have a rapport with the speech-language pathologist,” Dr. Cheng said. Bilingualism is important in interpretation, but it’s even more important to have a firm grasp of the student’s culture.

Working with an interpreter becomes a priority when speech-language pathologists feel their assessment in English doesn’t provide a fair portrait of the child’s true linguistic skills, stated Henriette W. Langdon, EdD, CCC-SLP, a professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences at San José State University in San José, CA. She recommends getting a good history from the family to assist in the assessment process.

“Even though the student may have a language disorder, he or she may not be able to speak the native language anymore or was delayed in speaking the first language. That might be a sign of a language disorder,” she said. However, “if a person is competent in his or her mother tongue, the potential for learning English is great. If the mother tongue presents an issue, an interpreter is used for oral language fluency.”

Children may demonstrate fluency in English but have difficulty reading or writing the language. Plurality, phonology and syntax are just a few of the linguistic variables built into almost every language. These constructs are not difficult to define, but clinicians need to fine-tune their listening skills to make sure bilingual students are picking up on the proper constructs of English and remedy the situation if they are not.

For example, the Chinese language does not use pluralities, so a new English language learner may not use plurals. But given some stimulation through dynamic assessment, the student will realize, “‘Oh, in English they say ‘two books,’ so I add the ‘s’ at the end,'” said Dr. Cheng. “The first-time encounter with plurality may not be an indicator of a speech or language disorder.”

Speech-language pathologists need to be aware of cultural variables as well. They should work with an interpreter to gain some familiarity with cultural factors before beginning a bilingual assessment. For example, children generally are not supposed to look adults in the eye in China because it is viewed as a sign of disrespect.

“These variables should be talked about before the interaction takes place,” said Dr. Cheng. “But if the interaction already is taking place, the interpreter should serve as a cultural broker to help the clinician. If the speech-language pathologist says to a child, ‘Please look at me,’ the interpreter may say, ‘The child was told to be respectful and not look at you because his parents have been telling him this is a sign of disrespect.'”

Speech-language pathologists and interpreters need to practice cultural humility and respect. While they have their own areas of expertise, they need to understand that they don’t know everything.

If a child needs to be assessed for an autism spectrum disorder, the clinician should take time to explain to the interpreter what “spectrum disorder” means. Depending on the culture, the word “spectrum” may not be in the child’s native language. The speech-language pathologist should listen carefully and make sure the interpreter knows how to translate this concept.

If it is not possible to have a trained interpreter on hand, other options include using family members, someone from their church, friends or other families.

Dr. Cheng recalled working with parents who had adopted a child from the southern part of Taiwan. When the child was not very responsive, they thought the child might be hard of hearing. Instead, the child was found to have a severe speech-language disorder.

“They eventually found me,” she said. “Sometimes you need someone from that area who knows something about it because there could be a number of reasons why this child was not talking or responding very much. It can be a very serious disorder.”

The role of interpreters is expanding as more people are adopting children from more countries and speech-language pathologists have a better understanding of syndromes, disorders, and speech and language difficulties.

“We should not take this lightly,” said Dr. Cheng. “There will be more coming to us and to the interpreters and translators. There will also be more individuals who suffer a stroke or some other condition in a foreign country. Training in this area will become more important, and more bilingual people may be inducted into this area.”

However, just because people are bilingual doesn’t mean they are suited to be interpreters. “Many speech-language pathologists seek training so they can serve as both clinician and interpreter,” said Dr. Cheng. “Speech-language pathologists are well trained to serve as consultants to school teachers to help children learn a new language.”

Dr. Langdon would like to see more of an emphasis put on training. “People don’t give it the importance that it should have,” she said. “I scold my own students who have taken my classes for not working with an interpreter when called for. It’s like doing only 50 percent of your job. You don’t need an interpreter for every bilingual individual,” she acknowledged, “but if you brush it off because you don’t have the funds, it takes too long, your boss is after you, or the IEP is due, that’s not good.”

It’s not always the speech-language pathologist’s fault. Sometimes the agency, school district or university doesn’t want to pay for an interpreter. “They say, ‘Why should I pay for that? They came here; have them learn English. Forget about the other language; do as best as you can in English.’ If you’re not going to do it well, don’t assess,” said Dr. Langdon, who suggests that school districts share interpreters whenever possible.

Dr. Cheng, who has worked as an interpreter, advocates for the use of bilingual speech-language pathology assistants.

While speech-language pathologists are required to assess bilingual children in their native language, the law does not state that they have to perform the intervention in the native language. “People say, ‘Why should I do the assessment in the native language if I can’t help the person in the native language?'” said Dr. Langdon. “Granted, you may not be able to give your therapy in Arabic, but you will be able to see how bad the problem is, and you may be able to direct parents on how they can do things at home.”

Families should use the language they know best with their children, said Dr. Langdon, who noted that recent studies are finding that speaking a language you feel comfortable with will not interfere with a child’s linguistic progress. Another finding is that bilingual children with significant difficulties can be bilingual up to a certain level. “In other words, individuals with linguistic handicaps can tolerate and learn two languages,” she said, “although not on par with their contemporaries.”

The highest guiding principle in interpreting and translating is ethics, she said. If clinicians do not speak a language and feel a student should be assessed in that language, they must call on an interpreter. Similarly, interpreters must be “ethical and truthful to themselves and to the people they work with and serve,” she said. “When they don’t know something, they should ask a question. When they do know, they should do their best to do a good job.”

Interpretation is really an art, Dr. Cheng said. “It is rare that we can find a person who can do it with the true spirit. Bilingual is not good enough for me; multiculturalism is best.”

Unfortunately, interpreters are considered aides rather than professionals, said Dr. Langdon. “Society does not recognize the importance of interpreters in the educational setting. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and we have the same problems we had 20 years ago.”

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit


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