Sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community

Many people will have seen the video of the cute young girl Claire Koch singing Christmas carols and simultaneously signing the songs in American Sign Language for her deaf parents that went viral in December 2013. The general response was the feel good factor – how amazing, considerate and talented this little girl is.

Children like Claire are often referred to as ‘Children of Deaf Adults’ – Codas. This term is typically used as an overarching term for people of any age whose parents are (or were) deaf; sometimes, however, the term Koda (i.e., Kids of Deaf Adults) is used to distinguish between adults and young people.

Apart from her obviously impressive bilingual skills, the video also highlights one aspect of society that is often hidden from public view – the fact that young bilingual children often function as ‘language brokers’ for their parents or family members. What this little girl was doing was ‘brokering’ to help her parents understand a message that they would not otherwise have been able to access.

Language brokering

The term ‘brokering’ (rather than ‘interpreting’) is used specifically in relation to the experience of children assisting their parents with communication as it “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285). There is a range of research studies that have explored ‘child language brokering’ experiences with immigrant children in different countries, that reveal how children will often broker for their parents in a range of contexts, and may feel empowered and at other times burdened (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003) by the experience.

Professional sign language interpreters have, until relatively recently, traditionally been Codas (Napier, McKee & Goswell, 2010), and some will have brokered from a young age. Since the introduction of professional sign language interpreting services, people often assume that children no longer need to interpret for their deaf parents. However, based on anecdotal observation, and Jemina Napier’s preliminary research (in press) with deaf and hearing people that have deaf parents, this is not the case. Napier’s international survey of 240 deaf and hearing Codas revealed that their experience mirrors those of spoken language child brokers: many of them had brokered from as early as 4 or 5 years old, and they felt their brokering experiences contributed to their positive self-esteem.

Claire’s father was quick to clarify in a Vlog post that they do not expect their 5-year old daughter to interpret for them, and that there was in fact a professional interpreter present at the Christmas concert, but their daughter wanted her parents to watch her directly.

For many years, deaf people have asserted their right to a professional interpreter and assured themselves and others that they do not ask their children to interpret for them. Perhaps not, but the video of Claire supports Napier’s research in revealing that Codas still broker for their parents, and they may not have been asked – they volunteer.

Desire to help

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and his colleagues have produced various articles (e.g., 20112013) that indicate that toddlers and young children have a natural instinct to want to help others, and they go to great lengths to cooperate with adults. This may explain why Codas still offer to broker for their deaf parents, even when it is not required of them: the children know that their parents cannot hear what is being said, so it is a natural instinct for them to want to help their parents to understand by signing for them.

Professional signed language interpreters have traditionally ‘evolved’ from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005), but since the introduction of formal interpreter training programs anyone can choose to be a sign language interpreter (Stone, 2008) and be ‘schooled’ into the profession. Fewer Codas seem to be choosing to work as professional interpreters, or we are experiencing attrition from interpreter education programs as Codas do not complete the course of study, meaning that fewer interpreters come from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005). So what happens to the earlier ‘desire to help’ that can be seen in young Kodas?

There are still huge supply and demand imbalances in the signed language interpreting sector worldwide, so more people need to be attracted to the profession, regardless of whether they are Codas or not. Many Codas still continue to broker for their parents when they are adults, even if other professional interpreters are available, because it is the only legitimate option due to the family member being the only professional interpreter that can understand the deaf person, for example, due to onset of dementia (Major, 2013).

Plus Codas who work as professional interpreters still feel undervalued in terms of what they bring to the profession, and want to have it recognized that although they may have grown up doing language brokering, they have still worked hard to develop their professional interpreting skills (Williamson, 2012), and can “bring value” to the profession (Colonomos, 2013), but should not be automatically valorised.

Thus it is vital to explore the nature of language brokering that is performed by Codas for several reasons:

(i)  to gain a clearer picture of the interpreting needs of the Deaf community, to account for interpreting demand that may currently be ‘masked’ by the fact that supply is met by children rather than professional interpreters;

(ii) to ascertain how the Coda brokering experience can be harnessed into positive linguistic and social competence, and mentor Codas into becoming professional interpreters and translators (such as Angelelli 2010 suggests for young spoken language bilinguals); and

(iii)  to draw parallels with the experience of immigrant children to inform community interpreting policy and practice more generally for all languages in the UK, Europe and internationally.

Although Napier’s initial survey study was useful for “sketching the broad contours of the [brokering] practice” (Orellana, 2010, p.51), more research is needed to further contribute to the body of child language brokering research and explore “how adults narrate their experiences as child language brokers, and how their perspectives on their language brokering experience change as they grow from children into adults” (Bauer, 2010, p.127). Furthermore, it is also necessary to explore the language brokering experiences from the young Codas themselves, and deaf parents’ and other stakeholders perceptions of their language brokering experiences (as Cirillo & Torresi, 2010 did in Italy regarding institutional expectations with spoken language brokers). Thus further replication of spoken CLB research is needed.

The next step will be to replicate the work of Valdes et al (2003) with Latino children, and conduct a qualitative, ethnographic study involving interviews, focus groups, non-participant observations and simulated interpreting tasks to observe ‘language brokering in action’ (Orellana, 2009, 2010). This approach will enable us to examine sign language brokering experiences of Codas in more depth, and from different perspectives, and build upon the findings of Napier’s survey study.

2014 and beyond

Therefore as of 2014, Jemina Napier and her research team in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University will begin the next phase of research to explore sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. The research will build on the initial survey study, and involve focus groups with deaf parents, Codas/ Kodas, sign language interpreters and hearing service providers.

The research team includes people that represent each of the key stakeholder groups: (1) Professor Jemina Napier, who is a Coda and interpreter; (2) Clare Canton is a deaf parent of three hearing Codas and a qualified deaf interpreter, who is a PhD student on the project; and (3) Yvonne Waddell, who is a hearing (non-Coda) qualified interpreter and is also a PhD student on the project. See: https://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/ for a profile of each member of the research team, and also the BSL teaching and research team at Heriot-Watt University.

It is envisaged that the project will be carried out in collaboration with key organisations who represent the Deaf, sign language interpreting and Coda communities. It is vital to carry out this project in collaboration with the Deaf community, deaf parents and sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the communities can directly benefit from the research findings.

To see a summary of this article in International Sign click here

For more information, or to participate in the project, please contact Jemina Napier:

Email – j.napier@hw.ac.uk

Facebook – Jemina Napier

Twitter – @JeminaNapier

BSL Highlights

As the year draws to a close, here are 10 highlights from the work of the British Sign Language team at Heriot-Watt University.

We have grown significantly during 2013. New additions to the family include Professor Jemina Napier, plus Clare Canton, Yvonne Waddell and Stacey Webb. This means we now have six PhD students working on sign language topics, too. To put faces to names, see https://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/! And there’ll be more in the new year: we’ve just confirmed the appointment of BBC news interpreter and the ‘Hot Fingers’ fingerspelling challenge competition organiser, Rob Skinner, as a Research Associate from January 2014, and we expect more new faces to follow.

Our fabulous first ever group of full-time BSL students completed year one of their programme! “The course has blown my expectations out of the water!… We have bonded very closely over the first year and it is an amazingly supportive and tight group”, said Jude Caldwell in the print version of this article.

Gary Quinn’s work on Science Signs has been recognised and praised over and over again. It featured in the New York Times last December, and the Times Higher Education magazine this year. Gary is in such demand that he’s even had to turn down the chance to work with Professor Brian Cox!

Dr Svenja Wurm has co-ordinated the recruitment of a new group of 24 students to our unique international MSc programme for advanced sign language interpreters, EUMASLI. Following the successful graduation of 100% of EUMASLI#1 students, the EUMASLI#2 group is 50% larger than previously, includes 6 Deaf students, and features participants from three continents (Europe, North America, Africa).

In August, we made our first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, as part of the first ever ‘Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas’! The deliberately provocative topic – ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’ – featured a guest appearance from SignVideo’s Jeff McWhinney, generated the largest audience of the whole Festival for the Cabaret organisers, and is summarised here by Graham Turner.

We continued to offer our Open Lecture series, EdSigns, venturing successfully into live video streaming for the first time with the inaugural EdSign appearance of Jemina Napier. The 2013 highlight was the full house welcome for Colin Allen, President of the World Federation of the Deaf http://wfdeaf.org/, exhorting one and all to promote sign languages through international implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml. The EdSign programme for Spring 2014 is the strongest ever – feel free to come and join us: all are welcome!

We submitted successful proposals for new projects, two of which commence early in 2014. The Directorate General for Justice of the European Commission approved a pilot project called INSIGN to a consortium including ourselves, led by the European Union of the Deaf, to investigate improving communication between Deaf people and the EU institutions. And JUSTISIGNS  has also received funding from the Directorate General for Education & Culture to improve Deaf access to justice across Europe.

As always, we continued to disseminate our work through publications (including Jemina Napier’s ‘Research Methods in Interpreting’  and many others) and presentations around the world, such as Gary Quinn’s well-received paper at the first Sign Language Teachers conference in Prague.

We dedicated a significant amount of our time to taking the message about BSL and interpreting into the world of policy and politics. For example, in September, our input helped the Liberal Democrats to pass a motion calling for enhanced recognition of BSL.  We met with members of the Scottish, UK and European parliaments, and worked closely with bodies such as the British Deaf Association, Scottish Council on Deafness and the Scottish Government’s Equality Unit throughout the year.

Finally, we played our part in driving forward perhaps the biggest BSL development in Scotland: the adoption of a BSL Bill at the Scottish Parliament in 2014. In particular, we’re proud to say that many of our first-year students made well-received responses to the formal public consultation on the Bill, with Lisa Li in particular being prominently quoted in the summary report.

What have we done this year to make us feel proud? All of the above.

Author: Graham Turner

Professor Graham Turner: 10 lessons from the tale of the ‘fake’ interpreter | The Limping Chicken

It’s rare that LifeinLINCS points you to another blog but whenone of our contributors posts an incredible post on a leading website, well, we just can’t resist! If you have seen the furore over the fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, you will want to read this!

Professor Graham Turner: 10 lessons from the tale of the ‘fake’ interpreter | The Limping Chicken.

Machine Translation will not take your job, honest!

It’s a common theme. In [5, 10, 20] years, machine translation (MT) will be so good that there will be no human translators left. And, indeed, there are some trends that make this idea look tempting. The move towards statistical machine translation has allowed machines to learn from the texts they are given, allowing them to process at higher levels and produce more convincing results. But this won’t mean that they will replace humans, let’s see why.

The first reason that human translators will still have is that human language is slippery. Even if you were to compile a massive database (or “corpus”, to give it its technical name) of all the language used everywhere on the internet today, it would be out of date within 24 hours.

Why? Because as humans we love to play with, subvert and even break our own linguistic rules. Even people who hate languages love to make up new words and repurpose old ones. The biggest corpus in the world can only tell you how people used language yesterday, not how they are using it today and definitely not how they will use it tomorrow.

The basis of Statistical machine translation is that the way language has been used on previous occasions is a good guide as to how it should be used this time. Hence why Google Translate famously translated “le président des Etats-Unis” [the president of the United States] as “George W. Bush” months after President Obama was elected. The logic behind this decision is that if “George W. Bush” was used in that space enough times, it must mean that that phrase can be used all the time – a mistake that no human good human translator would ever make!

Add to this the fact that meanings of words change (something that has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog) and things look much worse for MT. It gets worse though, since language is bound so tightly to culture, “literal” translations are often incredibly misleading.

Here is a really simple example. In English, we have a set number of phrases we use to sign off a formal letter. We might use “Yours sincerely” or “Yours faithfully” or maybe “Kind regards”. In French, formal letter sign-offs are much longer and one of them might literally be translated as “Waiting for your response, I ask you to accept, Sir, the expression of my distinguished salutations”.

Now, statistical machine translation experts will rightly tell you that a good, trained package would not translate this literally but would look for an English equivalent. The problem is that the English “equivalent” would be different for different contexts and would involve looking much wider than MT normally looks. The decision here is linked to the context of the letter (specifically whether or not you know the name of the person you are sending it to) and not to language considerations themselves.

There are lots of translation decisions that are context-based like this one and it is in these kinds of decisions that MT will always flail around helplessly. It is in these kinds of context-based decisions that good human translators will always triumph.

So where might the future lead? Well, just as human translators are becoming more specialised, so will MT engines. Research presented at the recent IPCITI conference showed that there are ways that MT and precisely, post-edited MT can work. Perhaps one area where MT will work is in specialised fields, which use consistent language. Another view is that human translators will be called upon to make more use of their knowledge of the world, which adds justification to universities like Heriot-Watt who train their students in areas like international organisations and research skills alongside their technical training in translation and interpreting.

The future is bright, but the future certainly isn’t Machine Translation taking over completely from humans.