I had a student in my office who asked the “right question.”
Most students ask, “what am I doing wrong.” This student asked, “what can I do to make what I’m doing right better?”
I LOVED THAT QUESTION!
The premise starts from the right place. It assumes that she has a strong base to work from (most of my students do) and wanted to make herself stronger.
Here was my answer (it was not what she expected nor what she wanted).
“When you walk into the lab and have no particular assignment to work on, what do you choose to practice?”
She looked at me blankly.
“Do you ever walk into the lab without an assignment? Do you ever practice on your own just to hone a skill?
“Ok, we have our answer. If you want to be ready to certify and to work you have to practice more hours than the assignments you get in class.”
Ok, she said, but what do I practice?
“Ah, your first inclination is to get a text of a hearing person and interpret it into ASL. Not where I would start.”
She started taking notes. Always a good sign.
“Get a text with a native Deaf ASL user and pick a feature of ASL discourse then isolate it.”
Her eyebrows said it all. What?
“We practice from Spoken English to ASL all the time, but in doing so we sometimes just cement in bad habits through repetition.
You want to identify good habits and add them into your toolbox. If you want good habits, go to a primary source.
Find a text you have used in a class interpreting from ASL to Spoken English, one you are familiar with and comfortable with. Now put it on and video yourself BUT DON’T INTERPRET IT.”
She sat forward.
“Choose a feature of ASL discourse, a specific marker, like eyebrows or head tilts, and copy everything you see the Deaf ASL presenter do. Just copy it and only it, don’t try to interpret it into spoken English.
Now, go back and review the text and the video of you copying the text side by side (Go React is awesome for this). Were your movements accurate to the native feature you copied?”
She had that questiony look again.
“Now, go back to the source text. What was the purpose of the discourse marker as used by the native presenter EACH TIME IT WAS USED? Was it a transition between ideas? Was it marking a topic? Was it grammatical?
Most important, did you miss any times it appeared?
Now, look at what you produced. Did you connect the purpose of the feature with its meaning when you copied it?
Now, video yourself copying it again, this time with the purpose of the feature firmly in your mind when you do it.”
She had stopped taking notes and was just looking at me with sense focus… still good.
“Repeat this exercise until you feel like you can connect your own copied feature with the purpose for which it is used by the native presenter each and every time.
Next, find a text of a hearing presenter with which you are very familiar and comfortable. Play the text and video yourself BUT DON’T INTERPRET IT!”
I think her head was about to explode.
“Think of the ASL feature you copied from the native speaker. Now figure out how you would apply it to this text. Isolate it from the overall process of interpreting. Hands in your lap. Apply only that feature. Figure out where it would work in transitioning between ideas or where will it emphasize a point or mark a point of discourse. Just that. Hands in your lap.
Now review what you did. Are you comfortable with using that native ASL feature? If not do it again until you are.
If yes, go back to your first sample text and choose another feature. For example shoulder shifting. It is used for ‘role shifts’ but what else can you see it doing?
Do this over and over until you have pulled apart every possible ASL feature in this text in isolation. This could take days.”
She sat back in her chair.
“Then go to your spoken text and begin to add the features in combination, one by one. When you have added them all, then and only them add your hands.”
She exhaled as if she had just done a full day of hard labor.
“Next look again at the native ASL text. How is your understanding of it different now than it was when you started? If I asked you to interpret it from Deaf to Hearing would you make the same choices you would have before you did the isolation practice?”
Is it, in your mind, even the same story you thought it was when you started? Is there more there than you realized?”
She closed her notebook.
“Wait,” I said, “there are a couple of steps left.”
Her eyes rolled. She opened her notebook.
“Go to the last sample of your interpretation of the text from Spoken English to ASL. Now do it one more time using half the number of signs. Review that and do it again using half THAT number of signs.
Now, do it one last time, but this last time you cannot use the sign ‘have’, not even once.”
Her mouth hung open.
“Figure out how to present the information with the ASL features you practiced, using the fewest number of signs on the hands required to preserve the meaning and with the artificial limitation of the removal of an arbitrary sign, the sign for ‘have.’
Figure that out, then come back and tell me what you learned.”
We, hearing interpreters, have a hand fetish. We rarely practice the features that native ASL users employ to ‘make themselves understood.’ We like moving our hands. Put them in your lap for a minute. Practice with your face and body by copying what native ASL users do, in isolation, and it will change your life.
I promise. Put in the work and you will be amazed. If you are a student new to the field or have twenty years of experience, you will be amazed.