Every American Sign Language interpreter is always asked, "How did you start learning ASL?" We even ask each other this question as we meet new interpreters. Every interpreter has their own reason for becoming an interpreter and how they went about doing so.
Are you considering a career as an American Sign Language interpreter? Becoming an ASL interpreter is life changing as it opens you up to a whole other culture and community. Many people aren't even aware of this other world. Read on to find out what skills are required and how to become an ASL interpreter.
But first we start with my story.
How I Became An American Sign Language Interpreter
My mother and father are Deaf. They weren't born deaf. They were born hearing and through a medication, they lost their hearing ability. I grew up with my Deaf mother and my hearing, Spanish speaking grandmother. So from the time I was able to speak I've been interpreting for them.
My mother speaks very well in Spanish. She would always talk to me instead of signing. However, she did teach me the alphabet, numbers, and some common signs when I was very young.
Growing up, my mother was actually hard of hearing, not fully deaf. As she got older, I noticed her hearing was getting worse. That's when I decided to go take American Sign Language classes.
I started taking ASL classes while in high school as dual enrollment classes at the community college in Miami. Miami Dade College just so happens to have a full interpreter training program.
I always said I didn't want to be an interpreter. As a CODA, people would always tell me to be an interpreter. I was tired of hearing it. It feels like I've been an interpreter all my life since I've been informally interpreting for my mother and grandmother.
When I graduated high school, I moved to Gainesville to study psychology. I had to have spinal fusion surgery, so I had to move back to Miami. As I healed and fall semester approached, I was trying to decide what to study. I hated the fact that I was wasting time not in school. So, I ended up just studying interpreting so I can get my Associates of Arts degree on track and not feel like I was procrastinating.
As I took more and more classes, I started to really like interpreting and I fell in love with the language. American Sign Language is such a visually descriptive language. As I grew closer and closer to graduating with my Associates of Arts in Foreign Language and an Associates of Science in American Sign Language Interpretation, I decided to just go ahead and complete the interpreter program. I soon began working as an interpreter.
How You Can Become An American Sign Language Interpreter
First, you'll obviously need to learn the language. You can start learning ASL by attending a sign language class. Sign language classes can be found at community colleges, universities, libraries, churches, organizations or clubs of the deaf, and many more other places. A simple google search can help you find the right place for you, near you. You will also need to practice with others who are naive users of the language. There are Deaf events all over the country. Sometimes there are Facebook pages for Deaf events near you. Search it up on Facebook! For the most part, if you let the person know you are learning ASL, they will be patient with you. You can also ask them to slow down if they are signing too fast for your learning pace.
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) states on their website, "Learning American Sign Language (ASL) takes time, patience, practice, and a sense of humor." That couldn't be more true. ASL is a visual language. Like any spoken language, ASL has its own rules of grammar and syntax. Learning ASL or any new language can take time. Some people it can take a year or maybe more. Everyone learns at a different pace. Be kind and patient with yourself. If you keep practicing, you will get there. NAD and RID are great resources for any ASL interpreter.
To be an ASL interpreter, certain traits are expected of you. Naturally, knowing and have a firm grasp of American Sign Language and English is a must. But also, being flexible, committed, positive, willing to maintain and grow the skills needed, and having physical, mental, and emotional stamina. As an interpreter, you are responsible for delivering the message of many different personality types and relaying ideas to which you may not agree with. Staying neutral is a great ability you must have as an interpreter. Unless someone threatens their own or others lives, an interpreter shouldn't intervene. This can be difficult to those who have strong opinions about particular things. It's best to avoid those kinds of situations when possible.
This field is rapidly expanding. Schools, government agencies, hospitals, medical centers, court systems, and private businesses employ interpreters. Interpreters can work in any setting, really. Anytime there is a deaf client and a hearing client who cannot communicate with each other, then an interpreter can be invited. Some settings include medical, legal, educational, religious, mental health, rehabilitation, performing arts and business. There are also interpreters in the Video Relay Service (VRS) and Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) settings. So, there is a wide variety of settings to specialize in. I suggest specializing because to me it's the same idea with doctors. You have specialized doctors for a reason. One person can't be fully knowledgeable in all aspects of life.
Every state has its own laws in regards to certifications for ASL interpreters. The RID website has a good resource for figuring out what is needed in your state. I suggest checking that out! There is a National Interpreter Certification; however, you may not have to be certified to be an ASL interpreter. But you do need to be qualified. You should never go into an interpreting situation without being qualified for the job. It is unprofessional and can be very dangerous as it causes miscommunication. The minimum prerequisite is a high school diploma or equivalent. However, many agencies and employers require an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree. Some agencies or employers require the interpreter to be nationally certified or at least have taken and passed the written portion of the exam. There are requirements for this certification. These include: holding a bachelor’s degree or work equivalent, completing interviews, passing the NIC Knowledge exam, and the NIC Performance exam. There are also levels to passing the NIC exams. Those being: National Interpreter Certification, National Interpreter Certification Advanced, and National Interpreter Certification Master.
When it comes to salary, it can be very difficult to say. There are many different factors that go into deciding the pay rate for you. These include: geographical area (rural areas tend to pay less than urban areas), amount of education you have, amount of experience you have, credentials, and the type of interpreter you are (such as freelance, contracted or agency). I can say that the pay is good. It's a pretty good amount and definitely a livable amount. But, of course that depends on your living style.
Becoming an ASL interpreter is a journey and it requires growth along the way. However, it is very rewarding. It introduces you into a whole other world, the Deaf world, as I like to call it. The culture, community, and people that you will meet along the way is incredible. It can change your perspective on life.
At my interpreter training program, we called this book the interpreting bible. It has everything you need to know as an interpreter. It is a useful book that I use even today.
I personally don't have this book but it's reviews are great and it seems to be the newest edition of the book before.
This was my starter book. It teaches all the ASL basics, from signs to grammar. I definitely recommend this book to start learning ASL.