Signs and Wonders

Spock: Live Long and Prosper

Leonard Nimoy signs “Live long and prosper” Original image by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.

After an exciting and successful opening year, Heriot-Watt’s undergraduate degree in Sign Language Interpreting will welcome a new group of students in September 2013 (and, at the same time, applications will open for the 2014 intake). We’ve designed the programme to take advantage of LINCS’ decades of experience in educating spoken language interpreters to the highest levels.

And we’ve tried to learn from previous attempts to prepare ready-to-practise sign language interpreters elsewhere in the world, drawing upon our own experience, as staff, of delivering training in England, Australia, the USA and around the globe. We’re committed to ensuring that Heriot-Watt’s students will be worthy of the full professional recognition that they will automatically receive on graduation from the registration authorities (SASLI in Scotland and NRCPD elsewhere in the UK).

The profile of sign languages is increasingly visible, on a global scale. Just last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sign-language interpreter Lydia Callis became a star overnight when she interpreted the Mayor’s hurricane warnings to New Yorkers. American Sign Language has become one of the most popular language classes over there, ranking fourth in the latest Modern Language Association Survey — and nearly shoving German from third place. The number of students taking the language has risen by more than 50% in the past decade. Make no mistake, British Sign Language (BSL) is heading in the same direction. Even a decade ago, it was reported to be the second most popular vocationally-related evening class after First Aid.

It’s certainly going to be an invigorating workplace for them future SLIs. Let’s see – what kinds of things might they have been up to this summer? Well, SLIs are a regular fixture now at several major music festivals, starting with the biggest of them all, Glastonbury. Fancy yourself interpreting the Rolling Stones, Arctic Monkeys or Emeli Sande, in front of 100,000 dancing revellers? Yup, it happened. (The young at heart can see how Blue Peter presenter Barney Harwood got on when he tried his hand as an SLI at the recent Latitude Music Festival in Suffolk on August 1st!) At the Edinburgh Fringe in August, there will be all manner of interpreted shows, from comedy to Shakespeare.

But it doesn’t have to be glamorous to be rewarding. Some of the most important work is being done in contexts like the NHS24 pilot service for BSL users. Here, interpreters are working towards ensuring that we never see a repeat of the incident in May this year when a Deaf patient in Dundee was hospitalised for 12 days without access to an SLI, and so without effective communication with healthcare staff. To prevent such problems, we’re working closely with NHS24, and with Mark Griffin MSP who is aiming to bring a BSL Bill before the Scottish Parliament later this year.

It’s recognised around the world that SLIs have actually led the way for spoken language interpreters in the community, too. Back in the 1980s, SLI research was trailblazing in recommending new practices in the field – in particular, carving out a more open, collaborative approach (developed in work like the book ‘Interpreting interpreting‘).

Deaf communities are relatively stable (whereas the numbers in other minority language populations tend to fluctuate). Also, disability legislation ensures that BSL users have legal entitlements to appropriate services. This means that the SLI profession has taken shape more quickly – SLIs’ working conditions, and salaries that reflect their commitment to graduate-level education, are well established.

Looking into our crystal ball, we can see the likelihood of more services being provided through video technology. Companies like SignVideo are showing how this can work well for both SLIs and consumers.

International travel and video-chat facilities mean that Deaf and hearing people from around the globe often encounter each other these days. So SLIs can expect to provide services more frequently using what’s called ‘international signing’ (IS) – the kind you can see World Federation of the Deaf President, Colin Allen – a recent guest to LINCS – using here to introduce the annual ‘International Week of the Deaf’. IS may look the same as BSL to you, but it’s actually quite different, and requires amazing visual thinking and kinaesthetic skills.

One thing’s for sure – there’s rarely a dull moment in this line of work.

Author: Graham Turner