Sign Language Interpreter Language and Interpreting Aptitude


Background: The profession of sign language interpreting (SLI) has gradually evolved from friends and family of deaf people providing informal and unpaid communication support (Scott-Gibson, 1991; Stone & Woll, 2008) to trained professionals working for public services and the private sector. The training routes available still reflect earlier provision with most potential interpreters begin learning sign language in recreational evening classes with students of mixed abilities and interests. These learners slowly progress to a level of proficiency where they can enter universities offering full-time training courses or register for part-time vocational training routes (Brien, Brown, & Collins, 2002).

Currently both short and long-term training programmes have no objective selection criteria, in contrast to other intensive language training programmes, such as those within the foreign office or military that often use the Modern Language Aptitude Test - MLAT (Carroll & Sapon, 1959; 2002) or similar tests in other institutions (e.g. the Colleges of Oxford language aptitude test).

Carroll (1967) identified four components of spoken language learning aptitude: phonetic coding ability; grammatical sensitivity; rote learning ability; inductive learning ability. And Sparks et al (1998) found that a standard measure of foreign-language aptitude may provide a relatively good indicator of how proficient one may become in a foreign language, at least after two years of studying that language.

The Study:
This longitudinal study uses a battery of language, motor/gesture and psychological tests to compare expert sign language interpreters with those in undergraduate interpreter training programs. Ten expert interpreters with ten years experience post-university training will be compared with all students from year one of an SLI training program in the UK and reported on. The test battery administered includes:

- The MLAT - to assess spoken language learning ability against established norms
- An English reading test to assess first language fluency
- A non-sign repetition task using Brentari's (1998) phonological model; the possibility and impossibility of the stimuli varies only on phonological complexity and tests phonetic coding skills in the visual modality
- A BSL grammaticality judgement task (based on Mayberry and Boudreault 2006)
- A digit span task measuring working memory/concentration
- A matrix reasoning task measuring nonverbal abstract problem solving, inductive reasoning and spatial reasoning

The tests have been selected to identify general language aptitude and modality specific aptitude (spoken vs signed languages).