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English Language Learner Issues Part 2: Best Practices for SLPs Working with Interpreters

word cloud of languages

As Speech-Language Pathologists, we work with individuals from diverse backgrounds. It is no surprise that the numbers of English Language Learners (ELL) is increasing all over the United States. During the course of our careers, we will encounter students who speak many different languages. Although one of the most common languages spoken by these bilingual students is likely to be Mandarin or Spanish, there are hundreds of languages being spoken. Despite the increasing number of speech-language pathologists who can provide bilingual services, it is unrealistic that there will be a match for every student. The second best option in those instances is to work with a trained language interpreter. However, if we are lucky enough to find an interpreter, most of the time they are not trained. This post will describe best practices for training interpreters.

The ASHA Position Statement Clinical Management of Communicatively Handicapped Minority Language Populations states that interpreters or translators can be used with minority language speakers when the following circumstances exist:

  • SLP on staff does not have language competence to provide services
  • An individual who needs services speaks a language that is uncommon for his or her local area
  • There are no trained professionals readily available with proficiency in a language that would permit the use of alternative strategies

Let’s begin by clarifying the distinction between an interpreter and a translator. An interpreter is someone who translates spoken language. A translator translates written documents from one language to another. For the purposes of our speech-language assessments, which are primarily oral, we would be using interpreters.

Just because an individual has knowledge of two languages does not give them sufficient skills to act as an interpreter. In order to fulfill their role successfully, interpreters must be proficient in both languages, have knowledge of different dialects, be adaptable, and remain neutral. Clinicians also have an equally important role and responsibility to fulfill when working with the interpreter. Clinicians need to pay attention to the length and pace of the spoken language. Relying solely on test results or translation of tests should be avoided. A qualitative description of the client’s communication strengths and challenges will assist in identifying areas of need. It is important to note that consulting with an interpreter is advisable but the clinical decision-making is the clinician’s responsibility.

When interacting with the interpreter, preparation is important; therefore, the clinician should follow a three-step briefing, interaction, and debriefing process to ensure a more successful outcome.

  1. Briefing We begin with the briefing phase by discussing the purpose of the interpretation, which may be an assessment or an IEP meeting. It is important to outline the student’s background so the interpreter can choose the appropriate dialect and vocabulary when interpreting. In the online environment, be aware of where to position the computer to ensure proper audio/video quality. Interpretation can be simultaneous or consecutive. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter conveys a message in the other language at the same time as it is presented by the clinician or the client. In consecutive interpreting, there is a pause between the clinician’s or client’s statements and the translation into the other language. Interpreters may be trained to administer the activities and transcribe the student’s responses. Using consecutive interpreting will allow less confusion and reduce competing language information for children who potentially have a language disorder.
  2. Interaction During the interaction step, the interpreter and the clinician should work as a team. All members should address the client and family directly. Saying something like, “Tell Johnny that…” should be avoided. The clinician should always be present and be the guide even if an interpreter has been trained in using specific instruments. It is important to monitor the interpreter’s administration of a given task and the client’s reaction. The interpreter’s role is to act as a bridge between the clinician and the client.
  3. Debriefing We conclude with the debriefing phase during which we review the interpretation process with the interpreter after the assessment. It is important that we ask specific questions during this time and determine if a follow-up session is necessary. Remember that all clinical judgments are the clinician’s responsibility. The interpreter is there to serve as a bridge in gathering accurate information about the student’s language ability.

Next month, we will deep dive into specific tips on gathering information for a bilingual assessment when working with interpreters.

Karin H. Koukeyan, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Senior Clinical Consultant with PresenceLearning.


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