Cognitive Skill Development for Interpreters

Betsy Winston photoby Betsy Winston, PhD
TIEM Center

Effective interpreting requires highly developed critical thinking skills and advanced communicative competence in each working language. As interpreter educators, we have long espoused the value of reflection and self-assessment. Recently, a new federal grant was awarded to CATIE Center to identify effective approaches to preparing interpreters for certification, which implies qualification. As the nationally funded center, CATIE staff have been working diligently to do just that. One effective, and essential approach that they have identified is the need to help interpreters at all levels to develop and strengthen their critical thinking and analytical decision-making at every stage of their careers. A recent activity, a “Think Tank” about interpreting education, offered participants a new opportunity to explore this essential need, and to learn more about recent research findings in cognitive science related to thinking and learning. These findings can inform and enhance interpreter preparation. Of course, these ideas are not “new” and evidence has existed for a while, even in our own field (Kiraly, 2000, Peterson 2002, Shaffer and Janzen, 2004; Wilcox & Shaffer 2005, Janzen 2005a & b, Janzen 2008, Stone 2009, Russell and Winston, 2014 to cite a few)Indeed, a workshop convened by VRSII Educators Symposium (2012) introduced many of us to the early impact that cognitive science could have on interpreter preparation (Bain, 2004, 2012). The CATIE forum introduced us to another volume, make it stick! The Science of Successful Learning(Brown et al 2014) and provided participants with an opportunity to discuss, in practical terms, why we need to, and how we can integrate these findings into our teaching and learning, our course and programs, and into our own life-long learning goals. Here I share some of the insights and learning that I experienced during the discussions.

Insights from make it stick!

The field of cognitive science has evolved quickly in the past few decades, and some of our ways of thinking about the task of interpreting, and about how we prepare new generations of effective interpreters, can benefit from this evolution. Cognitive science directly impacts our work in at least two important areas: our understanding of learning and teaching in general, and our understanding of what interpreting, and by extension, interpreter education, encompasses. Cognitive science, and the findings about cognition, learning and thinking, provide us with a solid foundation on which to build important philosophies, approaches and tools for effective interpreter education. These can be implemented across all courses and program-wide, wherever educators are inspired to study not only what and how students learn, but how we ourselves can learn from them.

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Impact of Cognitive Science on Teaching and Learning

Recent research in cognitive science has a direct impact on our understanding of how people learn, and provides insights about new directions for the evolution of our concepts about teaching and learning in general. As we learn more about how we learn, we need to transform our own classroom approaches, adapting our strategies to guide learners. Some examples:

  • Cognitive science is de-bunking the myth of “learning styles” as a constraint on the ability to learn. We do not appear to learn more effectively if we cater to our favorite or preferred style. Indeed, using all the approaches available, and strengthening each and every style, is how we create strong learning. Encouraging learners to strengthen their less robust styles, rather than enabling a focus on a single “preferred” style supports robust learning.
  • Based on understandings from cognitive science research, education has promoted learner-driven education, in the sense that how people learn should guide how we teach. Some, however, have interpreted this to mean that learners should dictate what they learn, rather than to mean that learning needs should influence how they learn. As educators, our approaches need to shift from learner-driven (the learner chooses what to learn) to learning-focused. Learning is encouraged through activities that develop specific skills and knowledge needed for success in the field of study. For example, many in interpreter education confuse mentoring with simple discussion led by the mentee. Mentoring, truly mentee-focused, means identifying stages of learning through discussion with them, helping them understand where that stage is located on the overall journey to becoming an effective interpreter, AND in offering them progressive learning activities that build from where they are to where they want to be. It is not, as many have interpreted learner-focused mentoring, simply listening and doing whatever they “feel” they want to do.
  • Cognitive science has demonstrated that we are capable of learning to be intelligent, and are not born simply “smart” or “dumb.” Yet many have learned to be non-thinking, non-growing beings (a stagnant mind-set) instead of constantly challenging themselves to learn more, and more effectively (a dynamic, growth mindset). Education today is teaching people that learning should be easy, without difficulty or effort. And for those who do want to make some effort, quick fixes are encouraged: cramming, reading with underlining, re-reading, and memorizing. But these quick fixes lead to quick forgetting. Real, substantial learning requires effort, time, repeated review, and continued application. Real learning is challenging, can be frustrating, and often feels slow and awkward. So, it is “not popular” and teachers who use it are often not popular either. At least not until much later, when learners realize where they learned the most and the most effectively. Planning activities with what Brown et al in make it stick! identify as “desirable difficulties”(2014:68), that is, activities that challenge thinking and stimulate growth, and that require effort is essential! Of course, introducing undesirable difficulties is not helpful. For example, assigning students an “interpretation” when they have neither adequate language skills nor effective critical analysis skills to effectively interpret is NOT a “desirable difficulty” but a deflating and potentially damaging exercise. We need to challenge students to develop and practice analysis abilities, guiding them to constantly look for more to learn, spiraling lessons, materials, and activities, and scaffolding learning and activities one upon the other.

Impact of Cognitive Science on Interpreting and Interpreter Preparation

Focusing specifically on interpreting and interpreter preparation, cognitive science research related to thinking and learning has a direct impact on our own ideas about meaning and communication, and by extension, about interpreting and interpreter preparation. Communication through language, gesture, and interaction is not simply a conduit through which concepts in one person’s mind are encoded onto language units (words/signs, phrases, intonation patterns, etc.). Ideas are not conveyed like packages from sender to interpreter to receiver, or like data shuttled between computers, to be opened by the receiving person, decoded, and magically understood. Interpreting is the building of meaning during interaction, and it requires robust critical thinking and analytic decision-making. Research has shown that interpreters who demonstrate higher order cognitive thinking skills produce more effective interpretations (Russell & Winston 2014.) Therefore interpreters, and interpreter educators need to revisit the ways in which we discuss interpreting processes and the approaches we adopt when preparing interpreters. Some examples:

  • Interpreters are active participants in building and shaping understanding during interpreted interactions. As such, we construct our own meanings based on the communications from one person, and attempt to share them with others who understand a different language. Meaning is co-constructed by all participants, with each building their own unique understandings of every interaction based on their own backgrounds, filters, and world-knowledge. (Wadensjö 1998; Roy 2000). Despite this understanding, many interpreters believe they have rejected, or refined, the belief in the interpreter as the conduit of meaning. But they have not rejected the notion that words/signs are conduits, and have primarily replaced the interpreter-as-conduit model with the “interpretation-as conduit” model. In other words, although the interpreter is now seen to have some role within interpreted interactions, the words/signs are still sacrosanct—they convey and contain the meaning, if only the interpreter can identify it and reproduce it using the “correct” words/signs” to exactly convey that meaning. (Russell and Winston 2014).  Interpreters, and indeed consumers, need to discard these misconceived notions and embrace current understandings.
  • Interpreter educators likewise need to infuse these new understandings in all aspects of teaching, assessment and feedback. Research in our own field sheds light on these ideas (e.g. (Kiraly 2000; Peterson 2002; Shaffer and Janzen, 2004; Wilcox & Shaffer 2005; Janzen 2005a & b, 2008; Stone 2009, Russell and Winston, 2014) and has led some programs to design curricula, and courses based on this research. Yet we continue to find many educators, assessors, and students laboring under the misguided concept of words/signs acting as conduits of meaning. These misconceptions persist in our teaching, learning, and assessments. These ideas are being passed down to the next generation, by most of us, as we inadvertently continue to use terms that reflect them, terms like: convey, transfer, find THE meaning, equivalent meaning, and so on. Indeed, even the current rubrics for the RID NIC exam incorporate and reflect this misguided notion, describing an effective interpretation as one that “accurately conveys the meaning and the substantive details of the communication.” (CASLI, n.d.) Changes ranging from basic word revisions in our daily lecturing and writing, to dramatic changes in our approaches to curriculum design and assessment practices, are essential across and throughout the field. We need to guide students to building understandings instead of uncovering” static meaning. We need to encourage them to assess the extent to which their understandings impact the work, instead of assessing the extent to which their interpretations are “correct” or equivalent.   Questions to contemplate and to act upon include a consideration of the implications for students individually, and for programs as a whole. Should we, and how should we, help students develop advanced analysis and thinking skills in order to ready them for interpreting practice? Is there a level of “readiness” that marks readiness to take on the advanced challenges of translation, consecutive, and simultaneous interpreting exercises? Do we damage their potential by the sink-or-swim approach so often taken now?

These are a few of the many questions that remain for us to explore, and many applications to be tested and tried as we contribute to the preparation of qualified interpreters. The CATIE Center’s focus on the need for ways to strengthen the critical thinking and analytical decision-making skills of interpreters provides support for each of us as we strive for improved, more effective preparation of interpreters!


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Bain, K. 2012. What the Best College Students Do. Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. 2014. make it stick! The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

CASLI website: Retrieved on July 2, 2017)

Janzen, T. (2005a). Introduction to the theory and practice of signed language interpreting. In Topics in Signed Language Interpreting: Theory and Practice, T. Janzen, (ed.), 3-24. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Janzen, T. (2005b). “Interpretation and language use: ASL and English.” In Topics in Signed Language Interpreting: Theory and Practice, T. Janzen (Ed.), 69-105. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Janzen, T. and Shaffer, B. 2008. Intersubjectivity in interpreted interaction: The interpreter’s role in co-constructing meaning. In The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity, J.  Zlatev, T. P. Racine, C. Sinha, and E. Itkonen, (eds.), 333-355. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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Roy, C. 2000. Interpreting as a Discourse Process. New York: Oxford University Press.

Russell, D.  and Winston, B. 2014. TAPping into the interpreting process: Using participant reports to inform the interpreting process in educational settings. In Translation and Interpreting, 6 (1), 102-127.

Shaffer, B. and Janzen, T. 2004. Contextualization in ASL-English interpretation: A question of grammar or discourse strategy? Paper presented at the Conceptual Structures, Discourse and Language conference. Edmonton, Alberta, October 8-10, 2004.

Stone, C. 2009. Toward a Deaf Translation Norm. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

VRSII. 2012.  VRS Interpreting Institute Educators Symposium, Salt Lake City Utah.

Wadensjo, C. 1998. Interpreting as Interaction. London and New York: Longman.

Wilcox, S. & Shaffer, B. 2005. Towards a cognitive model of interpreting. In Topics in Signed Language Interpreting: Theory and Practice, T. Janzen, (ed.), 27-50. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

This was originally published in the CIT News.