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Aquiring Second Language Proficiency for BSL interpeters and translators.

British Sign Language (BSL) is a complex visual-gestural language with its own grammar and syntax which is different from that of English. BSL interpreters and translators play an important role in facilitating communication between Deaf and hearing people but in order to provide effective interpreting and translation services, BSL interpreters and translators must be proficient not only in their native language, but also in their second language (English, BSL or another spoken or signed language). How exactly then do we as BSL interpreters and translators, acquire proficiency in a second (or third) language and how can the findings from Edda Weigand's paper "Framing Communication Competence" can be incorporated into strategies for developing communication competence in a second language.


Acquiring proficiency in a second language


Acquiring proficiency in a second language is a complex process that involves a number of factors, including motivation, aptitude, experience, and opportunity to practice. For BSL interpreters and translators, acquiring proficiency in their second language is essential for effective communication and the production of accurate interpretations or written translations. In addition to mastering their second language, BSL interpreters and translators must also develop their cultural competence to better understand the cultural norms and values of their clients.


One way for BSL interpreters and translators to become proficient in their second language is through formal language instruction. This can include taking courses at a college or university, participating in domain specific CPD courses, or engaging in self-directed study. Formal language instruction provides a structured environment for learning a language and can help learners develop a solid foundation in the grammar and syntax of the language in either a signed language or English.


Another way BSL interpreters and translators acquire proficiency in their second language is through exposure. Exposure involves placing interpreters/translators in an environment where the target language is spoken or signed, such as mixing with the deaf community (and being exposed to different regional variations) or being exposed to levels and types of communication in English that they would not usually be exposed to. To achieve this, interpreters and translators need to regularly engage with the target language (second language) on a regular basis by reading a variety of materials, watching TV programs or movies, watching online clips or podcasts. Exposure provides learners with opportunities to practice their language skills in real-world contexts and to develop their understanding of the cultural norms and values associated with the language.


Communication Competence Strategies


Edda Weigand's paper, "Framing Communication Competence," explores the concept of communication competence and its relationship to language use. Communication competence is not only about mastery of language, but also about sociocultural knowledge and the ability to adapt to different contexts. Weigand emphasises that communicators (interpreters and translators) must engage in self-reflection and self-assessment to identify opportunities for improvement.



(See previous post on Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle.)


Communication competence strategies can be useful for BSL interpreters and translators who want to improve proficiency their second language. These strategies involve developing skills in various areas such as vocabulary acquisition, grammar and syntax, pragmatics, and cultural competence.


Vocabulary acquisition involves learning new words and phrases in the second language. BSL interpreters and translators can use various strategies to improve their vocabulary, such as flashcards, spaced repetition, and contextual learning to improve their vocabulary skills.


Grammar and syntax are about understanding the rules by which words and phrases are used in the language. BSL interpreters and translators can use grammar books, online resources, and language tutors to improve their grammar and syntax skills. In terms of BSL, it would be beneficial for interpreters or translators to ensure that they attend a BSL linguistics course so that they can further develop their understanding of the grammar and syntax of BSL as this will help them to produce clearer, more accurate BSL renditions and avoid intrusions form English.




Pragmatics includes understanding the social and cultural context in which the language is used. BSL interpreters and translators can improve their pragmatic skills by conversing with native speakers, observing social norms and conventions, and reading about cultural practices and customs. For translators whoa re unable to access the spoken form of English, they will need to fid opportunities for expose to different registers of language used in English. Many documents are only produced in formal written English, regardless of their target audience and so translators, especially those seeking to work with live translations for TV or events will need to increase their exposure to how English is used colloquially (not forgetting regional dialects).


Cultural competence means understanding the cultural norms and values associated with the second language. BSL interpreters and translators can improve their cultural competence by learning about the history, politics, and social customs of the community where the language is spoken or signed. Hearing interpreters often are taught about deaf culture and history during their language learning courses, the same is not true for BSL translators (in terms of hearing culture and norms) and while deaf people obviously live in a ‘hearing world’, cultural norms, speech patterns and social cues can often be missed. This is especially important when producing written translations in terms of a translator’s ability reflect a client in the written word in a range of registers.


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