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FAQs: Sign Language Interpreters

Who are our Interpreters?

Our interpreters facilitate effective communication between Deaf and hearing people using the English language and British Sign Language.

Our interpreters are all professionally trained in the use of British Sign Language and members of the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI). ASLI is a professional sign language interpreting body.

Much of the interpreting takes place simultaneously and the process can therefore be fairly demanding for the interpreter. For this reason, it is common for two interpreters to assist in sessions which exceed an hour.

The interpreting skills required by the interpreter are considerable due to the fact that they are not doing straight ‘language’ interpreting. They are using very different modes of communication for communities of people with very different cultural backgrounds.

It is also worth noting that not all Deaf people are conversant with English as a written language and in cases where individuals are familiar / conversant with the written form, levels of ability and understanding vary greatly. Consequently the provision of written communication to bridge the communication gap is not always appropriate.

What is British Sign Language?

British Sign Language is used in the United Kingdom (UK) by approximately 70,000 Deaf individuals and an unknown number of families, relatives and individuals providing services to the Deaf.

The language is not just limited to hand movements; it also makes use of other parts of the body, facial expressions and lip patterns.

As with spoken English, British Sign Language has many different dialects and individuals from Devon for example, may not always understand everything that an individual from Edinburgh is signing. The language is also constantly evolving and as such, a word which may have been fashionable five years ago may not still be in use.

It is sometimes assumed by the Hearing community that in the same way that British, Americans and Australians speak English so too do the same countries share the same signing language. This is not true. British Sign Language is very different from American Sign Language (ASL). British Sign Language is also fairly different to the sign language used in Ireland (ISL). ISL is in fact closely linked to French Sign Language (FSL).

Surpisingly, British Sign Language was not recognised as an official language until 2003.

Why use Interpreters?

For a large portion of the Deaf community, English (spoken or written) is not their first language and therefore, they experience the same language issues experienced by any member of a linguistic minority. For many, English is only their second or third language.

Due to the issues of written communication e.g. time taken, inability to convey concepts adequately under pressure and potential linguistic issues, the use of written language to communicate in an environment in which good communication is required, is not recommended. Lipreading can also be an issue for many Deaf people as many English words use the same lip movements when spoken. It is also not uncommon for indivdiuals who are Deaf to have problems with their eyesight.

For all these reasons and more, an interpreter is essential to ensure that an indivdual with British Sign Language as their first language and an English speaking individual communicate effectively.

What Types of Sign Language Interpreters are there?



British Sign Language/English interpreters

British Sign Language / English interpreters are used by Deaf people whose preferred language is British Sign Language. The interpreter interprets from British Sign Language to written / spoken English or vice versa.

Other communication methods, which do not involve the use of British Sign Language include:

Speech to Text Reporting

Interpreters use one of two systems known as Palantype® or Stenograph®. Words are typed phonetically to ensure that the interpreter is able to keep up with what is being said. The words are then converted back into English on the deaf person’s computer screen. Clearly, the Deaf person needs to have a good grasp of written English to engage in this process.

Electronic Notetakers (EN’s)

EN’s support the Deaf person by typing the spoken English lanaguage into a laptop. The Deaf person is able to read what is being typed via a second laptop computer and can interact accordingly. The difference between EN interpreting and Speech to Text Reporting is that the Deaf person may have less words to read due to the difficulties that the interpreter may experience in keeping up with what has been said. This would certainly be the case in a conference interpreting session as opposed to a setting in which the interpreter is able to document speech consecutively.

Manual Notetakers (MN’s)

MN’s work in a similar capacity to EN’s. However, the notes are taken down in handwritten form and the Deaf person is able to read what is being written in parallel with the information being written down. As above, the Deaf person needs to have a good grasp of written English to engage in this process.

Deafblind interpreters

Deafblind interpreters (manual) are used by members of the deafblind community. Interpreters interpret what is being said using the Deafblind Manual Alaphabet to form letters on the hand of the deafblind individual’s hand.

The Block Alphabet

The Block Alphabet may also be used which involves spelling out words with the tip of the finger in block capitals on the palm of the deafblind individual. This method however is more typically used by individuals in the general public to communicate with the deafblind individual in the absence of any other method.

Hands on Signing

Interpreters are typically used by Deafblind individuals who have previously used British Sign Language prior to eventual sightloss. Upon loss of sight many individuals continue to use British Sign Language by touching the hands of the individual who is interpreting for them and following the communication accordingly.

Visual Frame Signing interpreters

Visual Frame Signing Interpreters are used by deafblind individuals who may still have some residual sight. The interpreter adapts signs according to the area in which vision remains.

Lipspeaker interpreters

Lipspeaker interpreters are used by deaf people who prefer to lipread the English spoken language. In this respect the lipspeaker interpreter speaks without the use of their voice and clearly articulates words using expression and gestures to assist in conveying the language.

What should you do before organising an Interpreter?

Prior to arranging a British Sign Language interpreter, it is important that you first check the needs and preferences of the individual involved. They may for example not use British Sign Language – it may be a different type of sign language or they may not use British Sign Language at all and may as such prefer a different mode of communication such as Lip Speakers or Note Takers.

What arrangements do you need to put in place when working with a British Sign Language interpreter?

  • Ensure that you have built sufficient time into your agenda to allow for the additional time taken when an interpreter is involved. It is suggested that you use ‘double the time’ as a guideline when planning the start and finish time of your meeting
  • All interpreters, regardless of the mode in which they are interpreting, may require preparation material. Prior preparation helps to ensure that the interpreter is as effective as possible during the assignment. If you have any material (written / audio / visual), which you feel may benefit the interpreter then please send it to your Kwintessential contact.
  • Ensure that the room being used for the interpreting is as quiet as possible and that the lighting in the room is good. The British Sign Language Interpreter should be positioned opposite the Deaf client.
  • Speak at the pace and the volume which you would normally speak.
  • Ensure that you direct all your speech at the Deaf person and not the interpreter.
  • Do not ask the British Sign Language interpreter for any advice or suggestions. They are attending as a professional interpreter – and as such they are solely there to aid communication and are hence, objective / neutral participants.
  • Ensure that you give your interpreter regular breaks. Sign language interpreting is extremely demanding and as such, the interpreter should be given a break every half an hour for five minutes. This will ensure that they are effective throughout the assignment.


What do you need to advise us of when booking an Interpreter?

When booking an interpeter, you need to provide us with the following information:

  • Date
  • Start Time
  • End Time
  • Contact on Arrival
  • Background to the Assignment
  • Delegate numbers (both hearing and Deaf)
  • Any other relevant information


Your Kwintessential contact will then contact you to discuss your needs thoroughly and to ensure that the indivdiual being booked is qualified with the appropriate communication skills (e.g. British Sign Language Interpter, Lipspeaker, Notetaker etc.).

Once all the details have been confirmed, then we will send you a booking form. This form needs to be signed and faxed to us to confirm the booking.

Upon receipt of the booking form, we will also ask for any material which will help the British Sign Language Interpreter to prepare for the assignment. This may include for example, copies of any presentations, reports, letters etc.

If you have any further needs / queries in this respect, then please contact:

Nikki Johnson
Tel: 01460 279 900

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