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Difference between Language Interpreters and Bilingualism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Translation
Wordcount: 2249 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Discuss how interpreters can be distinguished from people who are merely bilingual. Define the kind of bilingual competencies that a capable interpreter should possess.

For quite a long time, interpreters and people who are merely bilingual were grouped into the same frame for it was believed that anyone can pretend to be an interpreter, under the pretext that they speak two languages. Learning a second language to know what a person is saying and being able to answer back involves a lot of work and time. When a second language is acquired through learning, it is important to keep using the skill in order to avoid losing the language over time. This degree of language proficiency represents an adequacy for standard or everyday conversations that a person may become involved in. However, being a bilingual does not automatically make someone an interpreter as it requires obviously both a certain level of education in order to acquire the necessary methods, skills and accuracy. In this context, the objective of this essay is to show firstly how interpreters can be distinguished from people who are merely bilingual and secondly what kind of bilingual competencies a capable interpreter should possess.

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According to Baker (2001), when we think about bilingualism, we are most inclined to think of two languages whereas Bloomfield (1935) viewed bilingualism as possessing the language skills of a native speaker. In other words, it can be said that the term bilingual relates to someone who uses and speaks two languages or who has two languages. However, this statement can be regarded as something filled with improbabilities. According to Hoffman (2014), there is more to bilingualism than just speaking or understanding two languages. Besides, there are different dimensions included in the definition of bilingualism such as the distinction between competence and use of the language where competence is different among the four language skills. In general, it is believed that bilinguals have one prevailing language over the other, but as time goes by, it may change. According to the linguist François Grosjean (2008), a bilingual is not someone who only speaks and possess two languages but who have communicative and linguistic skills in those two languages at different levels.

As a result, it can be noted that being bilingual is a state, but, being an interpreter is actually a profession, owing to the fact that there are many differences between speaking a foreign language fluently and interpreting it correctly. There are many people who think that being bilingual means that you can easily do the interpreting, but this is not the case as there are some differences between these two words. A bilingual person is someone who has knowledge of two languages in these four skills, oral comprehension, written comprehension, oral expression and written expression. Normally, a bilingual person has a large general vocabulary, but a very limited specialised vocabulary. For this reason, the bilingual person is able to communicate with others and sometimes interpret, yet these interpreting do not have the same quality as those made by a professional interpreter. An interpreter, unlike a bilingual, is a person who knows two or more languages and, in addition, masters the complexities and variations of both the source language and the target language. In general, a bilingual person will not apply the rules in interpreting as would do a professional interpreter. In this connection, it can be argued that it is not enough to just being bilingual to become an interpreter.

Moreover, it can be added that interpreters have to achieve a state of bilingual fluency that far exceeds what an average bilingual person would ever need. On one hand, they not only gain the ability to speak and understand the language with absolute fluency, at the level of an educated native speaker but at the same time, they also broaden their cultural knowledge that lies behind the language. They have an understanding of the underlying meaning of the stillness surrounding words, the hidden meaning signals in the tone of the voice and the importance of other non-verbal signals that the merely bilingual individual will not be able to recognise. In addition, interpreters are specially trained to provide not simply a general explanation of what someone is saying but as well as a comprehensive and precise interpretation of what the individual is saying exactly. This is made possible by having among others a strong ability in listening and concentration. For instance, interpreters handle highly specialised interpretation situations requiring complex vocabulary with nuanced meanings that the average bilingual person would not know, such as medical, legal or financial sectors.

In addition to their linguistic and lexical skills, interpreters acquire and perfect the skills essential to the practice of their profession. In the first place, interpreters can be identified by the cognitive development and communicative skills that refer to the functioning of memory, familiarisation with bibliographic, documentary and lexicological research. Then, in contrast to merely bilingual people, interpreters, on one side, must master the techniques of simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and on the other side, they must develop extra-linguistic competence given that they most often deal with up to date subjects and other matters in the most diverse fields. Subsequently, they must acquire the documentary and instrumental skills that are also very important. Indeed, the first one allows interpreters to prepare the conferences, and to do lexical or thematic research. As for the second, instrumental competence, interpreters must become familiar, through the courses, with the interpretation tools as well as the equipment in the booth. Additionally, the interpreter must also acquire and perfect the skills essential to the practice of the profession, such as great openness of mind, adaptability and assimilation, which make it possible to acquire knowledge quickly in the most diverse fields and these aptitudes are far greater than the skills of a bilingual person.

Consequently, in interpretation, the interpreter needs to be very fluent in oral communication and know how to express himself or herself correctly. Interpreting can be viewed as challenging. In addition, the interpreter must also be comfortable not only in his or her mother tongue as well as master the target language perfectly because there is no margin for error, especially in the case of legal interpretation. In this regard, when interpreting is compared to merely bilingual people, the interpreter is viewed as someone who has to be very quick and concise. For example, the message must summaries the main idea put forward by the person speaking and this, adapted in the language of the person who will receive the message. For this reason, the interpreter must be thoroughly prepared before each interpreting session and it is also essential to highlight the intense rhythm that the interpreter must face when transmitting the information which is very different from people who are merely bilingual. With this in mind and with the identified points noted between interpreters and bilinguals, the following sections will deal with the bilingual competencies that a qualified interpreter should possess.

In order to avoid creating any confusion, it is appropriate to take into consideration once again that being an interpreter does not mean being bilingual. By all means, bilingualism is a key factor and it is also an indispensable skill, but it is not sufficient to be referred to as a proficient interpreter in the sector. Usually, in interpreting, languages are either active or passive where the active language is a language spoken by the interpreter whereas the passive language is a language understood by the interpreter. In other words, he or she works from a passive language, which he or she understands perfectly and speaks to a certain extent, into an active language that he or she masters perfectly. Therefore, in addition to having knowledge of languages, a capable interpreter should be intellectually agile, responsive and above all possess a very strong cultural background. This is not a matter about focusing in one field or another, with the exception of being a specialist in all fields.

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As a matter of fact, it is impressive to speak more than one language, although having the possibility to professionally interpret for someone who speaks another language requires the necessary skills. A qualified interpreter has more than just excellent language skills, for instance, he or she is able to merge a number of languages and interpersonal skills to do his or her job well. With this said, a capable interpreter should possess remarkable language skills. The interpreter must firstly have a thorough knowledge of the language for which he or she is interpreting. Most often, when an interpreter is working, he or she possibly does not have time to consult referencing materials such as an encyclopedia or dictionary. In this case, possessing a broad vocabulary and very good written and oral communication skills are essential for the interpreter. Further to this, an interpreter should be able to speak rather well, than a native speaker where advanced grammatical knowledge and the aptitude to interpret idioms or metaphors in dialogue exchange play an important role in communicating effectively. On a related note, it can be observed that language competence forms part in bilingualism by requiring the ability to understand the original language and the ability to express oneself in the target language which an interpreter should possess. Likewise, the interpreter should have the transfer competence with the ability to grasp the meaning of the spoken language and to render it without distortion. Furthermore, the interpreter should have a high level of focus, by being tactful and flexible and the necessity to maintain a sense of detail and nuance, a strong culture and solid general knowledge.

In the same manner, Baker (2001) provides some basic bilingual competencies which are vital for an interpreter to have in his or her possession. These are pronunciation which deals with phonetic aptitude, vocabulary which concerns lexical development, grammar which looks into syntax and rule development, meaning which occupies comprehension and discourse features and lastly style which is made up of context, register and function. In addition, among other skills that an interpreter should have that go in hand with the bilingual competencies are active listening, concentration, documentary and mental preparation, learning promptly but natural and idiomatic transposition strategies and learning to self-train or self-study. In view of this, another bilingual competency that perhaps is necessary for a capable interpreter is with reference to what Daniel Gile (2009) proposed where the effort of listening and analysis intervenes between the perception of the discourse by the auditory organs and the moment when the interpreter attributes a meaning to a segment of the discourse and the linguistic and extra-linguistic skills that are responsible for this understanding of discourse. In other words, it can be said that the approaches of both Baker and Gile are connected for the benefit of the interpreter.

In light of the above details, it can be deduced that many people still believe that being bilingual is identical with being an interpreter, for instance, they will say something like, I speak two languages, so I can be an interpreter. However, mastering two or more languages and having the opportunity to shift from one language to the other are two separate matters. Here, it is a matter of conveying the message from one culture to another, from one world to another. This, therefore, requires dominating not only the working languages in question but also the cultural dimension associated with them. It should also be remembered that the profession of the interpreter cannot be improvised. Interpreters are actively and professionally trained and over time they become more and more competent.


  • Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism / Colin Baker. (3rd ed., Bilingual education and bilingualism; 27). Clevedon [England]; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1935). Language / by Leonard Bloomfield. (Rev. ed.). London: G. Allen & Unwin.
  • Gile, D. (2009). Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training: Revised edition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Grosjean, F., & ProQuest. (2008). Studying bilinguals / François Grosjean. (Oxford linguistics). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hoffmann, C. (2014). Introduction to Bilingualism. London: Routledge.
  • Maftoon, P., & Shakibafar, M. (2011). Who Is a Bilingual?. Journal of English Studies, 1, 79-85.


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