If you struggle to master two languages, think about how interpreters who specialize in three or more languages do it.
The Bilingual Mind – Processing Information
With the bilingual mind (or multilingual at that), they have a special way of processing information and outputting the best words to convey the message spoken in one one language to another. After two to four years of training, interpreters have developed a special way of thinking to effectively provide verbal translations in either consecutive or simultaneous method.
How an Interpreter Works
To understand how their brain works, it’s only logical to find out what an interpreter does. A typical interpreter usually goes through the following process:
- Listening to the assigned speaker
- Comprehending what the speaker says
- Translating the message of the speaker in another language
- Verbalizing the translation
Some interpreters are supplied with resource materials or references to help them prepare for the actual task. They have to read all of these especially when doing simultaneous interpreting. In other words, with everything taken into account, the skills needed for interpreting are as follows: reading, listening, comprehension, translation (processing of information), and speaking. Being mediocre in any of these can be problematic.
As Geoff Watts of BBC puts it, the interpreting process necessitates “an extraordinary blend of sensory, motor, and cognitive skills.” All of these skills must synchronistically work for the interpreting process to be effectively carried out. It’s a feat that entails versatility and nuance that transcend the capabilities of even the most powerful computers.
Exploring the Mind of an Interpreter Through Neuroscience
A few studies have been conducted with regards to the mental capacity of interpreters. These research works facilitate a deeper understanding of how a bilingual mind operates and also measure how good interpreters are at multitasking.
A research entitled “Testing the Efforts Model of Simultaneous Interpreting: An ERP Study” made the rounds last year, presenting the findings of an experiment by researchers from the Centre for Bioelectric Interfaces and the Center for Cognition and Decision Making (of the Russian University) Higher School of Economics.
The experiment employed event-related potential (ERP) technique to examine neural activity attributable to different stages of the working memory when a person is doing simultaneous interpretation of continuous prose.
One of the researchers, Roman Koshkin, happens to be a professional simultaneous interpreter. In the research paper, he explained why they have chosen the Efforts Model of simultaneous interpreting. The model was selected because of the assertion that simultaneous interpreting consists of three cognitive functions, namely l
- Listening and analysis
- Short-term memory
- The speaking part, the utterance of the translated message
The study sought to clarify if simultaneous interpreters were doing these three functions at the same time with equal focus on each function, or they instead switched their focus among these three functions.
The Efforts Model piqued the curiosity of the researchers as it predicts that interpreters end up having less cognitive capacity for listening when they concentrate on their memory function. It sounds logical, but there has been no scientific study conducted with this regard. There’s a lack of quantitative measurement on the matter, so the researchers decided they would be the ones to to do this type of study.
The researchers enlisted nine professional interpreters to perform simultaneous interpreting of eight speeches. Their brain activities were then measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG) following the event-related potential (ERP) technique as earlier mentioned.
After conducting the experiments, the researchers reached the conclusion that can be summarized by what is referred to as the dynamic redistribution of attention. Basically, this means that the cognitive functions of an interpreter’s brain don’t appear to work perfectly at the same time.
Based on the EEG readings, whenever an interpreter lags from the speaker, the interpreter’s brain tends to take up more cognitive resources particularly those associated with the working memory, to retain and process information obtained through the ear. This in turn results in less brain power for the processing of new information. In other words, the findings back the predictions of the Efforts Model of simultaneous interpreting.
The findings align with the common wisdom that interpreters should keep up with the pace a speaker is speaking. Falling behind for a significant amount of time can disrupt the delicate balance of cognitive functions used when doing simultaneous interpreting. Hence, interpreters are more likely to tumble when they fail to stay in the same pace as the speaker’s.
Barbara Moser-Mercer, an interpreter and researcher at the University of Geneva specializing in German, English and French, decided that she wanted to do a research on what goes on in the brain when an interpreter interprets. In collaboration with colleagues involved in the brain sciences, she set out to examine brain activity while a person puts bilingualism to work. The research she led, entitled Simultaneous Interpreting: Cognitive Potentials and Limitations, was published in volume 5 of the International Journal of Research and Practice in Interpreting.
This study made use of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to observe the brain of an interpreter while it undertakes specific tasks related to interpretation. The researchers found that several regions of the brain work together when a person interprets. There are way more parts than the Broca’s area and its neighboring regions that are activated when a person performs language interpreting. This concerted activity of different cerebral components, along with the myriad connections they create, produce complexities that make it extremely difficult to reveal the operation of each component. As such, the researchers decided to treat each of the elements involved in interpreting as a black box, focusing on the links and coordination of these “black boxes” to try to comprehend the mechanisms that make it possible for an interpreter to effectively control certain brain functions effectively at the same time.
The study found that two regions in the striatum, the caudate nucleus and putamen, play key roles in allowing an interpreter to control the different “black boxes” while juggling two languages at the same time. However, the study also revealed that there is no one specific part of the brain that serves as a center for the exclusive control of the executive functions involved in interpreting. Several parts of the brain have their respective contributions in making it possible for interpreters to do their jobs effectively. It’s also worth noting that these numerous brain parts that play a role in interpreting are classified as generalists (not specialists).
More importantly, the Moser-Mercer study made discoveries that somewhat make interpreting an attractive career for those who want to boost their bilingual mind and brain power. While there are limitations in the amount of cognitive overload an interpreter can handle, the following findings stand out.
- Being an interpreter helps the brain in becoming more adaptable to cognitive overload.
- Interpreting is beneficial in honing the plasticity of the brain's neural networks
- An expert interpreter can develop the ability to overcome several cognitive constraints.
Simultaneous Interpreters = Excellent Brain Power
The first research above indicates how interpreters find it difficult to do simultaneous interpreting when they lose their pace. However, if you observe experts in providing professional interpreting services, hardly any one of them fall for this. Over the years, they have learned to develop strategies or techniques that allow them to provide accurate interpretations while maintaining their pace and the delicate balance of cognitive functions.
In the second research, it’s apparent that interpreting is not some specialist type of brain function. Several parts of the brain pitch in to make it possible to nearly-simultaneously do the listening, memorizing, translation, and speaking functions. Doing this on a regular basis for a long time consequently creates the advantages of being able to hand cognitive overload more easily, having better brain plasticity, and prevailing over different kinds of cognitive limitations.
In short, interpreters have great brains. The good news is that this greatness can be developed. It is not an inherent attribute for a person. By repeatedly going through processes that push the brain to its limits, interpreters achieve better cognitive functions. Some would say that interpreters can solve crossword puzzles while doing their job at the same time, but most interpreters dismiss this as a myth. Still, this does not take away the fact that interpreters are excellent multitaskers. Moser-Mercer, in a BBC feature story, even said that some interpreters used to do knitting while interpreting (when knitting was popular).
Bonus (humor): When asked, why he was absent for an entire work week for five consecutive days, how did the interpreter respond?
Interpreter: Don’t you mean two work weeks? It’s consecutive, so shouldn’t there be a pause after each absence?
Explaining this joke would strip it off its humor, but for the benefit of those who don’t get it, here’s some information about the two types of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous.
- Consecutive interpreting is when a speaker has to pause after speaking so the interpreter can provide the verbal translation then pause to wait for the other speaker to respond, then translate and pause again to wait for the first speaker’s response.
- Simultaneous interpreting, on the other hand, happens when the interpreter interprets at almost the same time the speaker speaks.
Of course, interpreters are not pudding heads to mistake a word for another. It’s just that their minds are brilliantly fast that they can come up with jokes on the fly.
It Helps to Think like an Interpreter, but You Don’t Have to Become One...
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