In The Write - Interview

Tiffany Leveille Interviews Chris Gorges

A few weeks ago, Tiffany Leveille reached out to me and asked if I would do an interview for her new website and blog “In The Write”. I told her that I would be happy to do so. You can view the full interview below.

1) On your website, you say that you have been involved in the ASL community for over 10 years, what sparked your interest in learning ASL? What were the first steps you took to learning?

My first exposure to sign language was actually in Paraguay in the year 2007. I traveled there to visit some missionary friends that lived in Concepcion, and at that time they were hosting a sign language class sponsored by a local congregation. Since I was already there, I decided I would attend the classes even though they were being conducted in Spanish. With that said however, I never really pursued it any further until 2009. At that time my wife’s father was losing his hearing and we all decided that we were going to learn sign language as a family. Naturally, we started by taking classes, but we also combined that with immersing ourselves into the community as much as possible. We attended sign language meetings, went to deaf events, invited deaf friends to our home, and also received a lot of help from hearing ones that were already fluent in the language.

2) How long did it take you to become proficient in ASL? Did you have any setbacks or certain challenges that made you question continuing on your ASL journey?

Attaining proficiency in a language is a very different experience for everyone, however for myself it took a solid year before I felt proficient in the language. The language learning process is a difficult one and I think everyone at some point reaches a point where they face discouragement or setbacks of one kind or another. For me, in the beginning especially, it was very frustrating not being able to convey what it was that I wanted to say. In many respects, my language ability was no greater than a child. However, I was always reminded by my friends that I had to look at how far I had come and only compare my skill level to my previous self. Easier said than done! I think the hardest part of learning any language is the fact that you always want to be proficient as quickly as possible and it can be hard at times to be patient enough with yourself along the way.  

3) Did you always know you wanted to be an interpreter? What interested you in interpreting?

The funny thing about my interpreting career is that it wasn’t even on my radar until years after I had learned the language. I had previously worked as a Civil Engineer since the age of 14 (in 1999) and continued to do so until the recession hit in 2008. At that time, construction came to a complete halt and nearly everyone at the company I worked for had been laid off. It wasn’t until years afterwards that I started to work as an interpreter. My brother who worked at a local college told me that they were needing interpreters there, so both my wife and I decided to go apply for the job. Little did we know we would be hired on the spot. From there on out we both fell in love with interpreting and have been doing it ever since. 

4) What does the process of becoming an interpreter look like? 

The process can be different for everyone. For instance, some know from an early age that they want to go into the field of interpreting which affords them the opportunity to take classes in high school or college and even attend an Interpreting Training and Preparation Program (ITP). For others, such as children of deaf adults (CODA), typically already know the language from a young age and may have had to interpret for their parents or other deaf family members growing up. Interpreting professionally can be a natural fit for them and can make the road to attaining certifications easier. For myself, I didn’t even start learning the language until I was 23. Years after learning the language, I suddenly had to learn how to interpret. Learning both the language and how to interpret on professional level was only made possible because I had a great deal of support from friends and colleagues and a good dose of grit and determination.

5) Do you have to hold a certain college degree or take certain classes? 

Yes and no. You can technically become an interpreter as long has you have the skills to do so. You can even attain certifications such as the ESSE or EIPA as long as you are skilled enough to pass their evaluations. However, taking classes can be a huge catalyst for learning the language and learning the complexities and intricacies of the interpreting process. Classes will also help accelerate your skill in the language as well as your understanding of deaf culture. Likewise, a college degree is also not necessary to become an interpreter, however having a degree can not only help you become a more successful person overall, but obtaining your bachelor’s degree is a requirement for attaining the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) through the Register of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) … so long as you can pass their various exams.

6) You say that your goal is to “Provide free educational content to those that would like to learn sign language.” Why is teaching ASL so important to you? What do you believe to be the best part of teaching ASL?

There are many reasons why I think it is important for others to learn sign language, however one of the more pertinent reasons I feel strongly about is for deaf children. After working for various school districts for several years and doing extensive research on the topic, one of the more shocking things I have learned is that approximately 90% of all deaf children are born to hearing parents, and even to this day, most of those hearing parents decide to not learn or teach sign language to their children. Seeing the repercussions of that decision really becomes apparent when these children enter public schools for the first time and are suddenly bombarded by words and signs they don’t understand. To put it in perspective, according to a 2013 study done by Scholastic, a hearing child on average will be exposed to on average between 15-45 million words by the time they start school and will have an expressive vocabulary of  approximately 14,000 words and a receptive vocabulary of 28,000 words (A Concise Introduction to Linguistics by Bruce Rowe). Now imagine a deaf student that is starting Kindergarten with nearly no exposure to either English or ASL and has little to no vocabulary outside of invented signs used in the home, and this child is suddenly thrown into a new learning environment expected to know words and signs he or she doesn’t understand. That not only affects them their first year in school but it affects them through the entirety of their educational career. Being a parent myself, I understand that learning another language while at the same time raising a child and working full-time is a tall order. That is why I want to make it as easy and as accessible as possible for anyone, no matter their schedule or circumstances, to have the opportunity and available resources to enable them to learn sign language.

To answer your second question about what I find to be the best part of teaching ASL, I would have to say being a part of creating an environment in which these kids can thrive. In one school in particular, myself and others have been able to inspire teachers, aides, and in many cases entire classrooms to learn and use ASL. This creates a very inclusive environment in which deaf kids don’t have to worry about a communication barrier getting in the way of being themselves and affording them the opportunity to just be a kid. In fact, just a few weeks ago at the school I previously mentioned, a play based on The Jungle Book was done entirely in ASL and was performed by 4th and 5th grade students composed of hearing, hard of hearing, and deaf students. So at every school site or administration I work with, I make it my personal goal to help create this kind of inclusive environment so deaf students don’t end up being excluded or bullied. Alongside helping these students individually, creating this kind of atmosphere and environment is, to me, one of the best parts of helping others learn ASL.

7) You post many of your videos on your Instagram, where you have over 4,700 followers. How did you grow your account and get your message out to others who wanted to learn ASL? 

Like many things, it’s a learning process. Before I even got started I did a lot of research into how social media could be best utilized to reach as many people as possible. This is one of the main reasons why I decided to do what I do. Over the years, I’ve been able to help many people get past the struggles and frustrations of learning a new language and achieve the fluency they were working so hard to attain. However, as great as it felt to help the few dozen people that I knew in person, I knew that I could help even more people via social media. To date, via platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, I have been able to reach over 50,000 people with my videos, which when I pause to reflect on that is pretty daunting … but more importantly than that though is the impact my videos are having on others. The responses from many of these ones have been incredibly positive and has encouraged me to continue on with my work. If I can help even one person learn sign language and empower that person to have the ability to communicate with their child, family, friends, or others in the community, than I feel like the hundreds of hours I have invested in teaching others have been worthwhile. 

8) What advice would you give to students or others who aspire to become interpreters one day?

First of all, if you are currently looking into becoming an interpreter, you are fulfilling a great need. Currently in the United States there is a huge deficit of skilled interpreters and thousands of deaf ones across the country who don’t have reliable access to interpreters that can understand them and facilitate clear and accurate communication for them. Think for a moment of not being able to clearly communicate with your doctor, a teacher, a police officer, a lawyer, a therapist, etc and what that must feel like. However this is a challenge many deaf individuals are currently dealing with on a regular basis. Know that if you become an interpreter, you will be providing a much needed service for many individuals. With that said, if you are thinking about becoming an interpreter, start learning the language, become involved in the deaf community as much as possible, learn about deaf culture, and do research into what classes and programs are available to you locally. There is no better time to start working towards a goal than right now. 

9) Lastly, why is it important that more people learn sign language? 

I believe learning sign language is important because it is a bridge of communication that brings people together. If there is no means of communication between you and another person, then there really isn’t a way to build a relationship with that person. That is why it is especially important for families with deaf relatives to learn sign language as well. If you want to have any relationship with that relative, then it is essential to share a common language. Beyond that though, learning sign language enables you to become a part of a huge community that is full of amazing people, and without even realizing it, it can open up a myriad of opportunities for enjoyable and fulfilling employment where you have the privilege of helping others. Emily Dickinson once said, “I dwell in possibility”, so I ask anyone reading this, dwell on the countless possibilities of what learning sign language can do for you and for others. Dwell on the end result of what fluency can enable you to accomplish, the relationships you can build, and the endless possibilities that can become a reality when you choose to make it so. The choice is ultimately yours to make. So keep in mind that the person you are today is the result of the choices you’ve made in the past, therefore the decisions you make now will reflect who you will become in the future. So, if you want to be someone that can connect and help others through the power of sign language, then the decisions you make today need to reflect that goal. For me personally, the decision to learn sign language years ago is one that I will never regret. 

I hope you enjoyed the interview, and if you would like to check out Tiffany Leveille’s new blog “In The Write” you can check it out here. She describes it as a a place to spread knowledge and understanding through storytelling with different sections such as culture, photography, arts, ASL, and interviews.

Feel free to share your story down below in the comment section. What got you interested in learning sign language?

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