Four languages if you want to call 112 in Belgium, what about interpreters?

I read in http://www.lesoir.be/ today (in the paper copy, cannot find it on the Internet) that the “Commission permanente de contrôle linguistique” has given thumbs up for letting people use English when they call 112 in Belgium. You can now be served in Dutch, French, German and English. The three official languages of Belgium and English. Le Soir also reports that in France you can get help in 128 languages with the help of interpreters. So for people living in Belgium; in case you are injured, ill or the witness of an accident don’t forget to first learn Dutch, French, German or English, or just don’t call 112. I mean how awful would it be if we made use of interpreters, the delicate linguistic balance of the country may be threatened, or the vile foreigner may decide he will never learn the country’s language properly since he can actually get the help of an interpreter should he be in distress. It is ironic that the country with the biggest group of professional interpreters is so far behind when it comes to using and training social or community interpreters.

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The interpreter’s role in the participation framework

Erving Goffman was an anthropologist and sociologist who studied social interaction. Among other things, he proposed a model to analyse the distribution of responsibility between interlocutors. Cecilia Wadensjö (1998) uses this model to analyse the role of the interpreter in an interpreter mediated event. An interlocutor has a given role in a communicative context. The roles can be symmetric or assymmetric depending on the situation. Participants can either be assigned different roles depending on the context or they can take up different roles. The participation framework (Goffman, 1981) gives different participants different status. Anyone who hears an utterance can take on a participant status, but depending on the situation you can have different production formats. The formats can be those of the animator (the person who conveys either his or her own words or of somebody else’s) or the author (somebody who compiles fact or information and makes an utterance but without necessarily being the one who guarantees the correctness of the information in that utterance) and finally the principal (the actor who is fully responsible for an utterance [the fact, the information behind and so forth], you can be the principal both of an utterance regarding your own feelings or something very formal such as the application of a particular law). In order to fully understand the interpreter’s role in the communication Wadensjö adds three reception formats: the reporter (who just reports verbatim what has been said), the recapitulator (who recapitulates what has been said but in an active listening and understanding act, not just verbatim repeating) and the respondent (who listens in order to respond, to take the communication further). The interpreter’s role in the communicative context vary, but has to be seen in the light of the reception formats. The interpreter is an animator and sometimes a principal, but the interpreter is first and foremost a recapitulator (hopefully, since we all agree by know that a word-for-word translation is rarely successful) who sometimes step into the role of responder. The interpreter responds and becomes the principal in utterances such as ”Could you please repeat that” or ”The interpreter would like to ask a question”, i.e. situations when the interpreter goes out of his/her role of conveying somebody else’s message and goes into the role of transmitting a message of his or her own.

Turn taking and interpreting

Turn taking in discourse governs who has the right to talk, when you are allowed to talk and who decides whose turn it is. A turn in a discourse is the period when one speaker has the exclusive right to talk. It is based on a common norm system, but the norm can of course differ from group to group or culture to culture. The turn can be taken by one speaker or can be given by the speaker to another listener. There are different ways to indicate a turn, you can do it linguistically (questions such as “What do you say?” or “You see?” and so forth, but also other cues) or para-linguistically (pause, glance, hem and so forth).

Turn taking can be more or less difficult for participants in a communicative event depending on whether you share the same norms or not. However, when we add an interpreter we add one more participant, but who are not participant on the same grounds as the other two. Particularly in dialogue interpreting, the interpreter has implications for the turn taking. The other participants in the dialogue cannot freely regulate the turn. However, the interpreter can use paralinguistic turn taking signals to take the turn (to interpret) or to give the turn (signal that it’s time for a new turn from one of the other participants). Cecilia Wadensjö has studied this and how interpreters manage this. In this paper for instance.

Communicative competence, generative grammar and Dan Everett

I would say that an interpreter has a very well developed communicative competence. The definition of communicative competence being that we create meaning in utterances in many different communication situations. Dell Hymes was the first one to coin communicative competence in 1966 with the meaning that a person knows how words and structures works in different communicative situations. Communicative competence was a sort of counter balance to Chomsky‘s theory of generative grammar. Chomsky is indeed interested in the competence of the language user, but only as a formal competence not how it is used in a communicative situation. The (in)famous theory of generative grammar defined as something all human beings are born with and without which we would not be able to produce language. The generative grammar would also be the reason for language universals. Features that are common to all or most of the world’s languages. The most interesting dispute of generative grammar, I believe, comes from Dan Everett in his book “Don’t sleep there are snakes”. In his book he gives an account of his life as a linguist and missionary (at first at least) in the Amazonian jungle. He lived with the Pirahã people and gradually learns their language and culture. He claims that there are no language universals to be found in the Pirahã language. Their language is quite simply totally different.

I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig “Språklig Samhandling” and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of communicative competence in general.