Thursday, August 30, 2012

Revisiting Shadowing in Interpreting Teaching: The Need for Empirical Research

As indicated in previous postings, I have been working on a course development project on behalf of Glendon College of York University, in Toronto, since early this year. The experience has proven to be extremely enriching as it has allowed me to interact with colleagues around the world who have been developing interpreting courses in various language pairs for Glendon College. Although spread around the globe in countries such as France, Germany, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Russia, we have interacted profusely and exchanged invaluable information and experience through a virtual forum.

A topic that generated fervent debate among us was the usefulness of shadowing as a preliminary stage into simultaneous interpreting training. Some colleagues were utterly against it while others were very much in favor. It has been several weeks since this debate, in which I hardly participated at all, took place.  Since there was not a clear winner, I decided to do some research on this hotly debated topic.

During my research, I came across articles by Nancy Schweda and Sylvie Lambert. In her article, Schweda clearly favors the use of shadowing in interpreter training, and distinguishes three types of shadowing: phonemic shadowing –the repetition of each sound that is uttered– phrase shadowing  –the repetition of a speech after hearing longer utterances– and “adjusted lag shadowing” –where the student is asked to lag behind a specific  number of words before starting to shadow (page 34).  She also provides pointers for the selection of passages and appropriate feedback to students by the instructor.

Lambert also makes a case for the use of shadowing in interpreter training, while highlighting some drawbacks of this teaching approach. She draws an analogy between learning to become an interpreter and learning to drive a stick-shift car – arguing that the aspiring driver very likely “was not thrown into the driver’s seat of a vehicle travelling down the freeway at 70 miles an hour. He probably began by turning on the ignition, letting the car idle, and learning to master the brakes, clutch and gears before actually taking the car out for a ride” (page 264). Regardless of divergent viewpoints on the usefulness of shadowing, the truth of the matter is that shadowing –in particular phrase shadowing– is used in the field of interpretation as a device to screen second language proficiency, aptitude for interpreting, and pre-simultaneous interpreting training. It is also a research tool in the fields of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics to assess attention capacity and an exercise to improve accent in a second language. Of course, as can be sensed from this posting, I favor shadowing in interpreter training, but not merely as a repetition exercise. Having a student simply repeat sounds would reduce an aspiring interpreter to the status of our feathery friend the parrot. Shadowing, as I have used it and intend to use it in my upcoming interpreting courses, is a listening exercise –as active listening is the basic skill in any form of interpreting– as well as a  comprehension and recollection exercise. By the latter, I mean that students will be asked to shadow a speech without taking notes and retrieve the salient points of the speech. The same way a student driver is not thrown in the driver’s seat to drive on a freeway, aspiring interpreters should not be asked to recall the specifics of a speech they have just shadowed. By and large, interpreters do not recall the details of a speech they have just interpreted.

Regardless of heated debates in favor or against the use of shadowing in interpreter training, there are two facts that cannot be denied. One is that shadowing trains the brain to multi-task and gives the student a good idea of the skills required in simultaneous interpreting. The other is that neither the usefulness nor the downsides of shadowing as a pre-simultaneous interpreting approach are supported by empirical research. The field of interpreter training would benefit from research on interpreting teaching approaches, including the use of shadowing.  The Schweda and Lambert articles date from the early 1990s.  New research on the benefits of shadowing would yield important insights on this topic.

Sources cited
Lambert, Sylvie (1992): “Shadowing”, Meta, 37, 2, pp. 263-273.
Retrieved August 30, 2012.
Schweda, N., Nancy (1990): “The Role of Shadowing in Interpreter Training”, The Interpreter’s Newsletter,  3, pp. 33-37. 
Retrieved August 30, 2012.