Professional interpreters as a subgroup of highly proficient bilinguals: a Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) approach

Barsukova, Anastasia (2017) Professional interpreters as a subgroup of highly proficient bilinguals: a Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) approach. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Professional interpreters are often described as “exceptional” bilinguals, however, there is very little information in the literature about the particulars of this kind of bilingual proficiency, or the conditions and life experiences resulting in its development (Valdes and Angelelli, 2003).
Information about the bilingual proficiency of interpreters tends to be based on the guidelines and definitions of professional organisations, such as the AIIC A and B language classifications used in conference interpreting. However, with the exception of Thiery’s (1975) inquiry into “true bilingualism”, the implications of these classifications have not been investigated in terms of what they correspond to in practice with respect to interpreters’ bilingualism. Furthermore, the bilingualism of interpreters who specialise in other professional domains, such as the public services, has not yet been studied or described. At the same time, it is maintained that the contribution of studies looking to describe the bilingualism of interpreters and its development is not limited to the discipline of interpreting only, and may provide important insights into aspects of individual bilingualism more generally (Valdes and Angelelli, 2003).
The present project contrasts three populations of professional interpreters, AIIC AA and AB conference interpreters, and public service interpreters (PSIs) on the UK National Register. The comparison takes into consideration biographical and perceptional factors pertaining to bilingualism, and the interrelationships between biographies and perceptions. The three populations of interpreters were considered as a group of highly proficient bilinguals characterised by a set of additional properties, such as strong language maintenance motivation and intensive use of both languages. Data on linguistic biographies, attitudes and perceptions were collected from the three groups by means of a large-scale questionnaire (N = 400). Applying the principles of Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), the data were analysed in terms of the relationships between components of the bilinguals’ external and internal environment.
An analysis of the findings for the three groups together provided evidence in support of the DST view of bilingualism with respect to the development of the bilingual language system over a lifetime. A comparison of the AIIC AA and AB interpreters revealed differences between the groups with respect to both biographical factors and perceptions, which were discussed in terms of their implications for bilingualism. In particular, the findings appeared to be in line with the literature on age and context of SLA and ultimate L2 attainment. At the same time, individual variation was observed within both the AA and AB groups, which may be considered evidence against a critical period for SLA. In addition, childhood linguistic factors were found to be important in shaping notions of identity and attachment to the languages among the two groups.
The PSI and AIIC AB groups were found to be similar in terms of linguistic biographies, but with the present dominant linguistic environment of the PSI group skewed significantly towards the L2.
A comparison of PSI and AB groups in terms of perceptional factors pointed to the influence of the contextual factor of linguistic environment on bilinguals’ internal perceptions. In particular, the linguistic environment was found to have an effect on perceptions of cross-linguistic interference, as well as language confidence.
Several directions for further research at the intersection of interpreting and bilingualism were identified on the basis of the results of the study. More generally, it is proposed that professional interpreters represent a valuable population for research into aspects of individual bilingualism, in particular in the context of a DST approach, and that the inclusion of interpreters of different types (e.g. conference, PSI) in such studies would only serve to enrich and broaden the scope of the research.

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