Interpreter Training Resources

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Ideas for Language Acquisition

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These exericises and more can be found in Conference Interpreting - A Students'Companion, A Gillies, 2001, (p76-78) and are reproduced with the kind permission of Tertium Krakow). More exercises can be found in the 2004 revised edition of this book, Conference Interpreting - A New Students' companion..



Conference Interpreting - A New Students' Companion, Tertium Cracow 2004.



II Language(s)

“Interpreting is easy. You just have to know all the words.”

“Nobody knows everything in any language, even their own.”

These two patently contradictory remarks – both of which can be attributed to interpreters working at the European institutions – both have an undeniable element of truth to them. Consequently I offer the following comments on language acquisition.

At advanced levels, where grammar has been more or less mastered, the main difference between foreign students and native speakers is that the latter have been exposed to their language for many years, over thousands and thousands of hours. As a result he/she has a wider cultural and contextual understanding of the language, a wider vocabulary and a commands of a wider range of registers. This has itself come out of constant contact with the language and repeated exposure to all of its component elements.[1]

Students of foreign languages therefore have considerable ground to make up, this can only be done by maximizing language exposure. For students of interpreting this will often have included at least one year in the country concerned, but even this pales into insignificance next to the 25 and more years an adult native speaker has spent immersed in their language. We must, therefore, continue maximizing language exposure wherever we are.

“Language exposure” means reading in, and listening to the foreign language. It fulfills different learning needs from, say, conversations with native speakers. While conversation clearly has a role to play for the student, particularly in the case of students with "B" languages (see inlay), it is not a substitute for expansive language exposure. A lack of contact with native speakers is not an excuse for inadequate language exposure.

The language classifications according to AIIC, (Association Internationale des Interpretes de Conference) are as follows :

A: The interpreter's native language (or another language strictly equivalent to a native language), into which the interpreter works from all her or his other languages in both modes of interpretation, simultaneous and consecutive.

B: A language other than the interpreter's native language, of which she or he has a perfect command and into which she or he works from one or more of her or his other languages. Some interpreters work into a 'B' language in only one of the two modes of interpretation.

C: Languages, of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she or he works.

I suggest that 10 hours exposure per week, not including classroom or practice time, is a good start for students on full time courses other than interpreting or who work full time. For those not working or on full-time interpreting courses the figure might comfortably be doubled.

It is a mistake to believe that we have exhausted scope for improvement in our mother tongue, therefore I recommend that schemes 1. and 2. below also be applied to one's own language. This is particularly important for students living abroad who risk losing touch with their first language.

Things that you should be doing every day or at least 3-4 times a week, 1-2 hours per day....


Read quality newspapers (not just headline articles but editorials and in-depth reports); a weekly current affairs magazine; regular but less extensive contact with other registers and fields, i.e. tabloid newspapers, scientific magazines, literature, junk fiction, popular culture magazines.

Examples for students with English might be, in order…. FT -The Economist - The Sun - New Scientist - anyone you like – Helen Fielding – The Face.

Practical solutions for hard-up students might include each student buying one paper per week and swapping with others; use of the internet; English language schools; the British Council; libraries; flea markets (if your copy of National Geographic or Science Weekly is one year old it won’t make much difference). There are other sources of cheap material.

Read articles on the same topic but written independently in both languages. Thus you avoid literal translations but › how similar ideas are expressed independently in two languages without interference from the other language.


Listen to your language(s) for a minimum 2 x 30 minutes daily (not counting time interpreting).

Try to listen to (or watch) not just news broadcasts but also in-depth discussion programs and documentaries.

Practical solutions for students outside the country of their chosen language might include:

- listening to BBC World service radio (broadcasts programs in a variety of languages);

- buying a small satellite dish to receive radio/TV;

- using your school’s facilities to the full. If the school has a satellite dish, record radio and TV programs at the school and listen to them in the train/ car /at home etc. Borrow taped materials or ask native speakers on the staff to make speeches for you.

- scouring the "What’s on!" pages in the press for visiting speakers at universities/colleges, book readings, films in their original version etc.

3 Other - retour

To do a “retour” (from the french) means to interpret from an A into a B language.

3.1 As far as is affordable take conversation lessons or seek out contact with native speakers. Two lessons per week with two different people would be a good start. Having or making native speaker friends is obviously a very good idea. No scruples! Spending time with people only because they are native speakers may sound mercenary but you may even get to like them, if not, at least your foreign language skills will improve.

3.2 Switch your internal monologue (we talk to ourselves in our minds) to the foreign language.

This will maximize time spent producing your B language and is not much less effective than actually talking to native speakers[3].

3.3 Record yourself speaking your B language and analyse both speaking skills and language ability. This is also very effective in pairs.

A second student is practising listening and analytical skills while the first is practising the B language and delivery skills .

3.4 One student reads aloud in the B language, pausing mid-sentence. The remaining students endeavour to arrive at the largest number of grammatically sound alternative versions of the rest of the sentence.

This will test the flexibility of your use of the B language. It will also be useful later in the booth where making it to the end of a sentence, whatever is going on around you, will be an imperative.

3.5 Learn by heart 5-10 lines of well written text in your B language each day.

This is a version of the Lexical Approach (M. Lewis) to Language learning and will contribute very quickly and effectively to expanding the active vocabulary of your B language by moving words and structures instantaneously from your passive to your active knowledge of a language.[4]

Passive language ability means being able to understand something you hear or read. Active means actually being able to use that part of the foreign language yourself when speaking or writing. See also “A”, “B” and “C” languages.

3.6 Pick out good expressions in your B language from the publications you read, note them and try to use them.

3.7 Make lists of stock phrases and synonyms for words, which recur consistently (agree / decide / discuss / consider etc.).

3.8 Make up files of newspaper articles/information on topical issues. These should contain articles rather than vocabulary lists.

Vocabulary out of context is not helpful and can be misleading.

3.9 Do quick crosswords in you’re A/B language(s). Buy a thesaurus and use it.

3.10 Play word association games with you fellow students, in either A or B languages. Student a says a word, Student b must offer a synonym as quickly as possible. Student a then does the same on the basis of student b’s offering.

3.11 Look up everything you're not sure of.

3.12 Shadow news reports, interviews or speeches in your B language. Copy the speaker’s sentence intonation as well as pronunciation.

3.13 Mimic and learn off-by-heart news reports, interviews or speeches in your B language. Copy the speaker’s sentence intonation as well as pronunciation.

3.12 and 3.13 will help you develop the correct sentence intonation and rhythm when speaking your B language. Both are very difficult to learn and often give away foreign speakers of english who otherwise have a very good cammand of the language.In addition learning by heart will function as in 3.5, moving words, structures and here also intonation patterns directly from passive to active language knowledge.

3.14 Make a note of all mistakes for which you are corrected when speaking your B language.

Most people make a small number of the same relatively simple errors which detract from the otherwise high level of language spoken.. Given a moment’s consideration you know something is wrong but you still make the mistake when speaking. Only repeated conscious attempts to eliminate these errors will help and keeping a record is one way of doing this.

3.15 Record yourself speaking your “B” language. Write a transcript of what you have said. Check it for mistakes and make a record of those mistakes. Repeat at regualr intervals.

You will be much more critical of your “B” language performance when reading a written version than you would be if (indeed when) you were speaking. Consequently you will notice more errors or stylistic flaws. By doing this regularly you will eliminate those which recurr and continue to improve your “B”.

3.16 Learn the “link” method of memorising[5] things. Open a picture dictionary (or even a normal one) at random pages and “link” items that are new to you. You can get 20-30 words a day into your active vocabulary like this.

This is particular good for technical (ie. machine parts.) vocabulary that is otherwise difficult to learn

3.17 Take three words of similar meanings and one definition. Match the correct defintion to the appropraite word. ie. country, nation, state. This could take the form of multiple choice or a group exercies (Zalka in Gran and Dodds).

The interpreter must be able to rapidly access a very exact linguistic version of the ideas he wishes to communicate. This exercise done at speed can help.

3.18 How to record vocabulary. Don’t make lists! Record vocab in thematic or grammatical groupings, use images. I would recommend Michael Lewis’s seminal students’ book “Business English[6]” in which he offers a whold range of ways to record vocabulary more effectively.

[1] cf. the gravitational model of linguistic ability. Gile, Basic Concepts and Models in Interpreter and Translator Training

[2] Trans: The vocabulary of a language is boundless and one's knowledge of it must be continually updated.

[3] Most people instinctively think they must speak to native speakers and be corrected. However, native speakers (particularly of English) do not correct all or even a majority of mistakes and very rarely correct stylistic errors. There are also reams of literature to be found on the ineffectiveness of any such correction i.e. Correction - a positive approach to language mistakes, Bartram and Walton; and The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis.

[4] See also Gile, the gravitational model of linguistic ability

[5] Lorayne. How to develop a superpowered memory

[6] Lewis, M. Business English. Longman


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