Liaison interpreting as a teaching technique for Italian

Author: Maria Chiara La Sala


This article is based on my own experience as a tutor of liaison interpreting as a final-year option in the Department of Italian, Leeds University. First, a definition of liaison interpreting will be given, followed by a short comparison between liaison and consecutive as well as simultaneous interpreting.  Particular attention will be dedicated to how liaison interpreting can be a very useful method of language teaching.  Afterwards, I will talk about how this module is delivered in the Department of Italian, Leeds University.  Issues such as group size, methodology adopted to deliver the module, strategies and skills that are necessary to teach this subject will be underlined. I will discuss the importance of giving regular feedback and the types of feedback which may be most useful to students on this type of module.  Lastly, this paper will deal with assessment procedures and difficulties encountered by students/problems specific to Italian.  The conclusion will underline the benefits of this course as a learning and teaching exercise as well as a way of encouraging students to consider further training leading to a possible career in interpreting.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections, 8-9 July 2008.

What is liaison interpreting?

This paper examines the use of liaison interpreting as a means of offering students of foreign languages practice in the oral language.

In the professional sphere, when the term “interpreting” is used, it usually refers to conference interpreting, with two main practices: consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting.  Professional training in these two forms of interpreting can be acquired in one of the many schools of interpreting and may lead to a career as an interpreter in institutions such as the UN, the EU or NATO.  Professional interpreters can also workon a freelance basis, offering their service for international conferences or meetings.

Liaison interpreting is the activity that takes place when an interpreter is required to liaise between two or more individuals who do not speak each other’s language. The interpreter therefore needs the ability to speak both languages with a degree of fluency.  Liaison interpreting is a very common form of interpreting and takes place in a range of different situations ranging from very formal contexts, such as business or talks between heads of state to less formal situations such as work visits, parties or even casual conversation between people who do not share the same language.

Liaison interpreting can be a very useful teaching technique since the students are asked not only to use and consolidate structures of the target language they are already familiar with, but, possibly, to learn new vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, by listening to the native speaker and then trying to employ these new structures themselves.

A LI class consists of a group of about eight students with two tutors: one native English speaker and one native Italian speaker.  The two tutors conduct a conversation, each in his/her native language, on a set topic, and the students take turns to interpret what is said in the other language.  The students have to assume that the speakers do not speak each other’s language and are therefore relying entirely on the interpretation.   The teachers play an assumed role, perhaps of a journalist or a specialist in the topic chosen for the lesson.  This role-play situation has the advantage of clearly identifying the status of the two interlocutors and their relationship with each other and with the interpreter.  In this way, students need to consider the interpersonal factors that the oral situation implies and become aware of the importance of adopting the right tenor for the specific situation (Keith 1985: 3).  The student is responsible for a complete conversational exchange: one into the target language and another into the source language.

In this type of exercise a variety of skills are required by the students performing LI:

  1. Aural comprehension: the student has to listen to a statement in the foreign language and to decode it.
  2. Processing the content of the statement.  It is of paramount importance for a successful performance that the students extract from the speech the essential gist of what has been said.  For this reason, students are discouraged from taking detailed notes, beyond figures, names and the occasional fact.  Students, however, are allowed to ask for a limited amount of repetition or clarification.  This reduces the chances of misunderstandings.
  3. Transmission of the message in the other language.  At this stage, the students should very rarely find themselves in a linguistic muddle.  This is an exercise in communication and students should be encouraged to use other verbal means, such as paraphrasing or describing an object, to express the idea they are trying to communicate.  Even gestures and facial expressions can be a useful way of getting around a point if they are stuck (Keith 1985: 3-5).

The course at the University of Leeds

LI is offered in the first semester of the third year, when the students return from their year’s residence abroad.  During that semester they have one live class per week.  The course is structured so that the dialogues increase in length, complexity of structures and ideas, and in the degree of technicality.  At the initial stage, it is important to build up the students’ confidence, to show them that they can do it and that LI can be an enjoyable exercise.  When they become more experienced, they are expected to convey the message accurately, sometimes, perhaps, even more carefully than the original speaker (Hanstock 1985: 54).  Students are given the list of topics for each class in advance, so that they can prepare themselves.

Students also do one hour per week of independent practice in LI using the dialogues in the language laboratory. To help them to make the best use of these dialogues, transcripts of conversations are given out the week after they have worked on that dialogue.  This facility has the advantage that the students can have a go at interpreting all the interventions, rather than two or three.


Ideally, students are not expected to take notes other than figures, dates, names and a few key words.  From the beginning, they are encouraged to rely on their memory rather than on written notes.  However, as exchanges become longer and more challenging, students do use note taking, since they feel safer and more reassured.  My experience has shown that those who perform better in LI, however, are the students who listen carefully and rely on their memory.

The students are given advice on what they can do to help develop memory skills.  Activities such as retelling a speech or even a debate on TV in the source language, trying to summarize an article read in a newspaper or a magazine in a few sentences are very useful.


Corrections are carried out in the following way: grammatical mistakes, misuse of lexical items, syntactical errors, and misunderstandings are noted down by the teachers and discussed in a 10-15 minutes debriefing session at the end of the class.  This is done at the end of the exercise rather than immediately after each student has performed otherwise the effect of real-life situation is lost.

Another method to correct a student is to repeat the word given in the wrong gender or pronounced with the wrong accent in the right form.  This is a gentle way of prompting the student to correct himself or herself. In this exercise, giving prompt supportive feedback to students is highly important since it allows them to reflect on their own mistakes and weaknesses and to improve their performance gradually throughout the course.
Another form of feedback that the students receive is a written feedback sheet halfway through the course.


Although LI is a communicative exercise, it is necessary to carry out a formal assessment for the purposes of an examined module. Continuous assessment of performance is carried out in the last five “live classes”.  The best four marks from these five classes are taken into account.  There is also an end of semester test in week 11.  An exam is prepared in the form of a conversation to confront students with a number of elements they have been practising in the “live classes”.

Main criteria:

  1. Communicative competence: has the student transmitted all the basic information without distortion?
  2. Has the student achieve criterion 1 using the appropriate lexis and register?
  3. Has the student expressed himself/herself with grammatical accuracy?

A pass mark is given if the student has achieved criterion 1 and marks are added according to the extent to which criteria 2 and 3 are fulfilled (Keith 1985: 3).

Difficulties encountered by students/problems specific to Italian

LI is a communicative exercise.  In addition to a good level of knowledge of the grammar and lexis of the foreign language, students have to be aware of the social and cultural factors associated to the specific language. Local/national concepts cannot be translated literally.  For instance, ASL = Azienda Sanitaria Locale cannot be translated literally as ‘local health company’.  The equivalent expression in the other language, English, must be found = local health authority.  If the student provides a literal translation, this does not help the English native speaker to fully understand what ASL means.

Pronunciation, stress and intonation also play an important role in achieving a satisfactory performance in LI (Parnell 1985).  A very common problem for English native speakers is the pronunciation of double consonants.  In Italian, there is a clear distinction between pena / penna, rosa/ rossa, capello / cappello, casa / cassa, and many more examples. If the student does not pronounce the double consonant clearly, this can lead to confusion.

Stress patterns can also create problems to the English native speakers.  Similar to the problem represented by double consonants, the wrong stress can alter the meaning of the word: for instance sùbito (immediately) and subìto (undergone), or meta (goal) and metà (half) (Parnell 1985: 47).

The intonation of the utterance can be another obstacle during a LI class.  From my experience, the students, sometimes, fail to understand if the utterance in Italian is a statement or a question.  In Italian, the intonation determines the difference between a statement and a question. For instance: È una bella ragazza? È una bella ragazza.  Students, sometimes, find themselves in the position of double-checking with their Italian interlocutor if he/she has asked a question or has made a statement (Parnell, 1985: 47).

As far as grammar is concerned, the use or omission of the definite article in Italian is a frequent problem for English native speakers.  Students, very often, omit the article in Italian when it is required.  For instance, statements like Le presento signora Norton or phrases like in 2001 should have the definite article preceding the title and the date (Parnell 1985: 48).

It is important that students become aware of the differences between the two languages at syntactical level.  I often hear wrong constructions, directly translated from English into Italian.  Constructions like La signora Norton è stata data l’incarico di rappresentare la ditta Tecnelet nel nord dell’Inghilterra show that the interpreter has assumed that Italian passive sentences operate in Italian in the same way they do in English.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In Italian passive sentences, only the direct object of an active sentence can be made the subject of a passive sentence.  The indirect object remains indirect in both the active and passive voices; it can never be the subject of a passive sentence.  Therefore, the right construction would be Alla signora Norton è stato dato l’incarico di rappresentare la ditta Tecnelet.  Other examples would be Spero per un successo continuato to translate the English I’d like to wish you a continued success.

Students may struggle to render the concepts in a register that would be appropriate in a formal oral situation.  È un bel casino parcheggiare a Milano translates It is a real pain in the ass parking in Milan rather than It is a big problem to find some parking space in Milan. The students must develop an awareness of the right register to use.
Lexical borrowings also happen quite frequently: freschi for affreschi, polluzione for inquinamento, qualificazioni for titoli di studio, comprensivo for completo, facilità for servizi, etc.

The problem here may be of poor vocabulary but students who make this type of mistakes often know the correct word in Italian and are able to use it in a less intensive exercise such as written translation or free discussion.  LI tests the student in all aspects of language under conditions which are very similar to real-life situation (Parnell 1985: 50). This can be quite stressful for students who are very aware that the communication between the two interlocutors depends entirely on their interpretation.

The influence of the native tongue on the performance in Italian, however, will be less marked if the phonological, syntactic, and semantic structures of the foreign language are frequently practised (Parnell 1985: 50).  As a teaching method, LI is a very demanding but also a very rewarding exercise for those students who make the most of this technique and use it to improve all the aspects of their oral performance.


The type of language appropriate to LI is of a higher register, even though it is still spoken language.  Students often lack this type of language. During their year abroad, they predominantly learn the colloquial spoken language. This exercise fills the gap, exposing them to an oral language, used in more formal situations, and characterized by complex syntactical structures. For this reason, LI positions itself halfway between formal written writing and colloquial oral language. Mastering this technique provides an excellent teaching and learning tool for both language learning and language reinforcement.  Moreover, students become experienced in expressing themselves in front of an audience, in the foreign language as well as in their native tongue.  Students who enjoy this challenge can really consider a possible career in professional interpreting after completion of the course with appropriate further training (MA in Interpreting and Translation).

Finally, I would like to show you this quotation:

Interpreting is based on the spoken language used in context and in situation; it is communication in the highest degree: it involves intensive, but not boring and repetitive practice: it provides Chomsky’s ‘rich linguistic environment’: it is highly motivated for many reasons, but especially because it is a live, open-ended process: it is creative and involves a certain amount of histrionic talent and empathy: it involves the rapid absorption of a varied lexis ….: it involves many different varieties and registers of the language: it can be at any required level of intellectual difficulty: it deals with language as it is lived now and with the great issues of the day: it provides an excellent training in high-speed cerebration, bringing both the analytical faculty, and the faculty of generalisation, that is cognitive factors, into play: it ties in perfectly with written translation work and training students to go for essential meaning and avoid word for word transcription (Walker 1984)


Hanstock, J. (1985) Liaison interpreting problems specific to French. In Thomas and Towell (eds) Interpreting as a Language Teaching Technique, pp.52-56.

Keith, H. A. (1985) Liaison interpreting as a communicative language-learning exercise. In Thomas and Towell (eds) Interpreting as a Language Teaching Technique, pp.1-12.

Parnell, A. (1985) Liaison interpreting problems specific to Italian. In Thomas and Towell (eds) Interpreting as a Language Teaching Technique, pp.46-51.

Thomas, N. and Towell, R. (eds) (1985) Interpreting as a Language Teaching Technique. Salford: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

Walker, A. L. (1984) Communicative competence in French. In Working Papers from the Scottish Universities French Language Research Association, University of Stirling/SULFRA.