Interpreting in the teaching of undergraduates: at the interface of HE and business

Author: Eva Schumacher-Reid


Durham offers a final-year German Interpreting module teaching simultaneous, consecutive, liaison and on-sight interpreting on the basis of European Parliament debates. All performance indicators testify to the module’s success:

  • High student numbers
  • Highest possible satisfaction rates in student surveys
  • A prestigious institutional award for innovation and teaching excellence
  • Provision of an excellent foundation for postgraduate studies in Translation/Interpreting
  • Acknowledgement of value by numerous employers who have praised students’ transferable skills and readiness for the work market.

The skills-based approach of this course leads to reflective learning, instills infectious enthusiasm in students, and operates effectively at the HE-business interface, satisfying the demands of the academic and the business world.

This article was added to our website on 18/06/09 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

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.

Course content and structure

At Durham University interpreting has been an integral part of the undergraduate syllabus of the German Department for a number of years. It is taught as an introductory course as part of the language core module in Year 2. This basic introduction is built upon in the elective Interpreting module offered in Year 4, a module which, despite its significant challenges, is highly popular with students. In the past academic years Interpreting has been the most popular final module with on average at least 50% of the total cohort registering for Interpreting which, in 2007/08, was 45 students. In the 2008 end-of-year module evaluation questionnaire  this module achieved 4.8 out of 5 for the question ‘Would you recommend this module to other students?’ and 5 out of 5 for the quality of teaching.  

The course is taught mainly in a Sanako digital language laboratory and consists of two hours of contact time per week; students are expected to put in considerable time outside classes to access additional material on the Internet, to work independently on material made available in the language laboratory, to prepare student-led classes and to team up for practical exercises; in addition students are expected to devote a few hours every week on acquiring the vocabulary and background information necessary to participate successfully in the classroom.

The Year 4 module covers the skills of simultaneous (immediate translation ‘from ear to mouth’), consecutive (from ear, via note-taking, to mouth), liaison (in ‘chunks’ between two speakers who do not understand each other’s language, i.e. from English to German to English) and on-sight interpreting (from the eye on text to mouth).

As the basis for the fourth year module I use six debates taken from EU plenary sessions in Strasbourg or Brussels, which are replaced every year to keep topics up-to-date. In 2007/08 these were:

  • Human rights in Burma/Myanmar
  • Reducing poverty in countries with HIV/Aids, Malaria and TB
  • Peace process in Spain (terror attack on Madrid)
  • Human rights: women in Afghanistan
  • Roaming on public mobile networks
  • Combating racism and xenophobia

After a few introductory sessions four hours are spent on each topic. Three of these are taught by myself, while the fourth session is run by groups of two to three students and includes lesson planning, writing texts, finding material on the Internet, creating exercises, recording the material and running the session. The student-led lessons work very well: they support team work and creativity, promote deeper understanding of that particular topic and facilitate independence.

The debate transcripts form the basis of the lessons, and their range of vocabulary provide students with the necessary tools to survive. Practice material consists of related newspaper/radio/TV/video clip material and texts I write myself as well as practice tapes available on Durham’s virtual learning environment and Blackboard system and in the open access centre.

Interpreting at undergraduate level

There appears to be a widespread opinion that undergraduates do not have the sufficient linguistic abilities to participate successfully in such a course. I strongly oppose this opinion, and suggest that what we need here is a clear definition of what we want to achieve by the introduction of Interpreting at undergraduate level. I do not claim that our students leave Durham as trained interpreters, but I do claim that they leave as accomplished linguists who are able to operate successfully, confidently and competently in a wide variety of working environments and particularly including further research. My aims for this module could be expressed in the following terms.

  1. The acquisition of specialist vocabulary and the expansion of the students’ range of vocabulary

As one can see from the list of topics, there is, occasionally, an intentional overlap of certain areas of vocabulary or content, which therefore facilitates vocabulary acquisition and overall understanding of the topic areas. Some topics also link in with our core language module, giving students another opportunity to put the newly acquired language into practice. The speed with which interpreting takes place leaves students no other option but to learn vocabulary, and to keep up with this process preferably on a daily basis. Students put together their own vocabulary glossaries divided into columns for word, translation, word in context, related uses or exceptions and, if applicable, a symbol for note-taking.



What students have perceived as beneficial in relation to vocabulary acquisition in this course is:

  • the enormous amount of vocabulary they have acquired
  • vocabulary that could be transferred to other modules
  • the discovery of ‘new’ areas of vocabulary
  • the application of new terminologies
  • the acquisition of higher register vocabulary
  • an increased awareness of nuances in different languages
  • the awareness of vocabulary not as individual words but as a concept
  • the ability to be more concise in both English and German.
  1. Gaining linguistic skills that are in demand in the business world

One of the objectives of the course is to increase students’ flexibility in moving between the languages. Increasing speed in simultaneous interpreting, translating previously unseen written texts fluently and calmly, and switching between languages in a liaison exercise all help to improve students to respond quickly. The need to ‘think on one’s feet’ promotes a high level of mental alertness and familiarity with both languages.
(There is a link at the end of this paper to an example of a simultaneous exam exercise to show the speed with which students can translate at the end of an academic year.)

  1. Developing transferable skills

Students have perceived the course as highly beneficial since it also promotes abilities and skills beyond the acquisition of language skills that are highly valued by employers: good concentration, flexibility, confidence, self-presentation and so on. In their report commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation, A New Landscape for Languages (2003, 34), Michael Kelly and Diana Jones speak of the need to change the view of studying languages in order to demonstrate the vocational advantage, and portray language as a challenging and stimulating object of study and potential main focus of a career. Some employers have begun to recognize this as shown by the following email from one of our third year students whose career plan was to study law after graduating in 2007:

‘I just wanted to let you know that I have been offered a training contract with […] in London. As you probably know this is a ‘magic circle’ law firm which means that it is one of the top five international, commercial law firms worldwide[…] I thought that you would like to know that the partners who interviewed me were particularly enthusiastic about the fact that I was studying interpreting alongside other more traditional modules. They agreed that the presentation and communication skills together with the need for rapid responses were invaluable generic skills which would be extremely useful in their field of work.’

I would like to take a closer look at some of these skills.

  3.1   Student-centred and independent learning

The Interpreting module strives for a high level of student autonomy and experiential learning. Students follow an ascending path by experiencing an interpreting situation through set tasks, followed by reflective observation through self-assessment, partner-assessment, feedback sessions and working on linguistic issues. This then forms the basis for student-led sessions. Here students put into practice what they have learned through theory and practice by writing their own course material. This leads to a process of understanding and reflection which enables them to approach the next segment of teaching material with greater ease and proficiency. It also leads to deeper understanding of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of classroom activities and teaching material used.

With practice material available on the Blackboard system and in the language laboratory and work groups meeting outside teaching times students take responsibility for their own learning process; the teacher, at times, assumes a more facilitating role where ‘the process of learning comes to the foreground and the content emerges from experience’ (Fry et al. 2003).
An important feature of student learning is to enable students to take responsibility for their own progress. While learning progress can be monitored to some extent through tests and mock exams, students need to take an active role with regard to their own progress. Creating their own vocabulary glossaries, planning and running their own lessons and independent learning over the Internet are just a few examples of students achieving learning independence.

  3.2  Working in a team

The ability to work in a team is a skill that is also needed in the world of work. At a time in their studies when students prepare for their finals on an individual basis, it is more necessary than ever before to promote team learning and team working. This is achieved by team tasks to prepare material, to monitor each other’s work and to prepare and run student-led lessons. Needless to say, as a teacher, I profit as well from these exercises as they give me an insight into whether students have achieved my teaching objectives by correctly implementing these exercises in their own activities.
Peer assessment, self-help groups, simulations and demonstrations all help to create a learning atmosphere where, despite a looming final exam, the ‘we’ is of more importance than the ‘me’.

  3.3   Confidence building and coping with stress

Although initially much disliked by students, performing in front of the class or having work played to the entire class is a necessary exercise to make students aware of their own strengths and weaknesses so they can address them. It is also highly beneficial to recognize co-learners’ struggles and achievements in order to put one’s own performance into perspective.

The practice of Interpreting can be a very daunting task, and I had been wondering for a considerable time what, in addition to verbal reassurance, could be done to allay students’ worries. For the first time in the academic year 2003-04 I asked students to write down a minimum of five ‘worries’ and to grade them from 1 (not perceived as problematic) to 10 (gives me sleepless nights). I summarised the results and brought them back to class to discuss them. I then returned their papers to the students at the end of the Epiphany term and asked the students to re-grade their initial assessment of their anxieties. Overall, worries such as the fear of ‘going blank’, coping with the speed, note-taking, making a fool of oneself in class, coping with German syntax, the amount of vocabulary to learn and so on had significantly decreased. I have been doing this since and find that this exercise has helped students to become further aware of and to reflect on their progress and has increased their confidence.

Let us look, for example, at working under stress. That occupational stress and work as an interpreter go hand in hand has been sufficiently proven, e.g. by Pöchhacker (2004). The types and levels of stress vary and depend on situational and personal factors. Carefully planned teaching can help students to assess and overcome some of the stress factors and turn them into a positive, motivating experience which in turn may stand them in good stead in their work life.
(There is a link at the end of this paper to an example of an on-sight exam exercise where confident and calm presentation (and of course a high level of accuracy) is one of the key elements for marking.)

  3.4   Increasing concentration levels

Apart from simultaneous interpreting, note-taking exercises are an excellent means of increasing the level of concentration. While looking at concepts rather than literal translation, developing an individual code of symbols and taking notes using symbols are excellent skills in themselves that students transfer to other seminars and lectures, the sheer concentration aspect is invaluable. Gradually extending students’ memory capacity through memory games and constant practice is of immense use for students beyond the classroom.
(There is a link at the end of this paper to an excerpt from an exam paper in consecutive interpreting showing how these exercises develop the ability to present the text fluently, clearly and confidently.) 

Students’ perception of the acquisition of transferable skills

Twenty-two students answered a questionnaire containing the question how they rated the module with regard to improving certain skills on a scale of 1 – 5. The results were as follows:

Skill Result
Learning to work in a team 3.1
Enhancing creativity 3.3
Improving self-presentation 4.2
Improving confidence 4.2
Improving memory level 4.4
Coping with high stress level 4.5
Developing note-taking skills 4.6
Improving concentration level 4.7

Another skill that was mentioned by many students in this context was the ability to move between languages as effortlessly as possible.
(There is a link at the end of the paper to an example of the beginning of an exam in liaison interpreting which at the same time also places great importance on concentration.)

Preparation for the world of work

The Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education lays out that employers’ expectations and demands have significantly changed over the last decade, leaving it to higher education institutions to ensure that students develop key skills in communication, IT and information management as well as people and personal skills (Fry et al. 2003: 122).

The interpreting module aims to enhance all those skills by employing a range of pedagogical methods. For example, learning a variety of skills (prioritisation of information, high-level concentration, speech analysis, structuring of texts, switching between languages, reading for gist, enhancing presentation skills, note-taking) goes beyond what is useful in the classroom. These skills also prepare students for interviews and a range of situations in a variety of scenarios in the working environment. If you look at the competence profile of interpreters there is a high expectation on the interpreter to show knowledge (and how to acquire knowledge is being taught during the course), cognitive skills such as attention and memory (also consistently practised over the year) and personality traits e.g. stress tolerance – all of which enhance students’ employability. Looking at ‘memory’, for example, as one of the basic principles of consecutive interpreting, we see that this goes beyond ‘remembering’ things as in remembering dates, vocabulary and facts; rather, mnemonic techniques are used such as visualisation (Jones 2002: 29).

The interpreting module prepares students for a wide variety of professions. A significant number of our graduates apply for jobs in the Foreign Office, accountancy, public relations and the media. Students will be well prepared to approach any of these sectors. With regard to those who will go into teaching an ease of language application will have been achieved together with a good level of self-confidence which will give students a head-start when entering this profession. Last but not least, on average 20% of our interpreting students decide to continue in higher education by applying for a place on an MA in Translation/Interpreting immediately after graduating. Another 10% follow this route at a later date after gaining work experience. Considering that according to a report published in 2006 by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, the number of students studying German as postgraduates has decreased by a further 10% between 2002-03 and 2004-05, I find this Durham trend a reassuring one. It also proves that the right type of skills-based course can do both: encourage more students to opt for postgraduate study and prepare students to act more successfully in the world of work.


Simultaneous (mp3, 1.58MB)

Consecutive (mp3, 666KB)

On-sight (mp3, 995KB)

Liaison (mp3, 1.76MB)


Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press.

Fry, H. et al. (2003) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. London: Kogan Page.

Gillies, A. (2005) Note-Taking for Consecutive Interpreting: A Short Course. Manchester, UK and Northampton, USA: St. Jerome Publishing.

Davies, M. (2004).Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Jones, R. (2002) Conference Interpreting Explained. 2nd ed. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

Kelly, M. and Jones, D. (2003) A New Landscape for Languages. London: The Nuffield Foundation.

Pöchhacker, F. (2004) Introducing Interpreting Studies. London: Routledge.