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Major in Sign Language
By Lauren Elrick
One of the key components of our everyday lives is communication. Whether you’re hollering hello to a neighbor mowing his lawn across the street, smiling at your crush in the hallway as you head to your locker, or halfway listening to your chemistry teacher instruct about the wonders of the periodic table of elements, you’re communicating something either verbally or through your body language.
When it comes to communication—and especially nonverbal communication—our world is chock full of correspondence and discourse, whether we realize it or not. Sign language, especially, is unique because it utilizes body language in its entirety, and its key component is that it allows Deaf people to seamlessly communicate both with one another and with hearing people. Becoming a sign language interpreter is a great way to assist in helping this communication happen! The job duties of sign language interpreters center around converting spoken language into sign language using techniques such as signing, cued speech, lip reading, and body language.
Currently, there’s a shortage of qualified interpreters for the Deaf, so majoring in sign language is a surefire way to land a solid career right out of college. Those who major in the field may have the opportunity to learn about the Deaf community, take classes with language labs, take part in hands-on learning activities (literally!), and even take field trips or participate in internships that help people with hearing difficulties.
As a sign language interpreter, you can work in a variety of settings, including social services, education, government, business, performing arts, hospitals, legal fields, and much, much more. Television and theater productions often need sign language interpreters to translate for viewers, and conferences and other public gatherings also utilize interpreters on a regular basis. Basically, you can take your sign language interpreting skills to whatever field you’re interested in! Other sign language careers with specializations include working as a speech pathologist, psychologist, employment counselor, social worker, childcare worker, or audiologist. There’s also the option to teach sign language to students if passing along skills and helping other people get set up for the career of their dreams sounds like a rewarding vocation to you.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected job growth for sign language interpreters (between 2012 – 2022) is 46%, and the median salary for interpreters is $36,103. In 2014, BLS reported that interpreters and translators who were employed in scientific and technical industries earned an average annual salary of $56,530, so the money you make really depends on the field you’re working in. For sign language teachers, the projected job growth (between 2012 – 2022) is 15% - 21%, and the median salary is $67,910. While sign language teachers require a Master’s or doctorate degree, sign language interpreters can get certified or receive an associate’s degree via community college. However, most are generally required to have a bachelor’s degree to pursue careers in interpretation.
Learning another language can be hard work, and doing informal or volunteer work while you’re in school is a great way to get some experience under your belt. Many community organizations, hospitals, and even sporting events are regularly looking for sign language volunteers. As with any foreign language, American Sign Language (ASL) has its own vocabulary and grammar. However, Deaf people will often “fingerspell” in exact English as well, which means signing in English word order instead of the unique grammar of ASL. For example, when signing in exact English, someone would sign, “The sunset was beautiful yesterday” and include a sign for each of those words. When signing in ASL, someone would sign, “Yesterday, sunset beautiful,” as that would be the typical phrasing in American Sign Language.
Many of the signs used when signing exact English are the same as ASL, but the grammar is often different, which requires the interpreter to transliterate that person’s exact words. Conversationally, it’s typical for Deaf people to switch back and forth between ASL and English, so becoming an interpreter requires you to be a quick thinker and communicator!
If you’re captivated by non-verbal communication, have a speedy mind, and interested in bridging the gap between Deaf and hearing people, this major might be right for you!