Finding fifth gear: how to speed up your reaction time in simultaneous

Fifth gear blog post

I was teaching a class at the University of Manchester yesterday, and listening to the interpreting students tackle a piece of rapid, ‘real-life’ French reminded me of the days when I was a trainee on the SCIC stage, honing my own interpreting skills at the European Commission in Brussels.

At the time, I had three mentors – well, they were actually called godmothers and godfathers – and I vividly remember sitting in a dummy booth in the Borschette building, feeling totally inadequate as I tried to follow arcane customs negotiations and interpret into English under the watchful eye (and ears) of my vastly more experienced colleagues.

fairy godmother

One of my mentors, twinkly-eyed and bearded, reminded me of a genial brown bear. He would doze off gently in the back of the booth, while the delegates’ German reached parts of my brain other languages cannot reach.

slow reaction time
No wonder my mentor used to snooze when I worked from German.

One day, my mentor hit me with these words of wisdom: ‘The problem with your German, Sophie, is that you don’t have a fourth gear’. My internal reaction to this pronouncement was ‘Ha ha ha, I’d be happy if I could even find second gear!’, but by then I had already learned that it was a bad idea to show weakness, so I didn’t say it out loud. This was one of the few times in life that I managed to keep my mouth shut instead of blurting out my innermost thoughts and putting my foot squarely in my mouth.

not saying it out loud

In class yesterday, I found myself repeating those words to the students. ‘When you’re dealing with fast and furious French like this, you need to be firing on all cylinders. You need to find fifth gear. You need to be 100% on the ball.’ And other such imagery.

Image my consternation when one of the students pointed out that this isn’t a very helpful comment. What does it actually mean to move into a higher gear, and how do you do it?

Huh.

It always rocks me back on my heels a little when I say something I think is fairly obvious, and it becomes apparent that it’s not that clear to everyone else. It’s a salutary reminder that our brains don’t all work the same. Or at least, that my brain doesn’t work like anyone else’s.

So I tried to unpack my own statement.

Shifting into a higher gear

What does it mean to shift into a higher gear?

To me, this phrase describes the difference between ambling along at 30 mph admiring the scenery out of the car window, versus zipping down the motorway at 70 mph (obviously, I’m so law-abiding I never break the speed limit…).

In the former case, you have plenty of time to react to hazards (dozy pedestrians, aggressive drivers, unexpected cyclists just around a bend, potholes, or where I live, hedgehogs). You can change course in time to avoid a collision. In interpreting terms, this equates to a reasonably slow, well structured speech, which allows you some time to think, adjust your décalage, tidy up the speaker, and reformulate into elegant English/Turkish/whatever your target language is.

When you’re driving much faster on the motorway, however, you have to react very quickly to anything new and/or dangerous and be hyper-aware of everything going on around you at all times (e.g. other drivers’ behaviour). In interpreting terms, this is where you have a crazy fast speaker throwing facts and figures at you (or quips, jokes, asides, interjections, examples…). If you take too long over your analysis or reformulating, there’s a good chance you’ll make a mistake or miss an idea (or possibly several sentences).

In other words, ‘fifth gear’ in simultaneous implies being able to deal successfully with fast, dense speech. And that, in turn, implies a faster reaction time.

So when I talk about fifth gear, firing on all cylinders, or being on the ball, I really mean that your reaction time needs to be super-sharp.

Knowing this is one thing. Doing it is another. How can you speed up your reaction time when interpreting in simultaneous mode?

Speeding up your reaction time

In order to react faster when faced with lots of information delivered quickly (possibly with the extra challenge of asides, in jokes, or cultural references thrown into the mix), you need to a) process and analyse the information faster, b) say it faster in your target language (i.e. get to the point), or c) both.

Spit it out

On the output side of the simultaneous equation, here are some techniques to try:

  • Don’t repeat information. Say it once, and move on. If the point the speaker is making has been covered already during the speech, or can legitimately be subsumed in a slightly more general point, leave it out.
  • Choose concise solutions in your target language. Good news for English As and retourists: English is generally a very concise language (see my blog post about making use of this feature, and others, to improve your interpreting).
  • Use intonation strategically to make up for being less explicit. You can do a huge amount with your voice alone: highlight a specific point, indicate that you’re mentioning a secondary item of information, introduce a digression, link to the next part of the speech…
  • Speak faster! I don’t generally advise my students to practise doing this, because it’s difficult to change your natural speech style, but I know other trainers who do.

Coincidentally, if you put all of this into practice, you will be saying less, and freeing up more space to listen to the speaker. If you think of your brain’s processing capacity during simultaneous interpreting as being a finite resource, freeing up some of that capacity by being more concise and streamlining your output should enable you to process what you hear better and faster.

Process faster

On the input side of the simultaneous equation (i.e. what you are hearing), there are also techniques you can apply to help you process (i.e. hear, understand, digest, edit) the information faster.

  • Keep working on your source language comprehension, especially if it’s one of your C languages and not a B. Just trying to understand the original, especially if the syntax is convoluted, can burn up a lot of brain juice, leaving you much less for incisive analysis and good expression in the target language. So work hard on your comprehension.
  • The same goes for cultural references in the source language. If you haven’t immersed yourself in the culture of the source language, you may completely miss some of the speaker’s references; or you may hear something, but not really understand what it relates to; or you may get it, or half-get it, but be unable to come up with a decent, brief explanation quickly enough.
  • Ditto background knowledge. If you have a solid understanding of the issues involved, so that much of the material is familiar to you from the news or your prior experience in this field, you won’t have to work so hard to decipher what the speaker is saying. If you’re interpreting a panel debate about Brexit, and you don’t know much about the workings of the EU, British politics, or previous referendums, your work will be very much harder.
  • Improve your reflexes. If you like sport, you will know how important muscle memory is to performance. Athletes, dancers and gymnasts (and professional musicians) go over the same movements over and over again, so that they can bypass their conscious brain in pressure situations and fall back on ingrained habits. Their body remembers what to do without having to think about it. When you’re interpreting, it’s really useful to have ready-made solutions for problems that come up again and again. In simple terms, this means practising frequently-occurring phrases – perhaps speech openings and closings, or typical comments from the Chairman of a meeting, especially in your B language – but also giving some thought to fragments and expressions that are characteristic of your source language. In French, for example, you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every time you encounter something like ‘langue de bois’, ‘sur la forme et sur le fond’, or ‘des pistes de réflexion’. So think about your options in advance, when you come across one of these ‘classics’ in a podcast or article, or when listening to the news.

Finally, when you’re dealing with a speaker who’s like greased lightning, it’s important to manage your décalage.

Although I usually urge my students not to stick too closely to the speaker (for fear of linguistic interference or of ending up facing a brick wall in simultaneous, leading to unfinished sentences or errors), most interpreters won’t be able to get all the information in if they leave a long décalage when dealing with very fast speech.

There is an argument, therefore, for not dilly-dallying, especially if the speaker is throwing out lots of figures. Your brain can’t retain them in the same way as it retains ideas, so stick close behind and get them out as quickly as possible (if the speech is very fast, writing down the figures and units will inevitably lead to a loss of other information). However, this is by no means an excuse for copying the syntax of the source language or slipping into ‘parrot’ mode, i.e. repeating what the speaker says without sufficient analysis. Even in a fast speech, there is room for analysis and reformulation. For me, the trick lies in hanging back a little when the next idea/sentence begins after a pause. If you don’t jump in straight away, you can decide which way you’re going to leap, and do some strategic shifting around of information. Elsewhere in the sentence, which may be very long, you may have less room for manoeuvre. This way, I have a better chance of beginning the sentence in an idiomatic way, and then I chop the rest of it up into manageable pieces (salami technique/chunking), so that I don’t get bogged down in long and complicated syntax.

A final point: if the speaker is very dense and factual, you really need to stay on top of him (or her). On the other hand, if the speaker delights in peppering the speech with asides, in jokes, cultural references, quotes, and the like, your priority must be, at all costs, to understand the main ideas. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, with a rapid flow of information, it’s easy to lose sight of this most basic of principles. If you don’t catch the main ideas, the next two or three sentences you hear may be completely meaningless without their context. So if the speaker is shooting off in all directions, focus heavily on understanding the his or her intentions, and sacrifice some of the other fluff if necessary. Summarise where you can. Use intonation to convey the speaker’s tone if you don’t have time to do it in words.

I hope this post has given you some ideas for tackling difficult material successfully. If it sounds a little abstract, that’s because it’s difficult to talk about this sort of thing without illustrating your approach using an actual speech + interpreting performance. And that’s precisely what I propose to do in my next blog post.

For those with French, I’ll be talking about Jean Quatremer’s contribution as moderator of a debate about the Brexit referendum. Here’s the clip, in case you’d like to have a go at interpreting Quatremer’s introduction (or indeed, Emmanuel Macron’s contribution).

What are your best tips for dealing with speakers who go like the clappers?

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Better time management with 3 great free tools

3 top time management tools blog post

Time management in the modern world

Nowadays, everybody’s busy busy busy! We’re all juggling multiple assignments, jobs, devices, apps, websites, passwords…It’s exhausting sometimes. And I’ll admit it: in the past few months, I’ve dropped a couple of balls, generally because I’ve lost track of what I was supposed to be doing. I often have panicky thoughts about whether or not I’ve actually booked the children into daycare after school, or whether they will be standing at the school gate at 3.15, looking pathetic and wondering if their mother has abandoned them.

However…it hasn’t happened yet. Because most of the time, I’m actually pretty organised. Note that I didn’t say tidy, but organised (an important distinction, in my husband’s mind anyway).

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Today I’d like to share with you my top three tools for staying on top of my to-do list, appointments, and web logins. Best of all, they are all free and very simple to use, and they will definitely improve your time management!

A password manager

How many websites are you registered with? Do you reuse the same password all the time (a very real security risk)? Do you write your passwords down somewhere ‘safe’? Do you forget important passwords all the time?

This was me, a year ago. I would reuse the same login credentials, with a memorable (but weak) password, for all the websites where I do my online shopping. This is definitely a bad idea when many of these sites store your credit card details.

I was also running several websites, one of which had been hacked. It became obvious that I needed a more reliable and more secure way of generating and storing passwords than simply writing them down, even in coded form in a password-protected document on my computer. Apart from anything else, it was inconvenient only having access to my passwords when I was using my laptop.

Enter…the password manager.

The premise of a password manager is that it is yet another website, for which you need to remember yet another strong password, but…it’s the only one. Once you’ve created a memorable login for the password manager, it will do all the work for you when logging into websites. Now, you might already store passwords in your browser (such as Firefox), but you won’t be able to access them on another device, and if your laptop or phone is stolen, your passwords aren’t secure. The password manager avoids these problems.

I use LastPass to manage my passwords. It stores all my encrypted passwords online, and I just need one master password to access them. Here’s how it describes itself:

‘LastPass remembers all your passwords, so you don’t have to.’

Clearly, you can only use a password manager if you trust the company’s security measures, so do your research before signing up. We’ve all heard of plenty of breaches of security all over the Internet, so it’s worth being cautious. On the other hand, what are the odds that their security measures are weaker than yours?

LastPass screenshot
LastPass screenshot

Here are the main benefits, as I see them:

  • it’s free.
  • you can access your passwords from any device, once you have signed into LastPass.
  • it auto-fills login panels when you visit websites where you have previous registered.
  • when you visit a new website, a pop-up comes up asking if you want to store the password.
  • you can share passwords securely with a friend.
  • the site can also serve as a vault to store information such as passport numbers, driver’s licence numbers, or WiFi passwords.

The paid version of LastPass will, of course, offer you more functionality. For example, in case of emergency or in a crisis, your trusted friends and family can access your vault (sorry to be morbid, but I imagine that would come in useful if I suddenly popped my clogs, if nothing else because so many of our financial transactions are conducted online these days). You can also share your passwords with several people at once (‘one to many sharing’), which would be useful if you were running a team, for example.

However, I find the free version quite sufficient for my needs, and I don’t even use all the functions; for instance, there are plenty of free strong random password generators on the web, so I don’t use LastPass’s.

A few words of caution:

  • it’s important to logout in the evening, otherwise anyone using your device could access all the websites you’re registered on.
  • don’t store very sensitive credentials in your vault. In particular, you should avoid storing online banking details on a password manager, because your bank won’t cover you if there’s a security breach.

There are other options out there, such as Dashlane and RoboForm; they have different features, but since their core business is the same, they’re much of a muchness.

A better to-do list

You may be ruled by lists, as I am, or you may not; but EVERYBODY, surely, writes down what needs doing in some form or other, at some point – maybe using the Notes function on your phone, or on the back of an envelope, or on a notepad stuck to the fridge.

I use Trello to organise my life and my coaching sessions, and I love it (full disclosure: you may have noticed I’ve given you a special link, but I’m not an affiliate and I won’t receive any money for doing so!).

Imagine writing a to-do list in the form of bullet points. Then imagine having several of these lists alongside one another, on a single screen (or ‘board’).

For example, you could have a list for each day of the week, thus creating a weekly planner. Here’s a sample board for someone who wants to improve their English retour:

English retour action plan, created with Trello

You will see from this image that you can label your items (known as ‘cards’) in a particular colour; here, I’ve put terminology work in yellow, background knowledge in red, and interpreting practice in blue. That way, you can see at a glance what the balance of activities is.

Some of the other features I find very useful on Trello:

  • it’s free!
  • you can create multiple boards and share them with friends or colleagues.
  • you can drag and drop cards, which means you can move an item across to another day if you haven’t completed it.
  • you can attach virtually anything to a card: an audio file, a document, basically anything that’s on your computer. You can also attach a file from Dropbox or Google Drive, or attach a link.
  • you can add due dates, checklists, comments and descriptions to a card, and share it with someone.
  • you can view the cards with due dates in a calendar view.

You really don’t need the paid version of Trello, unless you’re desperate to have more exciting backgrounds on your boards.

Your imagination and creativity are the only limits to what you can do with Trello. For example, instead of having a weekly planner, you could create a board with categories of things that need doing. Here’s a board listing useful exercises for an interpreting student:

Trello board example
Possible exercises for interpreting students – by category

And here’s the home page, where you can see all your boards:

Trello home page
Trello home page, where you can find all your boards

You can have ‘starred’ boards, which gives them a higher priority, and it’s also possible to see recently-viewed boards separately from the ones that you use more rarely.

All in all, I find it an invaluable tool for keeping information, ideas, and tasks in one place. I use it to list all the DIY that needs doing in the house, my ideas for blog content, and my personal admin tasks (e.g. the dreaded tax return!), among many other things.

A powerful way to schedule appointments

My third suggestion is less likely to be useful to students, but it’s great for freelancers who do a bit of this and a bit of that, or who work on an hourly basis. I couldn’t run my coaching business without it, but it would work equally well for personal tutors, language coaches, and anyone else who works on an hourly basis (or at least, in slots of time).

The scheduling tool I use is Acuity.

On-screen, it looks like a calendar, with daily, weekly or monthly views.

Here’s why I love it:

  • it’s free!
  • your clients can schedule, reschedule and cancel their own appointments.
  • you can easily control your availability, by blocking off time (see the grey zones in the picture), and by setting your business hours.
  • it takes into account your clients’ time zone.
  • you can save notes on each client.
  • you can create a different link for each type of appointment (e.g. personal training, massage, nutrition consultation), and choose which link to send to each client. The appointments will appear in different colours on your calendar.

In short, the free version of Acuity is very powerful and allows you to interact with clients in a very flexible way (but without having to go through your entire diary with them to find a mutually agreeable appointment – ‘oh no, I can’t do Tuesday because I’ll be in Brussels. No, I can’t do Wednesday because I’m teaching. Can you do Friday at 10 o’clock? No? How about next week?’). The paid version has all sorts of bells and whistles, as you would expect, such as integrating with platforms like Zoom, and enabling you to embed the scheduler into your own website.

The reason I have switched to the paid version is simply that it allows me to sync Acuity with iCal. This means my Acuity appointments appear on my laptop calendar and vice versa. It’s a life-saver and allows me to avoid double- and triple-booking myself (well, most of the time!). The paid version of Acuity also allows you to take payments, e.g. with Paypal, and generate coupons for your clients.

Voilà! I hope you found this review of my top three tools useful! What’s your secret to productivity and good time management? Let me know in the comments section.

Interpreting Coach logo

Sophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills, and check out the website for digital material to complement your face-to-face learning and empower you to take control of your learning. If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?

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Damage control in first year interpreting exams

Damage control in first year interpreting exams

Disclaimer

Like many website owners, I have a set of terms and conditions that insist that my content is for information purposes only, and exhort readers not to rely on this information.

In case you’re wondering why I should go to such lengths to cover my back, let me just mention a student some years back, who told me (and I quote): ‘Sophie, if I don’t get an interpreting job straight after this course, I will hold you personally responsible.’ Personally responsible, seriously?

And that’s why I have a disclaimer. I’ll put it even more bluntly: the following article is based on many years’ experience as an interpreter trainer and examiner, but it is just my opinion. I make no representations, and certainly offer zero guarantees, that if you put these tips into practice, your exam marks will improve. Like with any other advice, it’s up to you to take it – or leave it.

Common problems in first year interpreting exams

I’ve been a trainer for fifteen years, and I’ve seen a lot of interpreting exams. Every year, quite a few students underperform in their first set of exams. In the UK, these typically take place in January, at the end of semester one, and they focus on consecutive. Elsewhere, they might take place at the end of the first year, but the principles are the same.

When I try to analyse what goes wrong during these performances, the first thing that springs to mind is nerves. This tallies with one of the main causes of failure at EU accreditation tests. Nerves and anxiety are the trigger, and they affect performance by interfering with one or more of the processes or skills that candidates need to demonstrate in order to interpret successfully.

Read moreDamage control in first year interpreting exams

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3 simple exercises to boost your concentration: an introduction to Brain Gym

3 simple Brain Gym techniques

Mind/body techniques for concentration and stress relief

Last week, I was at the London Language Show demonstrating simple techniques to help interpreters and translators beat stress, whether acute or chronic.

The room was packed, and too small to get the audience lying on the floor for some deep relaxation. Instead I had them all close their eyes and do a series of stretching exercises, some deep breathing, and a quick autogenic training sequence. It was super-fun watching everybody tilting their heads to one side, clasping their hands, and breathing in and out in sync. A bit like synchronised swimming (but without the pool).

[Were you there? Let me know in the comment box below!]

stretch shoulders

As it happens, I’m actually a very cerebral person. I’m a big one for lists, action plans, and self-analysis. But I’m also very fortunate in that the mind/body connection has always played a big part in my life.

I did ballet for 11 years, followed by competitive ballroom dancing, and then I trained as an aerobics instructor and personal fitness trainer. All of this left me with decent posture, good core strength, and a deep appreciation of the benefits of exercise, not just on physical health, but also on mental processes, from concentration and alertness to emotional regulation and stress management.

Sophie ballet 1981
Looking demure in the 80s.

 

Ballroom dancing
Feistier in the 90s. Now you know why I like Strictly Come Dancing.

I also have no doubts whatsoever that, conversely, the mind can influence the body in very powerful ways, both negative and positive; in my case, the negative was developing a 12 year driving phobia after a minor accident when driving my boyfriend’s car. And the (very) positive was giving birth to my two children at home, with no drugs or medical intervention, using visualisation techniques and deep relaxation (and a pool – there’s definitely a theme there…).

Today, I’d like to share with you a few simple yet powerful techniques that can help you beat stress and achieve better focus and concentration, using the mind/body connection.

Brain Gym – exercising your brain and preparing it for learning

Brain Gym is a movement-based programme, composed of 26 movements. Its goal is to support the physical skills required for learning. For instance, the ability of the eyes to horizontally track a line without moving the head, or the ability of the hands to write without contracting the shoulders or the back, or the ability to sit squarely on a chair allowing for a better grounding and concentration.

Those of you who know me, or have attended any of my seminars, will know that I have a scientific background and I like to back my advice with research. Brain Gym isn’t well substantiated by research. In this respect, it resembles many complementary therapies for which there is plenty of anecdotal evidence (e.g. aromatherapy), but not much scientific evidence, because it is difficult to conduct double blind studies. My feeling is that if these techniques work for you, it doesn’t necessarily matter why they work. They may be effective on some people and not others; or we may not yet understand the mechanisms behind them, because the mind/body connection is so complex.

I’m sharing them with you because they don’t carry any risk, and they may do a lot of good. Also, they’re very quick – and I know you all lead busy lives!

I think it’s worth listening to the experience of practitioners, and that is why I have asked my colleague Maria Karakostanoglou to talk you through these three techniques.

If you would like to learn more about the applications and benefits of Brain Gym, read on. Or if you would rather, you can skip to the three simple exercises you can try today.

I asked Maria what first drew her to Educational and Kinesiology and Brain Gym.

Maria: “It was during a very hectic time in my life, when I would work as a free lance interpreter for the European Commission three days a week and would study kinesiology for four days. That had been going on for more than 10 months, no breaks, no days off. It was in the middle of February I remember, on a Sunday evening that I had just walked back home, under pouring rain, tired, having just finished the basic Brain Gym 101 4 days training. I just wanted to get under a hot shower and into my bed. But I had a fisheries meeting at the Council the following day and I had to prepare and frankly I felt I had no energy to do that and mostly not a mind to do it. My apartment felt like a not very creative chaos, I did not know where to start with tidying up and I felt my mind could not function unless I could put some order around me.

I thought “I just did this Brain Gym thing, let’s see if it really works”! I think I was desperate enough to try just about anything at that point. So I did what is known as an “Action Balance” with the goal “I effortlessly and effectively tidy up my apartment”. 20 min later it was as if a curtain had been lifted from my eyes, I even now, remember the pair of socks I picked up to start tidying up. I was fired up!

messy room

One hour later my apartment was tidy and clean, dishes washed, clothes put away. I had so much more energy than when I had walked through my door and my mind felt so much clearer. I was really ready to sit down and prepare for my meeting and I actually did just that! It was at that moment that I decided I really want to learn this Brain Gym well enough to be able to teach it to others.

I felt that the quality of my life had taken a turn for the best that day. I could do something to get me moving to a very clear direction, I had a tool that allowed me to take the responsibility to move where I wanted to go.

I have used Brain Gym since that February day 17 years ago, during interpreting meetings, difficult discussions with friends or colleagues, family or work relations. For editing articles, doing computations, de-stressing when lost or enjoying getting lost, or for learning new things!”

Sophie: It sounds as though Brain Gym has had a powerful effect on your life. But what effects do your clients report?

Maria: “It starts with a greater awareness of themselves IN their bodies. With PACE the most immediate effect for most is greater calm, an awareness of oneself in ones’ surroundings, a clarity of mind and a readiness for what is to come. (note: PACE is a series of movements that leads to greater clarity of mind and readiness for whatever action you are planning. It boosts concentration and focus and helps be more present.)

Within a week people report greater ease in concentration, greater willingness to stay with something that they don’t particularly enjoy and over time a shift from an attitude of “I cannot/will not do it” to “I am willing to give it a shot”.

Almost every adult I have worked with reports sleeping better and getting to sleep faster. Many children use Brain Gym before exams. They say they find their words more easily, their thoughts are more structured, they actually remember or remember better what they have studied.”

Sophie: All of this sounds pretty good to me. Greater energy and focus, a better memory, and less stress, are exactly what most of us are looking for! So let’s have a look at those exercises I promised you.

3 simple Brain Gym techniques

Technique 1 – Lazy 8s

The benefits of this simple exercise are said to include:

  • thinking more clearly
  • relaxation
  • improving visual tracking (moving you eyes and not your head to see something)
  • increasing attention span

Put a piece of paper centrally in front of you (in line with your belly button). Draw a large lying down 8 (also known as an infinity sign) in the middle of your sheet of paper.

Move the pen counterclockwise; go centre, up left, over and down, come back to the middle, and then draw the right side of the 8.

Do this 3 times, then switch hands and draw another 3 lazy 8s. Then clasp your hands together and draw over the lines another 3 times.

Here’s a quick illustration of the direction of drawing. Don’t copy the arrows! They’re just to show you which way to go first.

Lazy 8s

Technique 2 – Thinking cap

Benefits: This exercise is said to help you tune out distracting noises and increase listening ability, as well as improving short-term memory and abstract thinking skills. It’s therefore ideal to do just before an interpreting exercise, especially in simultaneous.

With one hand at the top of each ear, gently ‘unroll’ the curved parts of the outer edges of both ears at the same time, with your thumb on the inside of the ear.  Continue all the way to your earlobes.  Repeat three or more times.

Technique 3 – The energiser

Benefits: This exercise brings balance and flexibility to your spine, and reverses the way we usually sit (hunched forward). It therefore releases tension from the neck and shoulders, improves posture, and allows you to focus better on your tasks. Very useful for those who work at desks and computers!

Sit on a chair in front of a table, feet hip width apart and flat on the floor. Place your hands on the desk, in front of your shoulders, fingers pointed inwards slightly.

Rest your forehead down between your hands. Inhale, press down gently on your hands and forearms, and lift your head, then your sternum, and finally your middle back.Shoulders and torso should stay relaxed, and your chest stays open.

As you exhale, tuck your chin down onto your chest and begin moving your head down toward the table, while lengthening the back of your neck.  Rest your head on the table as you relax and breathe deeply.  Repeat three or more times.


That’s it! The reason I’ve chosen these three techniques to share with you today is that they are all quick and easy to do. You can use them before embarking on a complex piece of work, before going into the booth to interpret, and between speakers when you’re feeling stressed.

Try them out, and let me know how you get on!

Looking for more simple mind/body techniques?

Where Brain Gym may be able to boost your focus, concentration, listening skills, hearing, and more, other techniques can help you deal with the pressure of interpreting assignments or translation deadlines.

Want to find out more about Brain Gym, and discover other simple techniques that work on the body to quiet the mind (instead of asking you to manage your stress in order to avoid physical symptoms such as raised heart rate, sweaty palms, and feelings of panic)?

Brain Gym webinar

Join Maria and me in next week’s webinar, entitled ‘Quick mind/body techniques to boost focus and reduce stress.’ We’ll be demonstrating quick, practical, simple movements and techniques to bring about a reduction in feelings of stress and increased concentration and focus.

No slide show, no theory! It will all be practical, and you’ll be trying everything out in the comfort of your own home:

  • More Brain Gym techniques to help you improve your concentration, focus, and learning skills
  • Useful stretches for interpreters and translators, to relieve neck and shoulder tension
  • Belly breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation techniques
  • Visualisation and autogenic training for stress relief

Everything we’ll be showing you is quick and easy to learn. We’ll follow our demonstration with a Q&A session.

The webinar, costing €40, takes place on Friday, 30th November at 10 am and 5 pm London time. A replay will be available if you can’t attend at those times. Hope to see you there!

Webinar registration button

 

Interpreting Coach logoSophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills, and check out the website for digital material to complement your face-to-face learning and empower you to take control of your learning. If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?

Maria Karakostanoglou 

Maria trained as a conference interpreter on the European Commission’s in-house training scheme at the same time as me, and spent ten years working both as a staff and a freelance interpreter. She encountered kinesiology and Brain Gym as a client almost 20 years ago and was impressed enough by how it helped her face her own challenges that she decided to change careers and become a professional kinesiologist.

Maria also recently completed a giving back project where she taught Brain Gym tools free of charge to hundreds of primary school teachers in Peru, Chile and Greece, to support children and teachers alike in being more focused and organised and having more confidence in their ability to learn, be it inside or outside the classroom.

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The mindset shift that improves exam grades & self-esteem and redefines success

Growth mindset blog post

Are you great at dealing with technical jargon in simultaneous? Are you bad with numbers? Are your notes sloppy? Do you have a bad memory?

These are the stories we tell ourselves about our interpreting skills and professional abilities, and some of these stories can be very damaging.

I often liken learning to be an interpreter to learning to drive a car. You need to master a distinct set of skills, apply them all at the same time (watching out for hazards, steering, using the pedals, signalling, reading the road conditions), and give your passengers a smooth ride. When you first learn to drive, you need to think hard about these things (e.g. ‘I’m approaching a sharp left turn; I’d better change down into second gear.’). Eventually, many of the processes become automatic, except in difficult driving conditions (heavy traffic, bad weather), and you don’t have to think so hard about what you’re doing. This seems to me to be a pretty good analogy for simultaneous interpreting, in particular.

Let me tell you a little story about driving.  For years, I didn’t drive. When asked about it, I explained that I ‘didn’t drive’ or that I was bad at it. I was definitely useless at parallel parking.

I learned to drive at 17. I took lots of driving lessons and passed my test first time, then didn’t drive for several years. My then boyfriend got bored of doing all the driving when we went on long trips, and pushed me to drive his car.

Picture this: my boyfriend’s white Citroen, a wooden post in a garage, a sickening crunch, and a bill for £982 (probably around £50,000 in today’s money. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like as a student).

The most interesting part of this story is not the severe dent in the bodywork that resulted, but what happened afterwards. I developed a driving phobia. It manifested in a very physical way. I felt anxious as a passenger in someone else’s car. My spatial awareness was shot to pieces: when cars came at us in the other direction, I thought they were going to run into us, even though they were in the other lane. My warped perception often led me to believe we were going to hit the kerb, even though there were inches of space between it and the tyres.

I stopped driving completely for 12 years.

The messages we absorb from our nearest and dearest in our first few years of life shape our whole personality and ability to deal with life’s challenges. Some of the biggest messages I subconsciously absorbed from my parents** were ‘it’s only worth doing something if you do it well’ (= you should aspire to perfection), ‘mistakes are disastrous and shameful’ and ‘what other people think of you really matters’. As a result, I grew up with very strong perfectionist tendencies. I felt I should be able to do things perfectly, straight away.

When I crashed my boyfriend’s car, my psychological makeup just couldn’t accept a) that I had done something badly, b) that I had made a terrible mistake, and c) that it was my boyfriend’s car and everyone knew about my embarrassing failure. I find it a fascinating proof of the power of the mind that the result was a phobia lasting 12 years. I was literally incapable of driving, for no other reason than my own limiting self-beliefs.

This is an excellent example of what’s known as a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset sees traits such as intelligence, creativity, character, interpreting skills, or in my case, driving ability, as being either fixed at birth or immutable, carved in stone. My unfortunate encounter with the garage post proved to me that I was a bad driver, so I defined myself as a bad driver.

I had no problem defining myself as good at some things (baking, dancing, writing thank you letters) and terrible at others (bicycle maintenance, driving, small talk). After all, how many times have you heard fellow linguists say ‘I’m useless at maths!’?

None of this struck me as particularly damaging, until I began to hear the same words in the mouth of my six year old daughter. ‘I’m useless,’ she would say. ‘I’m so stupid! I can’t do this!’ It struck me as worrying, and wrong, that such a young child should be so hard on herself when she couldn’t master a new or complex skill straight away, that she equated being a beginner with stupidity or failure, and that she had so little resilience that she didn’t believe she could continue to develop and improve, with effort and help.

That’s when I began to learn about growth mindsets.

Much research has been done on fixed mindsets vs. growth mindsets in the past twenty years (mostly on children). A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence (and other traits or skills) can be developed; that you can train your brain with hard work, effective strategies, and help from others when needed.

The origins of work on growth mindset

The early work on growth mindsets was led in 1998 by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Six studies looked at the effects of praise on students’ behaviour and performance following a test. Those students who were praised on their natural ability (e.g. ‘you did well, you’re very smart’), later chose activities that would make them look clever. They demonstrated less persistence than the other group, and their performance in subsequent tests was poorer. Students who were praised for being hard working, on the other hand, chose to learn new things and performed better subsequently.

Since then, several large scale studies (a 2013 meta-analysis of 113 studies, data from more than 160,000 children in Chile, data from 100,000 middle school pupils from California) have shown that a growth mindset predicts academic achievement, that growth mindset interventions can improve maths test scores, and that mindsets are a significant factor in working successfully towards a goal.

The benefits of having a growth mindset

In addition to being associated with higher academic achievement and working towards goals successfully, having a growth mindset can also help students

  • cope better with transitions,
  • develop grit and resilience,
  • develop pro-social behaviours (defined as behaviours that benefit other people or society as a whole).

A growth mindset may also offer mental health benefits, such as a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.

Now, in case you’re wondering how this relates to you, if you’re reading this, the chances are you are a) an interpreting student, b) an interpreting trainer, or c) a person. Or possibly two out of three of these. And people, whether students or trainers (or professional interpreters) can benefit hugely from shifting their mindset to move away from a fixed view of ability to a growth mindset.

How? Change the way you think and talk to yourself (or your children, or your students) about your achievements or failures.

As a trainer, I see the effects of fixed mindsets every day in my work with interpreting students. More and more students suffer anxiety and stress during the academic year, and their exam performances are severely affected by nerves. Yet these students’ experience of their interpreting course, and the way they respond to challenges, setbacks and adversity (including exams), can be transformed with a mindset shift.

Let me make this more visual for you, and illustrate what happens in the classroom, or after an exam, when a student encounters adversity (e.g. ‘negative’ feedback on their interpreting, or a poor exam grade).

 

In a nutshell, to people with a fixed mindset, the classroom can be a threatening and stressful environment. This is because they believe their abilities and intelligence are immutable; thus, every class/performance/exam forces them to prove their ability and avoid looking stupid. Every lesson makes them question whether they will be accepted or rejected, whether they will come out the winner or loser, whether they will look intelligent or ignorant (many of the professional interpreters out there will recognise that they feel like this about their work assignments as well).

As a result, people with a fixed mindset tend to value good grades (= proof that they are intelligent) over learning. They have a tendency to avoid challenges (which might make them look stupid, i.e. call into question their perceived intelligence), and to give up when they struggle. Their inner dialogue goes like this: ‘If I have to try hard at learning to note-take/doing simultaneous/getting all the links right in the speech, I must not be very clever/talented.’ They view the struggle negatively, and they think they have discovered they are bad at something.

They have little resilience.

By contrast, students with a growth mindset perceive the classroom as an exciting place to grow and embrace challenges. The work that they do leads to mastery of their chosen subject. They tend to value learning (the process, not the results), and they view effort and struggle positively.

They are resilient.

When it’s explained in these terms, I think it’s difficult to object to the theory behind growth mindsets. What’s not to like in an approach that helps students enjoy learning and achieve more, that makes company employees feel more empowered and committed, and that helps old dogs learn new tricks (since, despite the age-related decline in our little grey cells, our brains are still malleable)?

Old dog, new tricks. See how literal my brain is? Literal, but still plastic.

As a result, the growth mindset approach has been adopted wholeheartedly by the British educational establishment. It’s not all that easy to teach in schools, though; and it is prone to distortions and misinterpretations, which can be quite dangerous in themselves. I’ll talk about those in a moment.

How to change your teaching with growth mindset principles

The first thing I want to convey to you is this: I firmly believe that if you have a growth mindset (most of the time), and you can encourage your students to do the same, the classroom will be more productive, less threatening, more positive, and more fun. In this environment, it’s easier to learn together.

First of all, trainers need to use their influence in a purposeful and explicit way, by modelling a growth mindset. Say what? Well, walk the walk.

When you’re in a meeting or a training session, speak up when you don’t understand. When someone makes a Powerpoint presentation, try saying ‘can you tell me more about that?’ instead of pretending you know it all already. Be curious. Don’t be the person with eyes facing the floor, who never asks questions. In the classroom, show that you’re not perfect or all-knowing, and that you are also still learning and growing. Show that you are someone to learn with, that your students can learn together with you. 

Does this sound risky? It definitely makes you vulnerable in a way I, at least, was told to avoid at all costs when I was training as an interpreter. ‘If you don’t know something, cover it up!’ was the mantra. I’m not telling you how to behave in front of your clients, though; I’m making a suggestion about how you relate to your students, if you’re a trainer. Admit your imperfections, so they can let go of the need to be perfect. Show, or say, that you’re still learning, so they can understand the importance of lifelong learning and personal growth (no need to go over the top and let out all your insecurities and self-criticism, though!). Some years ago I watched a fellow trainer, who happened to be an outstanding interpreter and a colleague for whom I had huge respect, demonstrate a consecutive in class. He sailed through it, with the exception of a short section, which he fluffed. Afterwards, he laughed about it, explained what had gone wrong in his technique, and suggested better ways of dealing with it. The students loved it! Instead of consecutive seeming to be an unattainable goal where only perfection was acceptable, his performance made it seem achievable; and more than that, the fact that a professional, highly regarded interpreter had made a (small) mistake also made the profession look more achievable to the students.

Alongside practising your own growth mindset, here are some tips for fostering the same in your students:

  • teach students about the evidence from neuroscience that the brain is malleable and that intelligence can continue to develop throughout your life.
  • Change the way you interact with your student. Focus on praising the process (their effort, strategy and results) rather than their ability.
  • Avoid comparing students. Give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performance, and to evaluate how hard they worked, what strategies they used, and how much progress they have made.
  • Understand the power of the word YET. If your students (or your children, or you) make absolute statements about their ability (‘I can’t listen and write at the same time’, ‘I’m bad with numbers’, ‘I can never remember the conclusion’), see what happens when you add the word….YET at the end of the sentence. That simple addition leaves room for growth, and shows that you are engaged in a process in which there is hope for improvement.
  • Remind your students that they are beginners, that they are learning new skills, and that it is normal to struggle.
  • Accept mistakes in your classroom. Mistakes, if you get the right feedback afterwards, help us learn. But it’s worth making the point that interpreters can’t afford to make the same mistake too many times.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the idea of praising the process rather than the ability:

Praising ability

‘Great! You’ve taken to note-taking really quickly. You’re a natural!’

‘You got a distinction in your first semester exams. You’re a really good interpreter!’

‘You picked up that idea straight away. Told you you were bright.’

‘You’re such a good student. Well done!’

Praising process

‘Great! You worked really hard on that essay.’

‘You’ve done a lot of practice on your symbols, and the result is a real improvement in your consecutive technique.’

‘It was good to see you rounding up the numbers when the speech got too hard. That was a new strategy for you, and it worked.’

‘Today was a challenging session. Your note-taking isn’t 100% reliable yet, but you can already get more detail in the speech than last week.’

In many ways, praising the process rather than the ability ties in with familiar principles of giving constructive feedback to interpreting students: don’t make it personal (‘you’re terrible at this!’), be specific, give examples, comment on the performance and not the person. In this sense, growth mindset theory tallies with and reinforces tried and tested principles of best practice in interpreter training.

Misconceptions about growth mindset

Funnily enough, the growth mindset theory is actually prone to polarised, all-or-nothing thinking, even though that is precisely what the theory frowns on (for instance, ‘let’s test school children on whether they have a growth mindset’, ‘let’s evaluate schools based on whether they manage to inculcate a growth mindset’, ‘if you think the theory doesn’t work, it’s probably because you have a false growth mindset’).

I’ll spare you the complex debate about how to apply growth mindset principles to education policy, and instead focus on three misconceptions I think are damaging.

‘Anyone can do anything.’

Growth mindset theory can come across as a defence of the idea that everyone has infinite potential. If you just try hard enough/are positive enough/embrace your mistakes and failures enough, anything is possible!

Hold on just a minute. Your mindset can get you a long way, but it can’t overcome any and every challenge you may face, or alter luck/opportunity/the way the world works. We’re not all going to be wildly successful multi-millionaires, or prima ballerinas, or the Prime Minister (guess which one I briefly toyed with as a child).*

When growth mindset theory is misinterpreted in this way and applied in the classroom, the risk is that it can lead to boundless optimism and ambition (and why not?), but also a whole lot of unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.

We all have different talents, aptitudes, interests and temperaments; I don’t believe in the idea that we can all do anything we want, as long as we believe we can; but we can definitely all change, grow and improve.

‘Growth mindset is all about effort. You should never praise ability.’

First of all, having a growth mindset doesn’t just mean working hard. Unproductive effort shouldn’t be a goal in itself. It’s important to keep a weather eye on what you’re trying to achieve, and make sure you are trying new strategies if you’re in a rut, or getting help from others.

As a parent, I sometimes find my children’s school overly politically correct in avoiding praise for ability at all costs. Report cards are so non-judgemental and politically correct that I find it difficult to assess whether my children are doing OK. All their reports are couched in terms like ‘has made good progress’, and ‘is working hard towards mastering multiplication tables.’ Huh? What does this mean, really? If you’re a teacher or a parent, focus on praising effort, by all means, but don’t forget that sometimes we need reassurance or a reality check in the form of a reference to achievement. It’s OK to say ‘Wow! What a fantastic result in your exam!’ – you might want to add ‘You put in so much effort, and this is your reward – you can be proud of yourself!’

‘Just adopt a growth mindset and good things will follow.’

Nope. It’s not enough to talk the talk. You have to walk the walk as well. Trainers need to model a growth mindset in their interactions with students. Companies need to have policies that reward behaviours based on growth mindsets, such as sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback, and admitting mistakes. If we want our children to become more resilient and adopt a growth mindset, we need to demonstrate the same attitude, and value perseverance and problem-solving, rather than just educational or sporting achievements.

How you can adopt a growth mindset in your own life

Seriously, you have enough energy to read more about this? I’m definitely over my word limit. On the other hand, I’m also over thinking I’m a bad driver. After several lessons and a whole lot of ‘facing my fears and doing it anyway’, I started driving again a few years ago. I’m not brilliant at it: I hate going to new places, I despise multi-storey car parks, and I refuse to drive on the Continent.

But when I catch myself thinking ‘I’m terrible at parking!’, I reframe it (especially if my children are around) as ‘Driving isn’t my top skill, but I’m still working on it. I’ve practised parking and reversing, and I’ve definitely improved. I’m not perfect at it, but my driving is good enough.’

If you’re interested in applying growth mindset principles to your own life, look out for next week’s FREE mindset challenge.

I’ll be sending you 5 day’s worth of simple activities to get you thinking differently about learning.

*no, not Prime Minister. Definitely a poisoned chalice.

** Surely you know the saying ‘they f*ck you up, your mum and dad’? If not, here’s the poem by Philip Larkin. Those easily offended by four letter words should abstain from reading any further.

This Be The Verse

BY PHILIP LARKIN
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems. Copyright
© Estate of Philip Larkin. 
Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Interpreting Coach logoSophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills, and check out the website for digital material to complement your face-to-face learning and empower you to take control of your learning. If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?

Please follow and like us:
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