A few thoughts on “B languages”

Chris Guichot de Fortis is senior staff interpreter at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. He teaches interpreting and examines at several Belgian and British interpreting schools and is also the Director of the renowned Cambridge Conference Interpreting Course (CCIC) for experienced practising conference interpreters.

In this text Chris offers some practical advice and exercises to interpreters thinking about adding or simply maintaining a B language.

What is a ‘B’ language?

I should start by defining the precise nature, in the conference interpretation context, of a ‘B’ language. We are talking about an active language which should, in my opinion, be useable in consecutive and simultaneous modes. Some in the profession accept that the C>B combination may not be offered, or that it may cover consecutive interpretation only; the author’s own position is that a professional active language should be such from all other languages in the interpreter’s combination.

The AIIC definition of a ‘B’ language is as follows, although I feel that the word ‘perfect’ is poorly chosen in this context:
“A language other than the interpreter’s native language, of which he or she has a perfect command and into which he or she works from one or more of his or her other languages. Some interpreters work into a ‘B’ language in only one of the two modes of interpretation”

When speaking here about an ‘A’ language or mother tongue, I am assuming an outstanding level of linguistic ability and depth, as it is not enough simply to be a national of a particular country to lay claim to the conference interpreter’s mastery of that language. It follows that certain ‘B’ languages will be superior, as vectors of expression and argument, to the average ‘A’ language.

We should not forget either that ‘biactive’ and ‘bilingual’ are not synonymous ; true bilinguals (cultural, functional, emotional, linguistic…) are extremely rare, and their bilingualism does not necessarily make them gifted interpreters. To quite a purely empirical example, of the 35 staff interpreters currently working at NATO Headquarters, all of whom are biactive, only a handful would be classed as AIIC ‘double A’s.

It is also quite common to encounter aspiring interpreters who do not actually possess a true ‘A’ language. Despite a background which may well seem propitious to bilingualism, they in fact possess two ‘B’ languages, neither of which is of a depth or level required for conference interpreting, but which may serve perfectly adequately in other situations. In such cases, a career as a conference interpreter is, sadly, not usually a realistic aspiration.

It is also possible to encounter interpreters who are truly capable of working into three languages, but this is an extremely rare phenomenon – It is perhaps wise to be sceptical of many such claims, as they often (but not always) go hand in hand with lower quality interpretation. It is true to say that ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’, and that conscientious professionals know their limits, even if their clients do not!

As an aside, no account will be taken here of the ‘retour dépannage’ as still taught by some interpreting schools, since working into a ‘C’ language at conference level is, quite rightly, not something our profession encourages, as it tends to devalue both the practitioner and his/her craft. In clear terms, our options are to provide high-quality professional communication or remain silent…

So, a ‘B’ language as practised at the highest level of international conferences (eg. OECD, World Bank, Council of Europe, NATO, various national ministries etc.) is a second language, the mastery of which can be assessed at a level slightly below that of a conference interpreter’s mother tongue (say between 5% and 15%, although of course it is invidious to attempt to quantify such matters using figures – see Annex 2 below). This mother tongue should itself be exceptionally rich and flexible, clearly surpassing the quality offered by an average, even university-educated, mother-tongue speaker .

A slight foreign accent is acceptable in the ‘B’ language, so long as it in no way hampers comprehension. Indeed, recent surveys among users of interpretation indicate that accuracy, consistency and voice quality and are more prized than the lack of accent. Furthermore, a very small number of errors (such as genders in latin languages or tonic accents in English) can be tolerated, depending upon context, as it is of course accepted that a ‘B’ language is not a mother tongue, even if it may be extremely close thereto.

It is even true to say that the BBC tends increasingly to prefer short actor voice-overs or interpretation into English featuring a slight foreign accent. The feeling here is apparently that source-language accent increases authenticity and listener confidence…

This being said, it is essential to remember that, for the client, listening at length to virtually any ‘B’ language interpretation is tiring, as the vast majority of ‘B’s require that the client compensate (to a greater or lesser extent) for lower linguistic quality.

It is of course impossible to establish a figure to indicate what proportion of ‘C’ languages can realistically be converted into a ‘B’, but it is important to understand what may appear obvious: unlike an ‘A’ language, a ‘B’ can be created, albeit at the cost of much time and effort. In my 18 years of experience as a teacher of conference interpretation, somewhere between 15% and 20% of trainee interpreters could at some stage, if well advised and guided, aspire to adding a second active language to their combination. The idea of adding a ‘B’ is, then, a perfectly acceptable professional ambition, even if it remains unrealistic for those interpreters who do not already possess a very strong ‘C’ which they wish to enhance.

Why seek to acquire a second active language ?

Now that we know more or less what a ‘B’ language is, let us look at the ways in which it can be used, and its general value to a conference interpreter.

– It is well known that, in basic terms, interpreters can be divided into two main categories :

* the ‘classic’ profile, where the interpreter possesses one active mother tongue, and a variable number of passive ‘C’ languages

* what is termed a ‘biactive’ profile, whereby the practitioner possesses two active languages, and possibly one or several ‘C’ languages

In today’s world, where trade and globalization reign supreme, and their main vector is an impoverished and bastardized version of the English language, time is money, so where interpretation can be dispensed with, that is often the option chosen. However, for reasons linked either to the technical nature of conferences or of politics and prestige, conference interpretation remains a prized skill which will always bring value added in the many situations where subtle and complex communication is truly necessary, and is recognized as such. In addition, many conference delegates are able to follow debates in ‘English’ for a short time or when the level of language remains simple. However, they will soon feel the need to tune in to the interpretation, and will remain glued to their headsets so long as (and this is of course a big ‘if’!) this interpretation is good.

The international market serviced by conference interpreters splits more or less into two sectors : the private and that of the International Organizations or state structures.

In the case of some International Organizations, working practices still require interpreters with several (at least two and more usually three) passive languages. The main Organizations concerned here are the EU and the UN. This being said, these employers increasingly require that interpreters with an ‘exotic’ or ‘new European’ mother tongue, offer a biactive ‘aller-retour’ combination (almost always including English), the ‘retour’ being used on relay as the basis for all other booths to work into their respective ‘A’ languages. In this scenario, it is of supreme importance that the ‘B’ language used be of an extremely high quality, for obvious reasons.

For most other areas where meetings are held and decisions taken, the need for communication goes hand in hand with those of cost-effectiveness, speed and reliability, all of which increase the demand for biactive interpreters.

For the reasons quoted, it is likely that the latter model will continue to grow at the expense of the former. This trend is particularly evident in the private and industry markets : in Paris, Brussels and Geneva, and also in the Netherlands, for example, there continues to be a strong demand for competent (this being the operative word!) professional interpreters offering the French-English biactive combination.

In other large markets, such as the USA, it is actually quite rare for any combination other than A/A or A/B to be employed. The unfortunate side effect of such a market configuration is that many so-called ‘B’ languages offered are of poor quality, as the pressure on interpreters to offer a second active language is very high. A similar phenomenon applies to those English ‘B’ languages that are added to interpreters’ combinations in response to market pressure, where ‘B’ languages other than English are not sought-after.

In Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Canada, to name but some examples, State employers such as the various Ministries and International Organizations are actively in search of competent conference interpreters who offer the language of the country and, usually, active English in addition.

So, for those interpreters with two languages at a high working level, the biactive option is attractive. It may well be that the interpreter possesses other, passive languages, and of course there is no reason why the two interpreting modes (C>A/B, B>A/A>B) cannot be combined or alternated, in order to serve a maximum number of clients and meeting configurations. This being said, maintaining the linguistic level of two active and at least one passive languages simultaneously, is an exceptionally demanding task !

However, for the interpreter offering only one ‘classic’ active and two equally ‘classic’ passive languages, it is increasingly difficult to earn a living solely from conference interpretation. There remains the option of learning a so-called ‘exotic’ ‘C’ language, but how to ensure that the chosen tongue is and will remain in demand by more than one customer, and how to learn this tongue to a sufficient professional level while practising the profession ?

The very phrase ‘adding a language’ (a recent concept which springs from the exigencies of certain interpreting markets and the growth of various International Organizations) seems necessarily to imply a dilution of quality, and to encourage the concept of language as a mere assembly of linguistic constructions or working tool – it is far far more!

In conclusion, within the fluctuating political and commercial circles of today’s world, and despite the matching vicissitudes of our profession, top quality biactive interpretation remains a highly-prized product and continues to offer a satisfactory livelihood to its practitioners.

However, given today’s omnipresent budgetary pressures and the fact that interpreting schools continue to provide the profession with new blood which more than compensates for retirements, quality is increasingly becoming a sine qua non, to the benefit of most parties concerned! This is yet another reason to acquire, after lengthy reflection and in full knowledge of all pitfalls and requirements, a truly solid ‘B’ language which will garner the respect of both clients and colleagues.

Before turning to my next section, I thought it would be instructive and amusing to illustrate my reasoning with a small and random sample (with no scientific basis) of the AIIC handbook, concerning the percentage of conference interpreters offering a ‘B’ language.

The details of this sample may be found in Annex 2 at the end of this document.

What are the basic conditions for learning to acquire, or improve, a second active language ?

– the ‘A’ language is beyond all reproach
– the first passive language, of which it is hoped to make a ‘B’ language, is already uncommonly strong and rich
– in this language, any non-native accent is either non-existent or extremely slight – the interpreter in question has lived, or is prepared to live for at least one year in a country where the target language has mother-tongue status

– the interpreter is ready to work assiduously, both in and outside the booth, to establish the neuronal pathways required by the desired linguistic combination. This is a matter of repeating in some part the interpreter training undergone initially, which of course requires many tens of hours of booth practice specifically with the new combination.

What are the steps to be undertaken, and the traps to avoid, for the addition or improvement of a second active language ?

This is a matter of strengthening the language, and the social and cultural baggage that goes with it, to a level where a cultured meeting delegate will find in the interpreter’s thought and expression a reflection of his/her own. The delegate will feel common ground at every level with the surrogate voice, given the certainty of a shared cultural and psychological experience. Once this level of symbiosis is reached, the delegate will willingly entrust his/her thought and argument to the interpreter’s skills, and happily follow the subsequent interpretation, and the profession will have made a further step forward.

a) Here are a few useful exercises :

Spend many hours in the booth shadowing an able and fluent speaker of the target language. Using MP3 files, audio cassettes or CDs, choose speakers with an excellent mastery of their mother tongue, without strong regional accents, and with a gift of oratory which allows full expression of the native cadences of the language. Shadowing initially involves repeating the words of the speaker without modification. This allows the interpreter’s brain and speech organs to reproduce the sounds and rythms of the ‘B’ language without conscious mental effort, and begins to create the ‘physiological memory’ acquired by children speaking their own tongue. This will require many tens of hours of actual speech production.

This is an excellent exercise at many levels, as (this being a consensus among recent neuro-linguistic and neurological expert studies) shadowing involves some 80% of the neuro-linguistic operations involved in simultaneous interpretation, the only factor missing being that of language transfer. While shadowing, it is useful to experiment with differing levels of time lag, introducing a certain elasticity to reflect the fluctuating demands imposed by the speaker. At the same time, gradually introduce expressions of your own, allowing for varying semantic distance from the speaker. All this being said, the prime goal of the exercise is to accustom both brain and mouth to the flawless and (eventually) effortless production of the sounds and cadences of what is a foreign language.

The goal here is to establish a new network of neuronal pathways, this being an essential stage in the interpreter’s acquisition of each new language combination. It should not be thought that all lessons learned in the successful mastery of one combination can simply be transposed to another – many hours of actual practice are required for each language pair, and there are no shortcuts!

In order to approach, in the ‘B’ language, the facility which characterises an experienced interpreter’s work into his/her mother tongue, it is also important to train both voice and brain to ensure acceptable linguistic production while mental processing efforts are required elsewhere. To this end, it is useful while shadowing to practice (for example) writing numerical sequences involving fixed gradations, which can then be self-checked after the exercise, along with the recorded interpretation. Using increasingly complex sequences is doubly fruitful, and the goal, evidently, is to guarantee an acceptable level of linguistic production even while mental processing efforts are devoted to other, more noble, tasks such as actually understanding and transposing concepts and ideas

These exercises are also very useful while practising interpretation into an ‘A’ language.

Shadowing can do much to help a ‘B’ language accent, but some trace of accent will almost always remain with a language which is learned in adulthood; this is not in itself something to be avoided (see above). In all languages there are a handful of sounds (depending upon the language concerned, and upon the native tongue of the practitioner) which a non-native speaker finds it physically difficult to reproduce: the ‘th’ or the ‘..aw’, and tonic accents in English (please beware of the word ‘development’!); in French such sounds as ‘..ouille’, ‘u’, ‘en’, ‘in’, ‘an’ and ‘on’; in Spanish the ‘jota’ or double ‘r’ etc. etc.

As in all things, it is important here to know oneself and one’s own weaknesses, and then to practice until the difficult sounds can be reproduced faithfully and with a measure of automaticity.
Most such difficulties are physiological in nature and require gradual adaptation of the speech organs, while others are more psychological, an example being the English word ‘law’ (and the related family of sounds) as pronounced by most francophones, who unconsciously and usually unsuccessfully endeavour to speak the word as it is written, even though a similar sound exists in French.

While measuring his/her growing abilities in the new ‘B’ language, it is worth the interpreter checking for the moment when sufficient proficiency has been acquired for linguistic production to be of an acceptable level (syntax, accent, grammar) even while the mouth is on ‘automatic pilot’, as the brain is engaged in processing at another level. As is so often the case in interpretation, this is in effect a virtuous circle, as once this certainty is present, confidence and therefore interpretation quality will make a quantum leap forward, and the interpreter can actually begin to analyse and transpose ideas, free of any concern that the language vector is of insufficient quality to convey the ideas desired and understood.
A word of warning here: only begin any C>B learning process once the A>B combination is solidly acquired.

As the mother tongue identity and vocabulary are largely instilled and defined during secondary schooling, it is essential that this process be replicated for a second active language. The canon of general and basic specialised knowledge in this language will be lacking in all but those raised bilingually and bi-culturally.

Time should be spent acquiring this vocabulary in such areas as geography, history, chemistry, maths, physics, history of art, literature etc. etc. To this end it may be useful to acquire secondary school textbooks in the relevant language. Such works not only contain the required information at an appropriate linguistic level, but will also be familiar to delegates with this mother tongue, whose confidence when listening to a ‘B’ language interpreter will in this way be greatly enhanced.

Experience consistently shows that the most striking gaps in ‘B’ language vocabulary are in the fields of geographical terms, and the history of art and culture ; it is essential that some time be spent making good these knowledge gaps in the chosen language. In these areas, guesswork does not pay off, and again there are no shortcuts!

Once the basic linguistic knowledge is acquired, it is important to remain abreast of social, cultural and sporting trends and their expression in one of those countries where the chosen ‘B’ is lingua franca. Films, television and sporting publications can be useful allies here.

Another golden rule : spend time regularly and for as long as possible, in those countries where the ‘B’ language is spoken, and visit museums, exhibitions, and sporting and cultural events. It is often possible to arrange to work for a year in such a country, an advantageous scenario being to offer one’s services, as a qualified conference interpreter, as reader or assistant in an interpretation school in the chosen country. This allows the ‘B’ language to be studied at university level, surrounded by interpreters and the appropriate teaching resources. In addition, it is sometimes possible to agree a type of barter system, whereby lessons are provided in exchange for access to the school’s booths and databases, or even to some classes.

Carry a small notebook (or dictaphone) [tag “logbook”] at all times, in which can be noted any and all expressions, metaphors, images, quotations, neologisms, clichés and elegant phrases which will serve to enhance the nascent ‘B’ language. The idea here is to raise the general level of expression and wealth of vocabulary available in the acquired language. All such finds should be learned by heart and must become second nature so that, little by little, it will become possible systematically to reject the first word that comes to mind in the booth, and opt for the second or even third, always aiming for a higher register and a better match between thought and word. This is how a workaday second language becomes an exceptional (and therefore a true) ‘B’.

Choose an outstanding speech in the target language (in the case of English, opt for either the American or the British version, and remain consistent once this choice is made) and memorise a sentence a day, writing it down and repeating it aloud as many times as is necessary, until it is can be reproduced without conscious intellectual effort. Stop only once the entire speech has been internalised. In this way, it is again possible to appropriate some small part of the cadence and genius of the new active language.


Spend time on flexibility exercises (‘formulations multiples’), involving rapid on-sight multiple reformulations of complex target language texts, digging deep into your reserves of knowledge of grammar, syntax and vocabulary…

Throughout this training and practising process, it is important to remember the ‘70:30 – 30:70’ language rule, whereby differing proportions of the interpreter’s intellectual capacity are devoted to understanding and speaking, as a function of the language combination being exercised. As a rough rule of thumb, an A>B interpretation sees some 30% of the available brain power devoted to understanding, and 70% to reformulating in the target language, while the reverse is true for a B>A interpretation. This is very obviously a simplification, as we are really speaking here about a linguistic and neurological continuum, with as many scenarios as there are speaker/language/interpreter combinations.

b) Most languages contain, as potential ‘B’s, certain specific difficulties which lie in wait to trap the unwitting ‘young’ interpreter:

Pay great attention to the question of register, as it is well-nigh impossible to judge this with native or instinctive accuracy in a second active language. The best solution here is always to opt for a slightly less familiar expression, or one of apparently slightly higher register, than the original. Such considerations apply particularly to eulogies, to humour, to slang and to insulting language, and it is essential to exercise great care when interpreting into a ‘B’ language. Appreciation of register will come with increasing immersion in a society where the ‘B’ language is spoken and is also a useful fruit of extensive shadowing, but will remain less reliable than in the interpreter’s mother tongue.

It is best to exercise a preference for simple and clear phrases and expressions, without giving in to the beginner’s temptation of sprinkling the ‘B’ language interpretation with pretentious, old-fashioned, familiar or otherwise unusual usages. The higher (s)he tries to reach in a second language, a fortiori with metaphors, similes and images, the more likely it is that even a competent interpreter will fail to pull off the desired linguistic coups, with resulting egg on face !

Please do not labour under the misapprehension that a handful of high-flown phrases, learned conscientiously by heart and injected more or less appositely into your interpretation, will pull the wool over the eyes of either customers or colleagues. On the contrary, even if correctly couched in themselves (and this is far from a given), such expressions will simply serve to annoy the listener by imposing constant changes of register, and highlight the poverty of the remaining and natural ‘B’ language expressions.

Remember that, when working from your mother tongue into a ‘B’ language, you no doubt effortlessly comprehend the original, but this does not guarantee that your second active language is sufficiently strong to enable you to convey all this meaning with equal facility!

The golden rule, then, is : « Keep it simple, stupid ! » Use your second working language with sobriety, clarity and intelligence, knowing and respecting your own limits. Remember that, in the words of the Swan of Avon: « Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well » *. In this way you will come to swell the ranks of competent and professional conference interpreters, you will be respected and fulfilled in the exercise of your profession, you will be able to fulfill the moral and professional contract with your customer and you will add your individual stone to the edifice of a world where communication serves the onward march of all mankind….

Chris Guichot de Fortis
Senior Interpreter, NATO HQ (July 2007, updated September 2011)


In 2011, from a random total sample of 1541 AIIC interpreters, the overall proportion of interpreters offering one or two ‘B’ languages (or two ‘A’s), was 74.5% (65% in 2010, 57% in 2008).
The breakdown by country, or city, is as follows :

(N° Ints.) 2011 2010 2008 AA: 2010 2011

Austria (75) 72% 73% 65% AA: 10% 7%

Berlin (74) 80% 72% 63% AA: 8% 7%

Brussels (343) 49% 48% 40% AA: 5% 5%

Canada (122) 82% 70% 72% AA: 5% 4%

Geneva (220) 73% 61% 54% AA: 12% 8%

Munich (49) 90% 84% 89% AA: 4% 10%

Paris (328) 88% 93% 82% AA: 8% 8%

UK (125) 69% 71% 62% AA: 6% 6%

USA (205) 68% 63% 60% AA: 12% 10%


Below, the “active language continuum”, showing approximate levels of linguistic ability:

‘A’ language (usually mother tongue) ……………………………………………………………………

‘B’ language – International Organizations & highest level private market

‘B’ language – mid-level private market

‘B’ language – entry-level private market …………………………………………………………………..
‘C’ language (exclusively passive)

Shadowing – Guichot de Fortis

In this brief text I shall endeavour both to describe the technique and provide some hints as to its use.

The technique and practice of shadowing is an indispensable tool for both the budding and the experienced simultaneous interpreter, but it is a controversial technique and is often misunderstood or discounted. In my opinion, however, all interpreting professionals would gain greatly from spending time both considering and practising the art of shadowing.

Chris Guichot de Fortis Senior Interpreter, NATO Interpreter Training Resources

Shadowing is useful into all the interpreter’s active languages, ‘A’ and ‘B’, and can be employed to correct and refine a multitude of interpretation weaknesses – accent, delivery, voice quality, vocal range, emphasis, ‘cleanliness’ of rendition, confidence etc. etc.

However, it is important that shadowing:

  • –  be carried out in a graduated, thorough and reasoned way
  • –  be regularly supervised and/or assessed by both the practitioner and his or her teachers, supervisors or colleagues
  • –  be carried out over many hours and in each of the linguistic combinations that it is desired to enhance
  • –  be coupled with more conventional training techniques

The technique consists of spending many hours in a real or virtual booth shadowing an able and fluent speaker of the target language. As the goal is to replicate the neurological and intellectual demands of simultaneous interpretation, a simple laptop/ipod/headphone combination will suffice, in the absence of a true booth. Using MP3/MP4 or flash files, DVDs, CDs or audio cassettes, choose speakers who are expressing themselves in their mother tongue and who have an excellent mastery thereof, without strong regional accents, and with a gift of oratory which allows full expression of the native cadences of the language. It cannot be over- emphasised that your chosen speaker must be carefully selected, as a function of accent, elocution, delivery, register etc. This is an excellent technique at many levels, as (this being a marked trend among recent neuro-linguistic and neurological expert studies) shadowing involves some 80% of the neuro-linguistic operations involved in simultaneous interpretation, the only factor missing being that of language transfer. Shadowing initially involves repeating the words of the speaker without modification. This allows the interpreter’s brain, ears and mouth, working as they do in concert, to begin to reproduce the sounds and rhythms of the target language, without conscious mental effort, and begins to create the ‘linguistic muscle memory’ naturally acquired by children learning their own tongue. This will require many tens of hours of actual speech production – it is essential that the language actually be voiced, or the exercise is useless.

It is also recommended, in the case of an actual or potential ‘B’ language, to shadow with a text, as it is true to say that we cannot hear or apprehend what we do not know, and if we do not hear all the articles, prepositions, and smaller sounds that make a native speaker sound native, we will not reproduce those sounds in our shadowing, and will lose much of the potential benefit. Here again, it is useful to record your shadowing, and then replay it, comparing it to the text.

The prime goal of the exercise is to accustom brain, ears and mouth to the flawless and (eventually) effortless production of the sounds and cadences of what may be (in the case of a ‘B’) a foreign language. The goal here is to establish a new network of synapses and neuronal pathways, this being an essential stage in the interpreter’s acquisition of each new language combination. It should not be thought that all lessons learned in the successful mastery of one combination can simply and instantaneously be transposed to another – many hours of actual practice are required for each language pair, and there are no shortcuts!

Let’s now begin to look in a more concrete way at the actual practice of the technique.

While shadowing, it is important to experiment with differing levels of time lag or ‘recul’ (say from 0.5 to 5 seconds), introducing a certain elasticity to reflect the fluctuating demands imposed by the speaker and to train the brain to cope with larger or smaller linguistic buffer spaces in the language combination being employed.

At the same time, gradually introduce expressions of your own, allowing for varying semantic (but of course not substantive) distance from the speaker. At one extreme you may wish to decide in advance to modify one or two words per sentence, and at the other to leave only one or two words unchanged.

In order to approach, in the ‘B’ language, the facility which characterizes an experienced interpreter’s work into his/her mother tongue, it is also important to train both voice and brain to ensure acceptable linguistic production while mental processing efforts are required elsewhere.
To this end, it is useful while shadowing to practice (for example) writing numerical sequences involving fixed gradations (1, 3, 5, 7… or 1, 6, 11, 16, 21 etc.), which can then be self-checked after the exercise, along with the recorded interpretation.
Another variant might involve writing down poems or song lyrics, which the interpreter knows by heart, while interpreting. Using increasingly complex sequences is doubly fruitful, and the goal, evidently, is to guarantee an acceptable level of linguistic production even while mental processing efforts are devoted to other, more noble, tasks such as actually understanding and transposing concepts and ideas! Such exercises are useless, of course, unless both spoken and written productions are assessed for accuracy and acceptability.

Many interpreters experience difficulties, in the booth, in adopting a register or ‘persona’ which differs from their own, and shadowing can be very helpful in acquiring these more thespian-related skills which can so often make the difference between a good and an excellent interpretation. Thus, shadowing speakers who are expressing joy, grief, anger, sorrow or enthusiasm, will begin to instill the required ‘muscle memory’ that will allow the interpreter (when the chips are down and lack of the appropriate vocabulary or register would severely damage the credibility of the interpretation) appropriately and confidently to transmit the entire message and sentiments of the speaker. To this end, it is useful to shadow speakers who are expressing strong or even excessive emotion, without fear of drifting into caricature, given that there will always be a filter or some loss of intensity between ‘shadower’ and ‘shadowee’.

The above exercise is of particular utility in the interpreter’s ‘B’ language, as its extended practice helps to instill native accent and provide a more nearly instinctive feeling for register and vocabulary, in sensitive contexts where any such failures would have serious consequences. For accent correction purposes, it is preferable initially to shadow language-learning tapes/CDs, etc., because the texts are spoken slowly, thus all sounds can be easily discerned. In addition, the texts employed are simpler, but grammar and syntax are correct. An added advantage is that the text will be available to read during shadowing.

It is also useful to spend time shadowing fast speakers, as it is true to say that many (usually inexperienced) interpreters have difficulty in simply delivering even their native language rapidly, clearly and without stumbling, especially when obliged to adopt a cadence which is not their own. It goes without saying that this difficulty is exacerbated into the ‘B’ language.

It is my hope that the above hints and descriptions will help you in your interpreting life, and endow you with increased facility and confidence in all your active languages, and in all registers. I should again stress the importance of shadowing, and of spending considerable amounts of time on this exercise, to enable the brain to integrate it in a reflexive, automatic way, clearing the way for more complex intellectual operations while actually interpreting.

Christopher Guichot de Fortis (AIIC)
Senior Staff Interpreter, NATO Headquarters, Bruxelles September 2011

Perfectionnement linguistique (ESIT)

Quelques conseils librement inspirés de la brochure de l’ESIT : Comment perfectionner ses connaissances linguistiques (ESIT 1984-1995-1998) Compiled and contributed by Jean-Jacques Pedussaud.


Langue A 


1. lire des textes littéraires (roman, poésie, théâtre) 

2. lire la presse (dont obligatoirement, chaque jour, UN article sur un sujet qui a priori vous rebute !) 

3. rester critique vis-a-vis de la langue employée dans les médias ; etre un lecteur vigilant, a l’affut de l’inattendu, mais aussi des erreurs ; de meme, etre un locuteur et auditeur vigilant : faire la chasse a ses propres erreurs ou a ses tics de langage (nous en avons tous…). 


4. écrire pour soi-meme (journal intime) et a autrui (courrier, méls). 

5. pratiquer des exercices langagiers écrits (exercices de style a la Raymond Queneau ; imitation d’un modele) 


6. dresser des comptes rendus a l’oral de choses entendues ou lues (se faire corriger si possible par un autre locuteur natif : a défaut, s’enregistrer et se réécouter d’une oreille critique, en recommençant au besoin). 

7. pratiquer des exercices langagiers oraux (exercices de style, exercices d’imitation : cf. activité écrite 5 ; memes conseils que pour activité 6). 


Par définition, la COMPRÉHENSION ORALE ne doit pas poser de probleme en langue A ! 

Langue B (français) 


8. pratiquer l’écoute attentive de la radio, de la télévision, de films en VO, d’enregistrements audio ou vidéo, de discours et d’interviews sur internet. 


9. lire attentivement textes littéraires et presse (cf. activités 20 & 21), rechercher (internet, dictionnaires unilingues, encyclopédies…) ET NOTER dans un carnet le sens des expressions inconnues. 


10. discussion sur un sujet donné avec un interlocuteur natif qui vous écoutera en prenant des notes pour vous corriger a la fin : il relevera les erreurs, mais SURTOUT proposera des formulations correctes, avec beaucoup de synonymes => donc trouver un locuteur A fiable. 

11. SHADOWING de la radio ou de la télévision (cad répétition du message a l’identique, avec une ou deux secondes de décalage). Attention : cet exercice ne prépare pas a l’interprétation simultanée. Il vise seulement a améliorer le débit et la fluidité ainsi que la fidélité phonologique et intonative. 

12. Compte-rendu oral (d’un texte ou d’un message oral) avec REPRISE A L’IDENTIQUE d’expressions issues de l’original (peut tout a fait s’associer a l’exercice 8 ou 9). 

13. PARAPHRASER oralement un message initial écrit ou oral (peut s’associer aux activités 8 ou 9), cad reformuler en s’obligeant cette fois-ci a NE PAS utiliser les memes expressions que l’original. NB : c’est une excellente préparation a l’interprétation (méthode). Attention toutefois a ne pas mélanger perfectionnement linguistique et interprétation…

14. Lecture a haute voix (on peut s’enregistrer, se réécouter, et recommencer en corrigeant les erreurs phonologiques que l’on aura relevées. Attention toutefois au perfectionnisme mortifere !). 

15. Apprendre par coeur un paragraphe argumentatif a la fois (tiré d’un essai ou article de presse), voire un poeme, un passage de roman ou de piece de théâtre. Le réciter ou le noter par écrit de mémoire. Vérifier la fidélité. Recommencer jusqu’a mémorisation parfaite, avant d’apprendre un nouveau passage. 


16. Compte-rendu écrit avec REPRISE d’expressions issues de l’original (cf. activité 11) 

17. Compte-rendu écrit avec PARAPHRASE SYSTÉMATIQUE (cad expressions systématiquement différentes de celles employées dans l’original — cf. activité 12) 

18. Écrire sur un sujet imposé (un paragraphe sur tel ou tel theme). 

19. Écriture personnelle (journal intime) ou courrier. 


20. Noter tous les faits de langue qui vous frappent au fil de la journée (lectures, conversations, informations a la radio ou a la télévision…), notamment les expressions que vous n’emploieriez pas spontanément, dans un petit carnet que vous aurez sur vous EN PERMANENCE (cf. activité 9). Les réemployer ensuite dans la mesure du possible dans les activités d’expression (10 a 19). 

21. Chaque jour, lire attentivement UN article et relever tous les mots et expressions que vous n’auriez pas utilisés spontanément (y consacrer environ 1/4 d’heure par jour). Les réemployer ensuite dans les activités d’expression écrite ou orale (10 a 19).

Practice Guide Guichot de Fortis

by Chris Guichot de Fortis
Senior Interpreter, NATO
January 2015

“You have a mind, it wants to learn. Acquire an arsenal of knowledge with which to arm yourself…our modern age is a time when learning is power….every man must know everything. Ignorance is the curse of God, knowledge the wing we use to fly…your brain must hurry to eat all the facts it can hold, before the next age of darkness.”
(Phillip Depoy – “The King James Conspiracy”)

It has become increasingly apparent to me over the years that a considerable number of students studying conference interpreting (at Master’s and other levels), find it difficult to know exactly how to proceed, and which tactics and techniques to adopt in their efforts to improve their consecutive and simultaneous techniques, and strengthen both their ‘A’ and ‘B’ languages. So, I felt it might be useful for me to provide a few hints and guidelines to help my future colleagues, which is my goal in this informal (and far from exhaustive) guide; I hope and trust that it will be of assistance both to those still engaged in their studies, and recently qualified young conference interpreters.

If you are to progress, it is important that you understand that the formal hours of teaching and training offered by your school during your interpreting studies can only be considered as simply the tiny tip of what is a complex and extensive iceberg. If you limit yourself to this ‘official’ training and practice, be advised from the start that you will have practically no chance either of passing your diploma exams or (much more importantly) of actually becoming a conference interpreter! Please divest yourself immediately of the misapprehension that simply attending classes will automatically make you into a conference interpreter – from today on, devote your energy, your willpower and your imagination to external/supplementary/independent training activities aimed at making you both competent and autonomous.

Think of your formal classes more as a chance to have regular access to experienced trainers, who will be able to observe your performance and provide advice to enable you to then go away and progress. Remember that even though Olympic athletes (and theirs, linguistically, is the level of difficulty and excellence in performance at which you are aiming) resort systematically to specialist professional trainers, these experts can only observe performance and indicate what form the athlete’s training should take. It will be the individual athlete’s muscles and tendons which will bring Olympic success, and not those of the coach – it is therefore up to the athlete to make the lengthy, focused, sustained and considered efforts which will progressively strengthen and develop muscles, resilience and technique, and lead to success in performance.

In your case, it is your own brain that you must painstakingly develop, nourishing synapses and creating the new neuronal pathways which are a prerequisite for simultaneous interpretation, and to which there are no shortcuts: there can literally be no substitute for many many hours of purposeful and targeted practice, actually carrying out the interpreting task! You may practice alone or in a group, and must regularly seek evaluations and advice from seasoned professional interpreters/pedagogues, who know where the bar is set. This professional feedback should lead to the adoption of strategies to remedy any faults identified, and this practice/feedback loop should be repeated many times.

It is usually said that, to acquire a high-level specialist skill, some 10.000 hours of deliberate practice are required. While this will indeed be necessary for you to achieve a truly expert level of performance (which should legitimately be your aim after a couple of years in the profession, if you wish to make a living from conference interpreting in a competitive world), to reach the level required to actually launch one’s career, several hundred hours (in conditions as near to those of real life as possible) should suffice!

During your practice sessions, I suggest that you draw inspiration from the text in Annex I below, detailing the training methods and strategies employed by experts and specialist performers in a variety of fields.

It is very important that you practice even a little every day (while allowing yourself a weekly day of rest!), rather than opting for less frequent but rarer but longer, intensive bursts of activity. On days when you have classes, I recommend a daily average of 90 minutes’ concentrated training, in two 45 minute slices, all disciplines included; on those days when you have no formal interpreting classes, you should at least double this amount of time. Work also at acquiring the conference interpreter’s essential skill of ‘throwing the switch’ and being able to concentrate immediately and totally on the task at hand, while relaxing just as fully when the time is right. This ability (a skill in its own right), is so frequently disregarded and/or misunderstood, but it will be the basic key to the success of your training and practice, and later to your life as a practicing professional conference interpreter.

You will find below a short list of exercises which I hope and believe will help you develop as a conference interpreter. I should add the rider that each person, each brain and each linguistic and professional profile is different – you should therefore put together a reasoned, rational and achievable study and training plan to suit your own abilities and circumstances, and stick to it even when the going gets tough (as will often be the case, trust me!). If you would like to consult me (c.guichot@aiic.net) for help in establishing a tailor-made personal training plan, I would be very happy to help if time permits:

1) Listen every day, for at least an hour, to spoken-word radio (NPR, BBC Radio 4 and World Service, for English), at times with complete focus and concentration and at times as a background to your routine activities. Whether you are an English ‘A’ or ‘B’, the advantages here are multiple:

  • –  during the ‘concentrated’ listening periods, you will improve your grasp of current affairs and geopolitics, and enhance the lexical breadth and depth of your language
  • –  at all times, in the absence of visual cues, your ears and brain will become accustomed to instinctively and rapidly seizing the meaning and cadences of the (‘C’ or ‘B’) language, and to honing active listening skills
  • –  in listening to radio speech while engaged in other relatively undemanding activities, you will train your brain to listen and extract meaning with only a part of its capacity; this is an absolute goal to be reached in simultaneous interpreting, where the brain must be free to concentrate on the more ‘noble’ core functions of interpretation, i.e. understanding, processing and transposing complex ideas.

2)  Practice simultaneous, using real-life speeches delivered by speakers who are making no concessions to the fact that you are interpreting them, and pulling no punches! Use headphones and a computer, record your work and check it afterwards; as often as possible, ask for feedback from an experienced interpreter with the relevant ‘A’ language (if need be, arrange to send sound files by email). I hope that the list of useful links in Annex II will help you here.

3)  Form a training and practice group with other students or young colleagues,: negotiate access to a room with interpreting booths (use imagination and lateral thinking, and do not take ‘no’ for an answer!) and organize regular and frequent training sessions. Attend these sessions come what may, even when tired or discouraged, as they will be a source of motivation and cross-fertilisation; while the learning curve is still steep, it is easier to struggle with others than alone. You should attend these sessions systematically, no matter how (or how confident) you are feeling mentally or physically, because others will be depending on you and your commitment. The discipline will later stand you in good stead as a professional interpreter, and will help develop your character and reliability, making you a sought- after colleague.

In your work with the practice group, every member in rotation should prepare and deliver speeches, which will also develop your self-confidence and hone other communication skills that will help you greatly in consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. While working in a group, be constructive in your feedback to colleagues, but also frank and demanding. Undemanding or superficial feedback (too many schools tend to be insufficiently demanding of their students) does more harm than good, and it is only through constructive frankness that you will progress. Try hard to move beyond a simple recitation of inaccuracies and language errors, and seek to identify weaknesses in listening, concentration, reasoning and understanding, all of which will undermine successful interpretation. A further bonus here is that in learning to critique colleagues, you will also become better able to identify your own problems.

In Annex III below you will find a description of an excellent group of this type, which is primarily aimed at recent graduates. This is an example from which to draw inspiration; please take into account the intellectual property involved in the format and website of this group, and make sure to ask permission from the group organizer (listed in the Annex) before cutting and pasting any part of her work.

4)  Practice on-sight translation every day, alone or with others; fix the goal of finding (in your ‘A’ language) 5 or 6 versions of each and every sentence without hesitation, varying grammar, syntax and word order; in your ‘B’ language, your goal should be to provide 3 versions with equal speed. You can work on this exercise anywhere and at any time, using virtually any type of text, and it is indispensable for increasing the speed and flexibility of your thought processes, and your linguistic breadth and depth in all your active languages.

5)  Perform 4-minute slices of consecutive interpretation, preferably in front of an audience made up of your colleagues or of ‘pure consumers’ who have no knowledge of the source language – this is a good motivator for young interpreters, as it places them in a situation where their interpretation is truly necessary, a salutary and welcome change from the artificial circumstances in which most such tasks tend to be carried out in a learning environment.

6) Spend a considerable amount of time ‘shadowing’ (see guide at Annex IV below) elegant, flowing and convincing speeches in all your active languages (‘A’ just as much as ‘B’). Do not forget that even your mother tongue will not yet be at a level sufficient to be able to professionally interpret complex arguments and ideas. In addition, shadowing is the best possible tool for acquiring a strong ‘B’ language, so that it can be employed reflexively, confidently and convincingly: after many tens of hours of practice, this technique will help you automatically employ correct vocabulary and register in your ‘A’ language, and appropriate cadences, accent and rhythms in your ‘B’ language.



Article : « Elite Players’ Practice »

The Berlin Study

In the early 1990s, a trio of psychologists descended on the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in the heart of West Berlin. They came to study the violinists.

As described in their subsequent publication in Psychological Review, the researchers asked the academy’s music professors to help them identify a set of stand out violin players — the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.

We’ll call this group the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

We’ll call this group the average players.

The three researchers subjected their subjects to a series of in-depth interviews. They then gave them diaries which divided each 24-hour period into 50 minute chunks, and sent them home to keep a careful log of how they spent their time.

Flush with data, the researchers went to work trying to answer a fundamental question: Why are the elite players better than the average players?

The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long, Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.

The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…

Decoding the Patterns of the Elite

We can start by disproving the assumption that the elite players dedicate more hours to music.

The time diaries revealed that both groups spent, on average, the same number of hours on music per week (around 50).

The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.

This might not be surprising, as the importance of deliberate practice had been replicated and reported many times (c.f., Gladwell).

But the researchers weren’t done.

They also studied how the students scheduled their work. The average players, they discovered, spread their work throughout the day. A graph included in the paper, which shows the average time spent working versus the waking hours of the day, is essentially flat.

The elite players, by contrast, consolidated their work into two well-defined periods.

When you plot the average time spent working versus the hours of the day for these players, there are two prominent peaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In fact, the more elite the player, the more pronounced the peaks. For the best of the best — the subset of the elites who the professors thought would go on to play in one of Germany’s two best professional orchestras — there was essentially no deviation from a rigid two- sessions a day schedule.

This isolation of work from leisure had pronounced effects in other areas of the players’ lives. Consider, for example, sleep: the elite players slept an hour more per night than the

average players.

Also consider relaxation. The researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the elite players were significantly more relaxed than the average players, and the best of the best were the most relaxed of all.

Hard Work is Different than Hard to Do Work

To summarize these results:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin. I’ve seen this same phenomenon time and again in my study of high achievers. It came up so often in my study of top students, for example, that I even coined a name for it: the paradox of the relaxed Rhodes Scholar.

This study sheds some light on this paradox. It provides empirical evidence that there’s a difference between hard work and hard to do work:

  • Hard work is deliberate practice. It’s not fun while you’re doing it, but you don’t have to do too much of it in any one day (the elite players spent, on average, 3.5 hours per day engaged in deliberate practice, broken into two sessions). It also provides you measurable progress in a skill, which generates a strong sense of contentment and motivation. Therefore, although hard work is hard, it’s not draining and it can fit nicely into a relaxed and enjoyable day.
  • Hard to do work, by contrast, is draining. It has you running around all day in a state of false busyness that leaves you, like the average players from the Berlin study, feeling tired and stressed. It also, as we just learned, has very little to do with real accomplishment. This analysis leads to an important conclusion. Whether you’re a student or well along in your career, if your goal is to build a remarkable life, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re chronically stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. You’re the average players from the Universität der Künste — not the elite. You’ve built a life around hard to do work, not hard work. The solution suggested by this research, as well as my own, is as simple as it is startling: Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.