Learning by Osmosis

OSMOSIS – an ability to learn and understand things gradually without much effort. (Merriam-Webster)

I was joking with some colleagues about having parents who were physicians and, therefore, how these friends had learned medicine by osmosis. We have all had that experience: learning about a particular field of knowledge from our close relationships to someone who is actively engaged in that field. If your significant other is a filmmaker, for example, you learn about the elements of film making from his or her comments while watching a movie together. If a very close friend is a musician, you may learn a lot about music appreciation from your conversations with your friend about some particular performance the two of you go see together.

Likewise, people close to us learn about our profession from hearing us talk about what we do, how we do it, why we do things one way rather than another, and so forth. This is an opportunity that we should not overlook to educate those who are not interpreters or translators, because every time we talk about our profession, the potential exists for someone to learn a little more about what interpreting and translating is all about.

But what I find most beneficial about this learning by osmosis process is the potential for entry-level judiciary interpreters to grow professionally by being close to more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. This could be part of a mentoring program, but it could also be an ad hoc activity any interpreter could start on his or her own initiative. All that is needed is an experienced colleague who is willing to have a less-experienced interpreter follow him or her around and learn by listening.

Here are some suggestions to get started on your own ad hoc learn-by-osmosis adventure.

1. Find a colleague whose work you admire, and is close enough that you can visit when s/he is working and you are not.

2. Let your colleague know you would like to sit and listen to his/her performance in court so you can improve your own performance. (We don’t want your colleagues to think you are stalking them!)

3. If your colleague agrees to have you listen in, be discreet and unobtrusive when you do. If your colleague is not comfortable with this arrangement, do not insist. There can be all sorts of reasons for someone not to feel flattered by your approach. Find someone else who will be happy to help.

4. When you go to court, always bring a pad to take notes. Write down any new words, phrases, or techniques you observe that are new to you and you would like to incorporate to your practice.

5. If electronic equipment is being used, ask for a headset (if one is available) so you can hear the colleagues in the simultaneous mode and the other court officers directly from the audio system if that technology is available.

If your colleagues are amenable, sit down afterwards to talk about anything that caught your attention and pick their brains. How did they get to use term “X” instead of “Y”? How did they come up with “B” shortcut for “ABC”? Your notes, reinforced by this informal conversation, should help you add new terms and phrases to your long-term memory that will make you a better interpreter. If there are any new techniques you observed and would like to adopt, try to incorporate them into your practice as soon and as often as possible. Behavioral research tells us that “it takes between 18-224 days to make a new behaviour an ingrained habit,” so give yourself time to incorporate these new techniques into your performance.

A final reminder: learning is an ongoing and lifelong process for interpreters; not all of it has to come from books or classrooms.

8 thoughts on “Learning by Osmosis”

  1. Hal Sillers says:

    Excellent post, Janis and great advice. The title and first sentence, however, brought back a memory from years ago that still makes me laugh. Early in my career, I was called for an assignment in federal court in a medium size city some distance from where I live. When the clerk called me, she explained that she was calling me because their regular interpreter was unavailable and I was the closest federally certified interpret she could find. In the conversation, I inquired as to which federally certified interpreter was their regular interpreter. She replied “Oh, we don’t have any federally certified interpreters here. We always have to bring in certified interpreters for trials. We have a young man that lives here, however, and he interprets for most of our day to day hearings. He is not federally certified, but his mother is.” When I got off the phone, I said to Leonor, ” I have no idea why I went to the trouble of studying and preparing for the FCIC exam. Evidently, you can learn all this stuff by osmosis.

    Enjoyed your post, Janis.



    1. Janis Palma says:

      Isn’t that the truth, Hal. I loved your anecdote (and so good to hear from you.) Thanks for sharing. – Janis

  2. Kathy Cheek says:

    I love this article! It is very true that we do learn from each other and in a very good and positive way. How comfortable to be with a colleague, especially one that is good at what they do and will share with you. This is a great idea and also gives us confidence to better ourselves, be honest, be clear in sharing our information with others that don’t speak a specific language, and it builds the community of interpreters in a good way. Thanks for this article.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      That’s just what I am trying to encourage. Thank you for your feedback, Kathy!

  3. Martin Anderson says:

    These are valuable suggestions. I would like to add two points.
    The same thing can be done by those interested in becoming interpreters. You not only get to watch working interpreters; you learn about the nature and rhythm of interpreting in a courtroom or other judicial setting.
    This can also be useful for the “teacher.” Knowing you are being observed in this way makes you more conscious of how you’re doing.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Absolutely, Martin! Knowing that we are being “watched” by someone trying to learn from us pushes us to try harder as well. Great observation!

  4. Jose Gonzalez says:

    That is certainly true! We can learn so much just by observation.Your posts and suggestions are always reassuring to those entering the interpreter profession.Thanks for taking the time to help us all focus.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      José, I am so happy to know that my posts can be reassuring to the “newbies” because this can certainly be a very intimidating profession for those taking it seriously. Plus, I find it very rewarding to be able to help those that are just starting so they “get it right” from the very beginning. Thank you for your feedback!

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