Top tips for communicating with someone using a sign language interpreter

If you don’t use sign language and you want to communicate with someone who does, you’re probably going to need the help of a sign language interpreter. 

In a group conversation, a Black woman with short hair and glasses uses BSL to communicate with someone who is just out of shot, and a white woman with blonde hair looks on smiling.

Sign language interpreters, or British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters, help people who don’t use sign language to communicate with those who do. 

If you’ve never worked with an interpreter or communicated with a D/deaf person before, you might have some questions about how it all works (and what not to do!).

The following are some good tips to remember when you’re speaking to a D/deaf person using a sign language interpreter. Plus, towards the end of the blog there’s a bit more advice for communicating with D/deaf people and people who are hard of hearing generally.

If you’re booking an interpreter

Make sure you use the right type of interpreter

It’s important to make sure you book the right type of interpreter to use with the D/deaf or deafblind person you want to communicate with.

For example, most interpreters are trained to work with D/deaf and hard of hearing people, but not deafblind people. 

Some interpreters will require an extra qualification or training to become skilled in deafblind communication and enable them to interpret for deafblind people.

Book two interpreters for meetings longer than an hour

If your event is going to be longer than an hour, you need two interpreters, because of the physical and mental demand on the interpreter. They’ll need to swap every 15-20 minutes. 

Research has found that the quality of an interpretation starts to deteriorate after about 20 minutes. 

If there’s only one interpreter booked, you’ll need to allow them to have 5-10 minute breaks throughout the booking.

Send notes and other prep materials to the interpreter first

This will give the interpreter a chance to become familiar with jargon they are not used to, and to ask any questions they have before the booking. 

For example, you might share things like previous meeting notes or the meeting agenda with your interpreter. Having this context will allow them to give you a smoother and more accurate interpretation. 

When you’re speaking to someone using an interpreter

Speak directly to the D/deaf person

Avoid saying things like “Can you ask them?” or “Don’t tell them” to the interpreter. Instead, speak directly to the D/deaf person, just as you would in any other conversation. 

“Make sure the person you’re talking to feels that they’re part of the conversation, and not being left out.”

This is to make sure the person you’re talking to feels that they’re part of the conversation, and not being left out. 

It really bothers me when people have a private conversation with my interpreter, and don’t include me. It would be polite to speak in private if you don’t want to speak with me. 

I’ve even seen people start asking the interpreter how they learned to sign, and asking for tips – they really should ask the D/deaf person directly!

Remember: interpreters don’t sign at the same pace as you speak

It takes time for the interpreter to listen and work out how to translate what’s being said into sign language for the D/deaf person. 

That’s why there’s always a delay when you’ve finished speaking and the interpreter is still signing. 

It’s the same when the D/deaf person signs back – the interpreter has to wait for the D/deaf person to finish explaining everything for them to then relay back in English to you. 

You should ask the interpreter to let you know if you need to slow down so they can catch up with what’s being said. In the meantime, you can speak as you normally would.

Some general tips for communicating with a D/deaf person

  1. Find out how they communicate. Some D/deaf people speak, some use sign language and some use both. Everyone is unique. The best way to find out what a person prefers is to ask!
  2. Get their attention. Try waving or tapping their shoulder lightly.
  3. Face them when you’re talking. Make sure they can see your face clearly.
  4. Make lipreading easy. Speak clearly and naturally with your mouth uncovered. If possible, stand with your face to the light. 
  5. Use gestures or visual cues. Don’t be shy about using gestures to support your communication. Many people will already know handshapes or signs for common words like ‘car’, ‘baby’ or ‘drink’.
  6. Make the conversation topic clear. Let them know if and when it changes.
  7. Reduce background noise. Hearing aids amplify all noises, so background noises such as music or radio can make it difficult for them to listen.
  8. Don’t give up. If one method doesn’t work, improvise! You can try writing your message down or texting on your phone.

Find out more about sign language

Did you know that there are regional differences in BSL around the UK?