Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 161-165
Published Online June 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 161
The Skill-Focused Approach to Interpretation Teaching:
An Empirical Exploration*
Xu Han
School of Foreign Languages, Nanchang Hangkon g University, Nanchang, China
Received February 3rd, 2013; revised March 4th, 2013; accepted March 15th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Xu Han. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
This paper conducts an empirical study to testify the necessity and feasibility of the skill-focused inter-
pretation teaching for undergraduate English majors, aiming at probing into the issue of accurate posi-
tioning of interpretation course. The participants in the experiment are 72 fourth-year students with 36 in
the experimental class and 36 in the control class. The pedagogical principles and procedures between the
experimental class and control class are rather different. The former follows the language-focused ap-
proach while the latter implements the skill-focused one. Results indicate that the mean of experimental
class (77.69) is higher than that of the control class (72.48) in the post-test, and there is significant differ-
ence between them (p = .000). On the whole, experimental class produces better overall interpreting per-
formance than control class, especially in terms of completeness, accuracy, re-expression, and adaptabil-
ity. There are significant differences between all of them (p < .05). Empirical evidence shows that the
skill-focused approach has its advantages over the traditional language-focused approach.
Keywords: Interpretation Teaching; Shill-Focused Approach; Empirical Study
China has experienced increasing contact and exchange with
the outside world since the late 1970s when the policy of re-
form and opening up was adopted. Understandably, Chinese
society finds itself in urgent need of qualified interpreters to
play the role of bilingual communicators between China and
other countries. As a result of this need, interpreting instruction
programs of miscellaneous types have mushroomed in China,
producing a booming market for both the trainers and trainees.
According to Liu Heping (2001: p. 30), presently, interpretation
teaching and training in China can be divided into four major
categories: 1) Undergraduate interpreting courses for students
majoring in foreign languages. 2) Interpreter training in the
postgraduate program in translation colleges. 3) Undergraduate
interpreting courses for Non-English majors. 4) Spare-time in-
terpreter training programs offered by public educational insti-
In 2000, “interpretation” was made a compulsory course for
undergraduate English majors in Chinese universities and col-
leges, and is now taught in most BA programs as a half-a-year
course in the third or fourth year. This new requirement has
generated a great deal of interest in interpretation instruction
among the researchers and teachers in the interpretation field,
and such topics as the pedagogical reform, curriculum devel-
opment, and innovation of teaching strategies have created a
heated discussion. Over the past few years, there has been a
debate going on over the issue of the positioning of undergradu-
ate interpretation program. Some people argue that interpreta-
tion teaching is an integral part of translation teaching, distinct
from language teaching in terms of teaching objectives, princi-
ples, and methodology. The objective of language teaching is to
cultivate students’ bilingual communicative ability while that of
interpretation teaching is to improve students’ interpreting skills
by using their communicative competence acquired. They ad-
vocate the implementation of skill-focused approach to inter-
pretation teaching, which puts more emphasis on skills training
than on language training (Liu, 2001; Cai, 2001; Zhang, 2007).
Others argue that the essence of the undergraduate interpreta-
tion program is largely pedagogical translation (Bao, 2004; Mu,
2008; Gile, 1995b). It is due to two primary factors: firstly, stu-
dents’ language proficiency is far below the required skills for
consecutive interpretation; secondly, the existing program with
very limited class hours is too short for the interpretation in-
struction to produce the desired result. They maintain that the
priority should be given to the cultivation of students’ language
competence instead of the mastery of interpreting skills (Mu,
2008: p. 42; Gile, 1995b: p. 137). It is believed that any attempt
to use skill-focused teaching without taking into account the ac-
tual teaching circumstances would lead to failure (Zhang, 2008:
p. 93).
Owing to the hot controversy over the positioning of inter-
pretation instruction, many teachers nowadays find themselves
at a loss as to what pedagogical principles to follow for under-
graduate interpretation course. As a result of the absence of the
scientific training system, the current interpretation teaching
gets bogged down in confusion (Liu, 2005: p. 129). In the face
*This is t he research result of t he teaching reform project (2011) fu nded by
the Provincial Education Department of Jiangxi—“A Study of Interpretin
Teaching Model for Cultivation of Practical Undergraduate Talents” (NO.
of such a dilemma, this paper attempts to conduct an experi-
mental study to probe into the issue of the accurate positioning
for undergraduate interpretation course. With Anderson’s ACT-
R theory and Gile’s Efforts Model as its theoretical foundation,
it aims to testify the necessity and feasibility of skill-focused
approach to interpretation teaching.
Theoretical Foundation
Anderson’s ACT-R Theory
The ACT-R (Adaptive Control of Thought-Rational) is a
production system coupled with a three-stage theory of skill
acquisition, namely the cognitive stage, associate stage and au-
tonomous stage. According to the ACT-R theory, the acquisi-
tion of a cognitive skill is a progressive process cognitive stage
to autonomous stage, which, in terms of the ACT-R theory, is
the transformation from declarative knowledge to procedural
knowledge. At the beginning of the process of skill acquisition,
new information enters in declarative form. In this stage, par-
ticipants develop a declarative encoding of the skill. The proc-
essing in cognitive stage is conscious, deliberate, and slow and
requires full attention. The major development of associate
stage is knowledge compilation. It is a process of converting
declarative facts into production form by composing sequences
of steps into one single action. According to Anderson, there
are two things happening in this second stage. First, errors in
the initial understanding are gradually detected and eliminated.
Second, the connections among the various elements required
for successful performance are strengthened. After a skill has
been compiled into a task-specific procedure, the learning pro-
cess involves an improvement in the search for the right pro-
duction. In autonomous stage, the procedure becomes more and
more automated and rapid (Anderson, 1995: p. 282).
ACT-R theory concerning the acquisition of skill can also
accommodate the acquisition of interpreting skills. Take note-
taking training for example, at the beginning of note-taking
skill training, teachers give students a series of note-taking stra-
tegies and tactics such as using symbols, conventional abbre-
viations, and acronyms. Students at this stage learn these note-
taking tactics as declarative knowledge. They would spend
quite a lot of mental energy to relate these symbols into their
notes consciously and deliberately. However, through long time
practice, students have accumulated a large number of symbols
and can quickly choose one symbol to indicate one meaning in
short time. At this point, the declarative knowledge is proce-
duralized. Compared with cognitive stage, learners in this stage
take notes in a relatively quick speed with less consumption of
mental energy, but there is still room for perfecting in order to
reach the autonomous stage. In the autonomous stage, the pro-
cedure becomes automated and rapid, which consumes little
mental energy. Professional interpreters take notes in a rapid
speed with little energy given to searching a symbol in mind or
deliberately design a layout. They do it subconsciously or
automatically. With the support of Anderson’s ACT-R theory,
we can further prove that interpreting skills can be acquired
through a great amount of training and practice to the level
where each effort becomes autonomous and consumes little
processing capacity.
Gile’s Efforts Model
According to Gile’s Basic Concepts and Models for Inter-
preter and Translator Training, interpreting is a multi-task
activity in which limited processing capacity is overwhelmingly
competed by several tasks involved. Gile held that mental en-
ergy is limited in supply, and any channel serving to transmit
information has a finite transmission capacity beyond which
information loses. And when the processing capacity available
for a particular task is insufficient, performance deteriorates.
Besides, he argued that consecutive interpretation (CI) is per-
formed in two phases, namely, listening phase and reformula-
tion phase (Gile, 1995a: p. 159).
Phase One: CI (Listening Phase) = L + M + N + C
1) Listening and Analysis Effort (L) is defined here as con-
sisting of all comprehension-oriented operations, from the ana-
lysis of the sound waves carrying the source-language speech to
the final decisions about the “meaning” of the utterance. 2)
Memory Effort (M) is the high demand on short-term memory
component. It occurs between the time of incepting and note-
taking, or while the interpreter decides not to take note. 3)
Note-taking Effort (N) essentially serves as a reminder to help
the interpreter trigger memory of the listening text that was
heard and understood previously. 4) Coordination (C) refers to
the mental effort of harmonizing and optimizing the three L, M
and N efforts.
Phase Two: CI (Reformulation Phase) = Rem + Read + P
1) The Rem (remember) component refers to the efforts de-
voted to recalling the successive parts of the original speech. 2)
The Read component means the reading of the notes which have
been taken while listening. 3) The P (production) is the repro-
duction of speech in TL. It is the output part of interpretation.
Gile held that interpretation is a multi-task activity where
limited processing capacity is overwhelmingly competed by
various tasks involved. Any channel serving to transmit infor-
mation has a finite transmission capacity beyond which infor-
mation losses. And when the processing capacity available for a
particular task is insufficient, performance deteriorates (Gile,
1995a: p. 161). This model offers a cognitive explanation for
emergence of errors and omission in interpretation. It also in-
spires us to think that effective allocation of limited mental
energy cannot be achieved unless the processing capacity of
individual task is improved. Therefore, we must seek to find
approaches to facilitating each skill (e.g. listening, note-taking,
recalling, and reproducing) so as to reasonably control the allo-
cation of limited processing capacity in the first phase.
Skills Training for Consecutive Interpretation
Based on Gile’s Efforts Model and Anderson’s ACT-R The-
ory, Liu Heping proposes four stages of consecutive interpreta-
tion training, namely listening training, memory training, note-
taking training, and re-expression training (Liu, 2005: p. 120).
Listening Training
In the listening stage, the interpreter not only listens to the
sounds but also tries to figure out the meaning of the speech.
Gile calls it a comprehension-oriented process (Gile, 1995a: p.
162). Listening and comprehension are the beginning of the
whole interpreting process, and they play a funda mental role in
the performance of interpreting.
Listening training, aiming to separate language and ideas,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
can proceed by raising questions, generalization, and recon-
structions of the main paragraph. “Listening training without
taking notes” will help students develop their mind in listening
to the meaning of the source language and the techniques of
extracting main ideas from the source language.
Memory Training
The essence of memory in interpretation is to remember the
major meaning and key words of a discourse in SL rather than
copying mechanically in mind the isolated phonetic symbols
and lexical symbols. It consists of three store mechanisms:
Sensory Store (instant memory), Short Term Store (short term
memory, STM) and Long Term Store (cognitive memory,
Short term memory and note-taking skills are among the top
difficulties that students encountered in interpreting. Short term
memory training is actually closely related to listening com-
prehension skills. According to Liu Heping, “Listening recog-
nition, without being analyzed, will not acquire the complete
information. The information without being processed inte-
grally is likely to be in disorder and illogical. The random in-
formation will increase the pressure and burdern for the mem-
ory of interpreters, causing obstacles to the expression” (Liu,
2001: p. 37). In memory training, argumentative and introduc-
tive discourse can be used as training materials, since both of
them are more featured by logical thinking. In addition, infor-
mation visualization should also be taught to the students, in
which narrative discourses can be used.
Note-Taking Training
The role of interpreter’s notes is to assist memory to retain
and recall messages. Since STM is limited in its capacity and
featured by rapid memory loss, it is necessary to use note-tak-
ing as a supplementary approach to STM, serving as a memory
reminder and activator. With the proper use of note-taking skill,
students would be able to redistribute the processing capacity
from note-taking effort to listening effort, which makes the
mind capable of handling more complicated information input.
As an information carrier, STM and note-taking should work
closely with each other in retaining messages. However, the
role of STM should outweigh that of note taking in information
storage since note-taking just serves as a memory reminder and
activator, thus note taking should follow the principle of eco-
In order to facilitate the acquisition of note-taking skill, the
teacher should introduce to students frequently-used abbrevia-
tions and symbols for the meaning of a constituent structure
which is gained in the parsing phase. At the same time, impor-
tance should be attached to the logical layout of the notes, that
is to say, these abbreviations, symbols or keywords should be
taken in a logical and meaningful way. In note-taking training,
there are some tactics that can be used to strengthen the role of
notes as a memory activator, namely photographic notes, re-
trieval cues, and the use of Chinese characters, etc.
Re-Expression Training
Re-expression refers to reformulation or the information
output in consecutive interpretation. The job of interpreter is to
convey the speaker’s meaning as faithfully as possible. But any
translation, written or oral, necessarily changes the form of the
original. In light of the Interpretive Theory, the most faithful
interpretation will merely be the transformation that comes clo-
sest to respecting the speaker’s intended meaning. The interpre-
ter does not necessarily have to copy the exact words of the
speaker, nor the order in which the speaker says them. On the
contrary, he/she sometimes has to betray them so as to be
faithful to the speaker. In this sense, some adaptations at the
level of syntactic, semantic and discourse processing should be
made in order to achieve the desired effect. Such tactics as pa-
raphrasing, restructuring, simplification, and generalization are
often used in re-expression training.
Research Design
Research Questions
Specifically, one question is addressed in this study: Does
the skill-focused approach lead to more gains in undergraduate
interpretation instruction (compared with the language-focused
approach)? In other words, does experimental group produce
better overall interpretation performance than control group?
The participants in the experiment were 72 fourth-year stu-
dents majoring in English in Nanchang Hangkong University,
with 36 in the experimental class and 36 in the control class.
They belong to two different parallel classes which were ran-
domly arranged when they first came to this university. Since
both classes were randomly selected from the enrollment of 4
classes, they were believed to represent the whole population
discussed here. Among the 72 subjects, 16 were males and 56
were females.
The present study integrates quantitative and qualitative re-
search methods to probe into the two research questions. The
following research tools are used in this study.
In the quantitative research, tests were conducted to measure
the subjects’ interpretation proficiency, and the pre- and post-
test results produced by the subjects in both experimental and
control classes were compared. For the purpose of this study,
the same markin g criterion was adopted in the pre- and po st-test,
which was initially proposed by Xiamen University.
Data Analysis
The performance of the 72 subjects in the experimental class
and the control class was put to the descriptive statistical ana-
lyses and the diffe rences in the two performances made up the
sample for inferential statistical analyses. Firstly, the pre- and
post-test ratings given to the interpreting performance pro-
duced by the students in both experimental and control class
were compared. Statistic techniques such as descriptive statis-
tics, and independent t-test, and Pearson Correlation Coeffi-
cients were used to compare and analyzed the data of the pre-
and post-test.
Teaching Desi gn
The control class in this experiment followed the traditional
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 163
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
language-focused approach in which the interpretation course
mainly focused on language training rather than skills training,
aiming at improving student’s applied linguistic competence. It
began with the introduction of interpretation theory and meth-
ods, then moved on towards a great amount of interpreting pra-
ctice on different topics.
However, the pedagogical principle and procedure for the
experimental class were rather different. This procedure was
intended to equip students with basic interpreting skills by im-
plementing the skill-focused approach. More emphasis was put
on skills training instead of language training. It mainly in-
volves the training of four basic interpreting skills, including
listening training, memory training, note-taking training, and
re-expression training.
Results indicate that the mean of experimental class (77.69)
is higher than that of the control class (72.48) in the post-test,
and there is significant difference between them (p = .000). On
the whole, experimental class produces better overall interpret-
ing performance than control class, especially in terms of com-
pletenes, acc u racy, re-expre ssi on, and adaptability.
Means for the pre-and post-test ratings are presented in Ta-
ble 1 for the two classes. Clearly, at the time of pre-test, the
control class has scored slightly higher in mean (52.06) than
experimental class (51.3). No significant difference is found in
the pre-test (P > .05). However, for the post-test this picture
changes considerably in that the mean of experimental class
(77.69) is higher than that of the control class (72.48). Signifi-
cant difference is found between them (p = .000).
Students’ performances are analyzed in terms of complete-
ness, accuracy, re-expression, adaptability, fluency, articulation
and clarity. Itemized results of the post-test show that the
means of experimental class are higher than that of the control
class in terms of completeness, accuracy, re-expression, and
adaptation. There are significant differences between all of
them (p < .05). Itemized results of post-test are presented in
Table 2.
The statistical data presented above are in line with the find-
ings in Feng Zhilin & Huang Yuelin’ study (2001: p. 184).
Once again, empirical evidence shows that the skill-focused ap-
proach has its advantages over the traditional language-focused
Implication of the Study
This study has both the following important theoretical and
practical implica tions .
Theoretical Implications
Firstly, two theoretical implications can be drawn from this
Table 1.
Overall results of pre- and post-test.
Class pre-Mean pre-SD post-Mean post-SD N pre-Sig. 2-tailed post-Sig. 2-tailed
Experimental 53.6 2.31 77.69 5.67 36 .223 .000
Control 54.8 3.13 72.48 7.30 36 .223 .000
Note: significant difference p < .05; greatly signif icant diff e re n ce p < .01.
Table 2.
Itemized results of p ost-test.
Dependent va riable Class N Mean SD
F Sig. (2-tailed)
Experimental 36 24.08 2.07
(30%) Control 36 22.27 2.59 .641 .001
Experimental 36 23.30 1.87
(30%) Control 36 21.73 2.65 1.697 .002
Experimental 36 7.56 .752
(10%) Control 36 7.02 .816 .001 .002
Experimental 36 7.32 .88
(10%) Control 36 6.34 .70 1.899 .000
Experimental 36 7.71 .790
(10%) Control 36 7.49 .842 .432 .187
Experimental 36 7.72 .816
Articulation & clarity
(10%) Control 36 7.63 .978 2.312 .675
ote: Significant difference p < .05; greatly significant diff ere n ce p < .01.
1) This study corroborates the argument that the essence of
the undergraduate interpretation program is the translation
teaching, which is determined by the characteristics and law of
interpretation. The skill-focused approach is congruous with the
nature of interpretation. External factors, such as students’ lin-
guistic competence, class hours, and class size, cannot exert a
decisive influence on the positioning of the interpretation
2) The findings of this study imply that separate training of
interpreting skills is beneficial in upgrading the trainees’ proc-
essing capacity of individual tasks and optimizing the allocation
of limited mental energy, thus leading to performance enhan-
cement in terms of completeness and accuracy.
Practical Implications
Secondly, some practical implications are summarized as fol-
1) According to ACT-R theory, interpreting skills can only
be obtained through a large amount of practice with consistent
efforts. However, the existing interpretation program with 36
class hours is far from being enough to develop and perfect the
interpreting skills. Inadequacy in practice inevitably under-
mines effectiveness of skill-focused interpretation instruction.
Therefore, autonomous learning should be designed as an inte-
gral part of interpretation teaching course, aiming at facilitating
the acquisition of interpreting skills. As Gile (1995b: p. 137)
puts it, “Most of the things were done in student groups, not in
the classroom”.
As our society grows more technologically oriented, it is
important for teachers to take advantage of the newest and most
advanced teaching tools available. It has been proved in this
study that “Campus Interpreting Network” can be used as an
effective medium for students to conduct self-directed learning
activities, mainly including “pre-class interpreting preparation”
and “after-class autonomous learning”. Preparations made be-
forehand are highly significant to alleviate the students’ burden
of interpreting resulting from inadequate linguistic competence.
If students are familiar with the technical terms and background
of the topic, they can perform much better in memorizing,
note-taking and re-expression. The “after-class autonomous
learning” can speed up students’ skill acquisition through a
large amount of after-class practice.
2) Interpreting skills are marked by highly professionalism;
therefore they must be acquired through specific and concen-
trated trainings. In light of the findings of this study, we can
find some useful pedagogical implications a s fol lows:
1) “Principles of understanding” and “identification of main
ideas” are fundamental listening comprehension skills, which
deal(s) with “what to listen for” and “how to listen”. In the
trainings of these two skills, students are made to be aware the
fact that interpretation process is to catch the ideas by dever-
balizing from the form of the language. The practice of “listen-
ing training without taking notes” proves to be helpful and ef-
fective for students to improve their ability to discern main
ideas and follow trends of thought patterns. It helps students
learn how to summarize concepts into key-words and to re-
trieve non-written passages.
2) There is a key principle in note-taking training that can
never be over emphasized-the training of short-term memory
(STM) must go before the training of note-taking skills. Only
through STM training can learners really use notes as a memory
reminder and activator instead of a memory carrier. The note-
taking training can start only after students are capable of stor-
ing big chunks in STM instead of on paper.
3) With regard to the training of re-expression, more empha-
sis should be put on dynamic adaptation in discourse meaning
rather than static adaptation in sentence structure. And the ulti-
mate purpose of interpretation is to find “sense equivalence” ra-
ther than “word correspondence”. Paraphrasing exercises prove
to be an effective and helpful practice. It aims to reproduce
something which is equivalent to the original meaning and
acceptable from the linguistic point of view. By means of para-
phrasing, students can overcome the cultural obstacles and pe-
culiar language uses.
The present study is far from being adequate due to the limi-
tations of the researcher’s ability, small sample size, and inade-
quate class hours. Therefore, in-depth research is absolutely
needed. First of all, the similar study should be replicated with
some larger-scale groups, for example among more universities
or interpretation training schools, to investigate the effective-
ness and feasibility of skill-focused approach to interpretation
teaching. Secondly, the similar study should be conducted in a
Non-English interpretation program to see whether there is dis-
crimination between them, and if any, which one is better. It is
hoped that the present study can offer some inspiration for fur-
ther studies on skill-focused instruction from different perspec-
tives, with a view to improving and perfecting the skill-focused
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