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The importance of cognition in sign language interpreting

Background and aims

Simultaneous interpreting—whether between two spoken languages, between two sign languages, or between a sign language and a spoken language—is highly challenging cognitively. Simultaneous interpreting involves several complex processes of language production and reception, both concurrently and overlapping. However, it is not known what the most important factors associated with the interpreting process are.

The aim of this study is to develop various instruments that identify factors that have an effect on interpreting competency: sign language competency, working memory capacity, task switching, and visual/spatial abilities. In addition, we will develop tests assessing interpreting competency.


We will investigate whether cognitive and language-related factors explain differences in sign language interpreting performance and whether personality factors also have an effect.

The following research questions will be addressed:

  • To what extent is interpreting competency dependent on sign language competency?
  • Are the following cognitive factors associated with interpreting competency: (a) working memory capacity in connection with remembering and manipulating gestures and signs, (b) fast switching between receiving spoken language and sign language, and (c) memory for spatial positions?
  • Is interpreting competency associated with aspects of personality?
  • What are the relative contributions of cognitive and language-related factors?


To answer the research questions, we will develop the following instruments:

  • Measurement of interpreting competency: Existing measurement instruments used in education and training will be adapted for higher competency levels.
  • Measurement of sign language competency: We will develop a structured interview in Swiss-German Sign Language (DSGS). Interviewers and raters will be trained accordingly.
  • Measurement of working memory capacity: We will develop computer-based tests that simulate aspects of memory during interpreting (task of updating signed and spoken contents; task switching between spoken and sign language).
  • We will examine spatial abilities tests as well as psychometric tests for assessing personality aspects with regard to their suitability in this context.

The instruments are planned to be used in a pilot study with 6 to 8 sign language interpreters and, if necessary, adapted.


Today, only a few factors affecting interpreting performance are known. Based on the literature, language-related and cognitive factors do affect interpreting performance. We assume that personality factors have only a marginal influence on performance. The instruments developed in this study can be used in future studies as well as in training.



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Forschung und Entwicklung
Tel: +41 44 317 11 81

zfe[at] zfe