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A, B and C languages (read before you post)

(A long time ago I published this article in a forum for interpreting students that is now about to dissapear. So let me repost it here, under a Creative Commons licence, so that it my benefit you. 🙂 Write if you have questions!!)

Postby dawncloack » Thu Jan 22, 2009 8:20 pm

Dear everyone

Let’s talk about language combinations.
You have most likely heard about it before. Maybe you already know your combination, maybe you have some doubts. We’ll try to assess them here.

We have decided to provide this guide because we have noticed that one of the questions that we field very, very often in these forums is how to determine a person’s language combination. Or, to be more precise, the question asked is something like “Hey guyz, I was born here, studied here and there for such and such periods of time, what is my combination???? Kthx!”

So, in these forums, in order to help you, we proudly present our little guide to the ABCs of determining your combination, all by yourself, at home.

Without having to ask in this forum. (hint).

First, I would advise you to go to and read their definitions for A, B and C languages. Those definitions are useful, and will be the basis for this guide. When in doubt, check those definitions.
That said, you might have found those definitions to be a bit sketchy, a bit short. Not for the uninitiated. Let’s elaborate on them.

A language

aiic’s website wrote:The interpreter’s native language (or another language strictly equivalent to a native language), into which the interpreter works from all her or his other languages in both modes of interpretation, simultaneous and consecutive.

Ok, so, native language, and working into both modes. That should tip you off about something: not all languages are used in all modes. More about that later.

But what does “native language” really mean ? It means that you can express everything, immediately, and with extreme economy of words. It means that you are comfortable in every register, be it the most formal or the more casual. It means that, even when your knowledge of technical matters is at least superficial, you can, when interpreting, choose the right words that will make sense to your listeners.

Careful! A native language is not automatically a mother tongue. Someone who is illiterate and barely masters his native tongue cannot be said to have an A! The A language is an interpreter’s most important asset.

As a general rule, you achieve that in the language you grew up with (i.e. what you spoke with your parents and friends) AND the language you were schooled in. These might seem like the same thing, but think again. Some people go to school in one language, speak a different one at home. Again, more about that later, when we speak about B languages.

So, think it over. Check that language that you think it’s your native tongue. Or, if you are in doubt, put it through the test:

-Can you express everything, at a moment’s notice? When I mean everything, I mean it. Can you speak about basic science, without mistaking speed for velocity? Can you speak about economics without mixing income and revenue? (ok, maybe you can’t, that’s ok, but you get the point) If you needed to speak about literature in an academic style, would you be able to do it?

And don’t forget that it’s not just about language, and definitely not about words!
How good is your cultural background knowledge? Can you name the two or three latest political scandals in the most important countries where your A is spoken?

If you can answer yes to every one of my questions when putting one of your languages to the test, then chances are it’s an A.

Of course (and this is true of this whole article) nothing can replace being asessed and tested by qualified interpreter trainers. This article is just a set of guidelines.

B language

aiic’s website wrote:A language other than the interpreter’s native language, of which she or he has a perfect command and into which she or he works from one or more of her or his other languages. Some interpreters work into a “B” language in only one of the two modes of interpretation.

Ok, so not your native tongue, but perfect command.
The B language is probably the most difficult one to define, since it exists in a grey area between A’s and C’s, which are easier to define.
Essentially, when you have a B, you have a language that you know inside out, and that you can interpret into.
In what is it different from an A?

– You are still expected to express everything accurately and concisely enough.
But notice the change in wording, I said “concisely enough”. When interpreting into your B, it is acceptable to be a little more wordy, to explain more, to find words that are only slightly more general. It’s not your mother tongue, after all.

– You are still expected to use the same vocabulary as a native speaker would (you must have done your research to be able to do this).
However, if, in the heat of the moment, you don’t get exactly the right words as a native speaker would, no one will shoot you provided that the message was carried through with complete accuracy, and that the listeners understood it.

– A slight tinge of foreign accent is allowed.

Typically, your B language is a language with which you grew up.

Sounds similar to what I said for an A, doesn’t it? Little wonder, to be able to interpret into a language you need two things: One to know it well, and know the lingo. Second, to be able to use it accurately under stress. That second one is a very important detail, and really separates the wheat from the chaff. Interpreting is stressful, and to be able to interpret into a language you need to be able to use it (and have used it) in any and all situations.

That is why, B languages are, in general but not exclusively the realm of people born to bilingual families. They have spoken those languages every day for years in every situation, from debating to figthing with their parents. That represents a profound difference from all the people that learnt their languages in class and through the newspapers.

There is a reason I mention schooling. Using it everyday and in every situation gives you the mastery of the language needed to use it under stress. But schooling can be what gives you the kind of vocabulary you need to be able to become a conference interpreter. Not always, of course, there are many other situations.

One very common problem that B’s have at ESIT (yeah, well, I speak about what I know) is that they have the mastery of the language but lack the vocabulary. They spoke their B every day, but the conversations never went beyond “dear, can you take out the trash?”. That means that they are at a bit of a loss when they have to interpret about the collapse of financial markets or new sowing techniques in India.

Granted, it’s not like they are completely incapable, but, since it’s unfamiliar vocabulary, their interpreting becomes too hesitant, wordy, stumbling, they don’t get the right words… and that will not cut it in a conference situation.

I think that, with the information presented, you can probably evaluate your A’s and your B’s.

Just one little detail before moving on to C’s: Some interpreters only work into their B’s in consecutive. Market forces, however, seem to push interpreters to interpret into B in simultaneous. Also, you are supposed to interpret into a B ONLY from your A. Again, market forces push some interpreters to work from C into B. It wildly depends on the language and, as a general rule, it should be avoided. Interpreting into a B is stressful enough when the source language is your A, meaning that comprehension is untroubled and instantaneous.

C language

aiic’s website wrote:The language(s) of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she or he works. Interpreters often have several C languages.

This one is easier to define. You can interpret from, never into. Essentially because, if you tried, the result would be awkward, stumbling and inacurate.

But of course, you have to understand everything. Everything in every context, in every register, about any subject (with due preparation of course, no one is omniscient.).
And, again, you should be aware of the cultural background. So, even if you can read the Financial Times, that might not be enough. Are you comfortable hearing about… concrete production in Portland, Oregon? (It does show that I like technical subjects, doesn’t it?)

As an ESIT trainer (who shall remain nameless) once said:
A C language is almost like a B. And a B, almost like an A. That’s the level of language you need.
Now, that said, if you must understand anything and it’s almost a B, what is the difference between a B and a C?
You will agree with me that interpreting from a weaker language is easier than interpreting into a weaker language. That is the difference: those who have a B have… mental instruments (or stamina, or neuronal pathways, whatever you want to call it) to be able to interpret into a B and survive the stress. Those who have a C, don’t. (And remember, going into a booth and doing word-for-word is NOT interpreting).

Is there any way to know? Well, if you learned your language in a classroom, chances are it’s a C. But no solid rules here, you have to test it.

One nuance: knowing a language and being able to interpret into B are independent concepts. Some people might have the neuronal pathways to interpret into B, but have less vocabulary in that language than someone with a C (and that disqualifies them, careful!).
Notably, that happens with B’s that only had “dear, can you pass me the salt.” conversations at home.

The ABC system is not (exactly) a grading system of how well you know a language.

Now, that said, one must admit that this is the ideal. No one has superpowers, and we all have to work hard on our languages, so it often happens that, when coming to an interpreting school, one of your languages is a bit weak. Don’t worry, it happens very often. Not all our languages are “almost like A’s”. Don’t fret.

How can you know wether you are up to the challenge of becoming an interpreter? Let’s put it this way:
When you come to an interpreting school you might not have that level in every language… but you must have the potential to achieve it.

A personal example: one of my C’s was very weak when I got into ESIT. I had to work on it. And I’m sure it’s the case with many people.

But even so, my point is that the requirements in language proficiency are like anything you’ve ever encountered before. And I prefer you to be safe, not to be sorry. The language level you need is very, very high. Your mom telling you how bilingual you are is not enough. Having all the Cambridge English language exams is not enough. Reading the Financial Times is not enough. Just so you know.

As a sidenote to that, my advice would be to be humble when you determine your combination. Very often we see prospective students that claim to have two A’s, three B’s and a handful of C’s. They are unfailingly received with a smirk.

Yes, it is possible to have two A’s or two B’s. But it’s not common, and you have to prove your level in the booth. So, please, be conservative when you estimate your combination.

Finally, read the alingualism thread. Being alingual is a very real danger for everyone who thinks of himself or herself as bilingual, much less so for those who only have C’s and an A. So read it.

I hope you find this guide helpful, and we will be happy to hear all your comments.


The brightest light casts the darkest shadows  <– This used to be my signature, Teeny, I know.
So that’s it. I don’t usually speak about interpreting here, but hey.

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