Sunday, April 24, 2011

Alexia Sloane

Tolken, of the blog In My Words (see sidebar), led me to Alexia's story.

Alexia is a 10-year-old English girl who lives with her family in Cambridge, UK. What has made her life special is that she went blind at the age of two. Courageous and undaunted, she has pressed ahead with her education, and one of her talents is for languages.

Her story has been widely reported in the press and by the BBC since she won an award as a Young Achiever. Because she has long wanted to be an interpreter, she chose as her prize a trip to Brussels, where she was allowed to shadow a European Commission interpreter for a day and even do a few minutes of interpreting herself. For more details of the trip, see References below for the website that her family maintains for her. I just want to add a few remarks from the viewpoint of this blog.

* All the reports give prominence to the fact that Alexia has passed the GCSE in French and Spanish with high marks. The GCSE is a secondary school finishing examination in England, so it means she has achieved at age 10 what is considered an achievement for most adolescents at age 16.

The academic achievement might lead one to think that she learnt French and Spanish at school, but there's more to it. Her mother is a native speaker of French and Spanish, and she informs us: "I am very lucky because my Mum is half French and half Spanish and she has spoken to me all my life in these two languages." She doesn't say whether she speaks back to her mother in those languages, but I think we have enough to declare Alexia an early trilingual. (The general term bilingual obscures the fact that many children know more languages than two.)

* We don't have actual video or transcripts of Alexia's interpreting, but it's clear she's well beyond the stage of Natural Translation and must be classed as a Native Translator. Her knowledge of what interpreting is shows she already has metalinguistic awareness of translation. Her father remarks that she was stuck for some of the vocabulary in the actual interpreting she did in Brussels, but she was listening to discourse of a level that is usually fed to Expert Interpreters and she didn't have time to prepare for it.

* It's difficult to tell what Alexia's level of self-expression is from her blog, because the writing of the posts is attributed to her elder brother or her father even when the first person is used. However, we have videos, and there she expresses herself very clearly for a child of her age. She writes poetry. There's no doubt about her general cognitive ability.

* Among her linguistic abilities, Alexia knows Braille fluently. "For me, the alphabet I read and write with is a golden light of success," she says. Last year, she won the Onkyo International Braille writing competition, and she has also won a national Braille Music award

Whether Braille is itself a 'language' or is a code for relaying languages (like Morse Code, for instance) is debatable, because skilled Braille readers use Grade 2 Braille, which speeds up reading by incorporating many contractions, and these have to be learnt.
"As with most human linguistic activities, Grade 2 Braille embodies a complex system of customs, styles, and practices. The Library of Congress's Instruction Manual for Braille Transcribing runs to nearly 200 pages."
.Anyway it's tactile, so it requires a different sensory perception. English - Braille - Grade 2 Braille: yet another form of bilingualism.
* Alexia likes music. She plays the piano and the recorder and sings in choirs, another of her accomplishments. She's not only a Native Translator, she's a Native or Expert Musician. Music is yet another quasi-universal natural ability that becomes specialised and socialised into diverse 'languages' in different community cultures. Is there any connection or correlation between musical ability and interpreting ability? Pure speculation, but worth looking into.

* A person's microphone voice never sounds quite like that person's voice heard directly. From videos of her, we can tell that Alexia has a very clear microphone voice and impeccable Standard British English pronunciation. The former is an advantage for any conference interpreter, while the latter is a desirable attribute for a working professionally in Europe.

* Can a blind person work and succeed as a Professional Conference Interpreter? In fact Alexia met two blind interpreters in Brussels. There is (or was) a blind interpreter in the Canadian parliament, and although I never worked with him I heard about him from colleagues. They told me he could indeed function in that context, but he needed assistance. It wasn't because of his translating ability, but because of something that few outsiders know about conference interpreting. Much of the input doesn't come only by listening to the speakers but from written documents that the interpreters have in front of them. More about this some other time, but in brief the interpreters have to listen, translate and read at the same time, using two input channels. At the extreme, the interpreters may even be provided with a previously prepared translation to read from, yet they still have to listen to the speakers in order to synchronise with them. It's called sight interpretation (by analogy with sight translation – see Terms below). In addition, there's the matter of all the background documentation that interpreters should skim through in preparation for a meeting.

Anyway, Alexia's motto is "Anything's possible," so if she wants to be an interpreter she will be.

Shadowing: repeating what a speaker (or, in Alexia's case, an interpreter) is saying without translating it. An excellent exercise for improving second-language pronunciation and intonation.

Sight translation: translating a written text orally. So it's a hybrid of written translation and interpreting. Faster and more economical than writing the translation. It's more widespread than people realise, much of it in the form of dictated translation, in which a Professional Translator dictates into a recorder for transcription by a secretary or, nowadays, into a computer equipped with speech recognition software.

Alexia Sloane. Blog. It has links to other material about her.

Braille. Wikipedia.


  1. Thanks for elaborating on Alexia's story. Very thoughtful remarks. The musicality/language ability or even interpreting ability is a popular thesis, I'm not wholly convinced, but as you say worth looking into.

  2. i am visiting for the first time to this blog and i really like it and i find ti very help full and very informative, hope that you will keep it up
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  3. Hello,
    I am Alexia's mother and even though I replied to your blog on Alexia back in 2011, I have only just recently read her this article from your blog. She is now 13 and still very much intending to become an interpreter. I am not sure if you have been following her progress through her website over the past three years but we have been updating it since then. You will see that she is also having much success with her writing.
    Alexia would love to get in touch with you via her Braille computer by email. Please let me know if this is something you would not mind doing and I shall email you her address. Could you please email me at
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon,
    Isabelle Sloane