How to build your Vocabulary Word Bank

Interpreting is a highly skilled profession that requires linguistic fluency, a good memory, listening skills, intellect, emotional and social awareness. No two days are the same – and this makes each encounter that more exciting!

It’s near impossible to know and understand every single industry-specific jargon; even the most knowledgeable and experienced interpreter will encounter new words and expressions or will need to prepare for a new kind of assignment.

So, as interpreters, we need a way to work with our personal glossaries: organizing terminology, learning it, revising it, and sharing it with others. This is because people, language, communities and culture are constantly evolving.

A vocabulary or word bank is defined as a collection of new words or phrases that a person builds as they learn about different topics. Inspired by Russian Medical interpreter Yuliya Speroff; here are three practical techniques I still use today to build my vocabulary word bank.

1.Make Notes

I still have study notebooks, posters and files that I’ve collected several years dating back to 2016, filled with techniques, industry-specific jargon, and drawings. If digital notes work for you, go for it!

I remember when I started interpreting at a Lenasia jewellery centre in 2012; I had no knowledge of the industry, tools, and the SASL vocab needed to bridge communication for everyone. I created a poster with two columns (English words on the left with the equivalent SASL signs on the right); on a daily basis I added words, phrases and images of terms I struggled with; and asked the relevant people to help me, both the jewellery facilitator and the Deaf learners. With much practice and research, my confidence, skill and industry knowledge grew overtime.

Another example that comes to mind is watching and studying the news interpreters in the small box – pen and notebook ready! Every evening I listened carefully to the headlines, and watched how they signed certain words and phrases – it was very fast paced with lots of concentration. Fast forward a few years later, the same interpreters I looked up to became my mentors and also gave me opportunities to co-interpret several TV broadcasts with them!

2.Stay connected to your community

Language practitioners should be fluent in both their language choices and equally active in cultural communities – stay connected! People are central to who we serve and they are best way to get feedback. Do you need technical jargon? Do you want know what’s happening on the ground? Do you want to be a trusted service provider? Ask your community, they will know.

Commit to continuous skills development, training and mentoring. Become a member of a reputable language body, sign up to a monthly newsletter, or follow upcoming events on social media. This will keep you accountable and up-to-date with the latest trends.

3.Watch, Listen, Read.

Content is king. I often enjoy watching a variety of documentaries such as nature, crime and entertainment; and listening to podcasts about successful entrepreneurs provides insight to scaling a startup business. Reading motivational or self-help books builds character, confidence and resilience for difficult moments.

All this content uses different words, phrases and languages needed to build your vocabulary. Decide which themes are interesting and suitable for your client base then start practicing. Turning captions on while watching videos also creates a visual memory for spelling words correctly.


Interpreters are considered to be ‘walking dictionaries’ because we seem so knowledgeable about any given topic – well, now we know why! Building your word bank will take time, be patient and consistent. Figure out a creative system that works for you – use colour, images, music.

Lastly, share this information with fellow interpreters who may need support. Remember the ultimate goal is to empower more communities to access and enjoy information wherever they are.

By Yellow Owl

Welcome to Interpreter Insider, so glad you could join us! As an Insider you’ll be a member of this limited group of like-minded thinkers with exclusive knowledge about the ins and outs of the interpreting industry – and other related topics. You will have access to insights, experiences, tips and Yellow Owl's personal take on what the future of SASL interpreting may look like. Thuli Zikalala is the founder of Yellow Owl. This blog is a reflection of her bold decisions made about a year ago that led her to this very moment. It is a collection of the lessons learnt along her journey. Enjoy!

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