How to Practice for the NBCMI and CCHI Oral Exams

‘Tis the season for medical interpretation oral exams, as evidenced by the influx of messages and requests we’ve received from our members asking how to practice for the NBCMI and CCHI oral exams.  Nearly every day we see comments from non-members as well across Facebook groups, in our Facebook page’s inbox, and I even have people asking me about this regularly on my YouTube channel.  People are clamoring for advice on just how to prepare for the NBCMI and CCHI oral exams, so we’ve decided to put together this article comparing and contrasting the two oral exams, as well as how to prepare for them.

Note: if you’re totally clueless about what we’re talking about here, you might want to go check out our article on how to become a medical interpreter to get started!

Jump Ahead:

  1. NBCMI versus CCHI: Oral Exams
  2. Should I Practice It if the Exam Doesn’t Test It?
  3. Practicing Consecutive Interpretation
  4. Practice Note-Taking!
  5. Practice Simultaneous Interpretation 
  6. Practicing Sight Translation
  7. InterpreMed’s NBCMI & CCHI Oral Exam Study Guide

NBCMI versus CCHI: Oral Exams

We’ve put together the following table outlining the differences in the NBCMI and CCHI oral exams.  Generally speaking, while both exams are allotted approximately the same amount of time, they test different skills.  Let’s take a look:

NBCMICCHI
Total Time45-60 minutes60 minutes
Consecutive Interpretation12 mini-scenarios (30 minutes)4 vignettes, bi-directional
Simultaneous InterpretationNone2 vignettes, one into English, one into non-English language
Sight Translation2 passages (10 minutes)3 brief passages into non-English language
TranslationNone1 multiple-choice question into non-English language
Available LanguagesSpanish, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese, MandarinSpanish, Mandarin, Arabic
Sources: NBCMI Handbook and CHI™ Exam Description

Seeing as both exams are designed to test your proficiency in medical interpreting, it stands to reason that the majority of both tests focus on consecutive interpretation, the default interpreting mode for medical interpretation.  NBCMI has 12 of what they call “mini-scenarios” whereas CCHI has 4 vignettes.  I would imagine a mini-scenario is shorter than a vignette, because when we write vignettes for InterpreMed, they usually involve both speakers (i.e. patient and doctor) taking a few turns each speaking.  CCHI expresses on their Exam Description page that these vignettes are bi-directional, meaning you’ll be interpreting some utterances into English, and other utterances into your non-English target language.

NBCMI does not test you on simultaneous interpreting, but CCHI definitely does.  This is something that makes a lot of medical interpreters nervous because they don’t regularly engage in simultaneous interpretation.  I’m here to say that I’ve heard from a lot of folks who have taken the CCHI oral exam that the simultaneous portion is not insurmountably difficult like many interpreters imagine.  Yes, you need to be proficient in simultaneous interpretation, but you don’t need to be a conference interpreter!  I’d argue even if you’re taking the NBCMI oral exam, you should still be practicing simultaneous interpretation regardless, because you never know when it will come in handy for medical interpretation.

When it comes to sight translation, both exams are fairly comparable in that NBCMI has you do a sight translation of 2 passages, whereas CCHI asks you to sight translate 3 short passages.  Both NBCMI and CCHI will have you engaging in sight translation of the passages into your non-English language.  The NBCMI states that while medical interpreters sometimes engage in sight translation into English, they found that the frequency of this task, along with simultaneous interpretation and written translation (also into English), was not statistically significant. 

NBCMI’s oral exam doesn’t have a translation portion, but CCHI’s translation portion consists of a single multiple-choice question in which you are asked to give the best translation for the provided English passage into your non-English target language.

Should I Practice it if the Exam Doesn’t Test It?

In addition to questions asking about how to prepare for the NBCMI and CCHI oral exams, many people have a tendency to ask why we recommend practicing everything from column B (the skills that CCHI tests) even if you’re taking the NBCMI oral exam that doesn’t test some of those skills.  For instance: should you practice simultaneous interpretation and translation if you’re taking the NBCMI exam and not the CCHI exam that tests for it?  Our answer is a resounding yes!

If you’re practicing only some of the skills required for you to be an effective medical interpreter and not the entire skillset needed to be the best interpreter you can be, you’re going to have a bit of an imbalance.  Whatever you don’t work on now, I guarantee you you’ll need to focus your efforts on honing those skills later.  In all reality, many of your skills as an interpreter play off of each other, meaning they share some of the same core skills!  

Many of your skills as an interpreter build upon each other!

For instance: both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting require you to have a keen ear.  You just can’t be a good interpreter if you don’t have sharp critical listening skills.  But, when you practice your listening skills while engaging in simultaneous interpretation, you’re actually training your brain to listen more quickly while engaging in other tasks at the same time (translating in your head and interpreting out loud).  In a sense, training your brain during simultaneous can actually make you think on your feet faster and ultimately interpret quicker in the consecutive mode.  But how does this translate to the exam?  Well, you have a time limit!  If you’re too slow and can’t interpret the utterance in the time given, the exam will move on, cutting off your answer and robbing you of valuable points needed to pass.

That’s just one example of how the modes of interpretation have overlapping core skills that build upon each other.  We could write an entire article about this, but for the sake of brevity, we’re just going to come right out and say it: you’re sabotaging yourself as a well-rounded medical interpreter if you’re limiting the skills you’re practicing, point blank.

Practicing Consecutive Interpretation

That’s right, you guessed it: the most important skill to practice not only for the NBCMI and CCHI oral exams but also in general as a medical interpreter is consecutive interpretation.  We discussed some practice techniques in-depth in another article we wrote about practicing medical interpretation, including:

  • Utilizing practice materials such as books, videos, audios, and scripts.  This may require piecing together odds and ends here or there from various sources, or you can take advantage of consecutive interpreting practice websites such as InterpreMed that have a wealth of materials in different formats all in one convenient place.
  • Practicing with a partner or group, especially if you are limited to written consecutive practice scripts.  The fact of the matter is, you won’t really get the hang of live interpreting, let alone the flow of the exam, if you’re only engaging in sight translation.  Having a partner or partner(s) to work with really takes practice to the next level.
  • Volunteering or working as a medical interpreter is another option, but as we mentioned in the previous article about practicing medical interpretation, only if you feel prepared enough to do so.  Remember: medical interpreting can have serious, real-life consequences for patients if you’re unprepared to engage in it.
  • Joining a medical interpretation practice community.  While there are many interpreting communities on social media and beyond that may help you locate practice materials, partners to practice with, or even help you find volunteer/work opportunities, InterpreMed has something a little different to offer.  We’re a medical interpreting practice community comprised of interpreters of all levels who are dedicated to improving their skills, and we provide you with all the scripts, audios, and practice exercises you need to succeed.

Practice Note-taking!

All of the consecutive interpreting practice we’ve mentioned thus far focus almost entirely on your raw interpreting skills, but you really can’t forget the cornerstone of consecutive medical interpreting: consecutive note-taking.  We recently wrote an article about how note-taking really takes your consecutive interpreting skills to the next level which really break down why note-taking is so important, even if you feel like you don’t need it.  The fact is, our short-term memory is limited to six or 7 “chunks” of information, meaning if we don’t take notes, we can miss out on important details of an utterance when we listen and interpret.  And, if you think NBCMI and CCHI aren’t going to care if you miss a word here and there, you may want to re-evaluate your approach!  You must interpret accurately and completely in order to score well on the exam and become certified.

Note-taking Practice, Step 1: It’s All About the Symbols

But how exactly do you practice note-taking for consecutive interpretation?  Practicing by engaging in note-taking is only one piece of this puzzle.  Taking notes for consecutive interpretation involves coming up with your own unique system of symbols, which may seem like a huge undertaking in and of itself.  However, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to note-taking.  There are a few well-known methods for consecutive note-taking, such as those espoused by Rozan and Gillies, and there are even entire books written about this topic!  Resources like these will give you a really solid foundation of best practices and methods upon which to build your note-taking system.

The symbol for “car” in InterpreMed’s symbols glossary

It may seem like a lot to read an entire chapter book about the intricacies of note-taking by multiple authors in order to develop your own consecutive note-taking system.  After all, most of these resources really just give you the basic framework for an entire system you have to create from scratch.  This can seem like a daunting task, especially for novice medical interpreters.  Fortunately there are programs out there that teach you theory, best practices, and provide you with hundreds of ready-made symbols if you have trouble coming up with your own.  InterpreMed’s note-taking lessons are the perfect crash course for not only learning how to develop your own system of symbols, but also empowers you to recall and utilize those symbols automatically.  At the end of the day, you have to become proficient in utilizing symbols before you can engage in effective note-taking for consecutive interpreting!

Note-taking Practice, Step 2: On to the Note-taking!

Once you have a working knowledge of symbols for consecutive note-taking, you can then begin to put those building blocks to work.  Most folks jump straight to practicing taking notes utilizing many of the same materials and methods for practicing consecutive note-taking: listening to audios, practicing with a partner, or working directly with scripts.  Simply put, you take notes on utterances using the symbols and systems you’ve learned, then see if you’re able to accurately recall the utterances using your notes.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with symbols at first, but bit by bit as you practice more you’ll become better at it! (Pictured: a symbol transcription for one of our Spanish-English consecutive interpretation practice scripts)

While this isn’t the worst way to go about putting your note-taking into practice, many novice note-takers often get frustrated or overwhelmed because they begin to identify large gaps in their note-taking capabilities.  The fact is, when you’re starting out, instead of starting with multi-sentence utterances, it may be beneficial to begin with shorter, easier-to-digest chunks instead.  Fortunately, InterpreMed has a wide range of note-taking practice exercises for consecutive interpretation that gradually immerse you into your new note-taking system.  Combined with our comprehensive practice exercises for consecutive interpretation, on InterpreMed you have every step of practice lined up for you.  You begin with learning symbols, systems, and best practices for note-taking then progress to putting those symbols into action with short utterances.  Next, you practice taking notes on longer utterances, consecutive vignettes, and finally full-fledged scripts and audios while interpreting.  You can even practice with other interpreters on our live Zoom meetings to get feedback on your technique.

At the end of the day, learning and practicing note-taking ultimately translates to more accurate and complete consecutive interpretation.  This, in turn, sets you up for success with your NBCMI and CCHI oral exams!

Practicing Simultaneous Interpretation

As you can imagine, practicing simultaneous interpretation is a little bit different from working on your consecutive skills, especially in the context of both the CCHI oral exam.  First off: unless you’re engaging almost entirely in mental health interpretation in the field, you likely won’t get enough simultaneous practice volunteering/working as a medical interpreter to feel well-prepared for the exam!  So even if you’re a practicing medical interpreter, you’ll likely need to practice medical simultaneous interpretation to do well in the exam.  Also, remember: you’ll be listening to the audio from the exam through your headset, meaning you’ll have to talk with something in/over your ears while listening at the same time.  This may be a little strange if you’re not accustomed to it.

Special Considerations for Simultaneous

It’s important to realize that practice materials and practicing with others needs to be specially-tailored to replicate the exam environment, which will be very similar to remote simultaneous interpreting, as it will more than likely be done with a headset.  Written scripts for simultaneous are wholly useless unless someone else is reading them, and you need a steady supply of fresh scripts and recordings, otherwise you’ll likely begin to memorize the passages!  Even just recording yourself reading a simultaneous script and then interpreting simultaneously over your recording will give you an unfair advantage that will leave you feeling overconfident for the exam.  

On top of it all, you have to consider the speed of the audio you will be interpreting over.  Recorded audios often don’t specify a speed which can be frustrating and even discouraging for the novice simultaneous interpreter.  Practicing with a live partner or partners is great because they can adjust their pace to accommodate your interpreting speed, but finding partners can be difficult.

At what speed can you interpret simultaneously?

Again, InterpreMed offers a wide range of benefits that can help you practice medical simultaneous interpretation for your exam without all the headache.  We not only offer live practice sessions almost every week for simultaneous interpreting, eliminating the struggle of finding partners in your working languages, but we also have a huge library of medical interpreting simultaneous scripts and audios to practice with.  All of our recordings are in English as well as Spanish (recorded by native speakers), with different speeds for different skill levels.

Practicing Sight Translation

Thankfully sight translation is one of the easiest skills to practice, as all it requires is a document to sight translate.  There’s no shortage of relevant medical documents available online to try your hand at sight translating.  That being said, one big hurdle is finding someone to check your work.  You can record yourself engaging in sight translation and you could have the perfect flow, but your rendering could be riddled with errors.  How can you be sure you’re sight translating well enough for the oral exam?

How will you get feedback on the quality of your sight translations?

This is where those trusty practice partners come in again!  You’ll want someone to review your sight translation rendering to make sure you’re not making any silly mistakes.  Ideally, you want to find multiple people who are able to review the quality of your work.  Why multiple people?  Well, unless you have a highly-experienced medical interpreter up your sleeve, chances are you’re going to be practicing with other novice interpreters as well who may not be experienced enough to give you thorough feedback and spot all of your errors.  Even if you do have an expert interpreter reviewing your work, it’s always a good idea to get feedback from multiple sources to cover all your bases.

You guessed it: InterpreMed is here to swoop in and save the day again!  Not only do we provide sight translation practice materials, but we also have accompanying glossaries for unfamiliar terms. Additionally, we have dedicated forums where you can upload your sight translation audio recordings or provide a written translation for other members (of all skill levels) to give you feedback on.  In other words: InterpreMed offers both sight translation and written translation feedback for members.

InterpreMed’s NBCMI & CCHI Oral Exam Study Guide

As we mentioned in the beginning, we wrote this article because many people were approaching us asking how best to prepare for the NBCMI and CCHI oral exams.  Not only did we write this article, but the entire month of May 2021 is dedicated entirely to our NBCMI & CCHI Oral Exam Study guide to help support our members in their goal of becoming certified medical interpreters!  Each month we typically release a medical interpreting study guide based on different medical specialties, such as infectious diseases, emergency medicine, obstetrics & gynecology, and physical therapy (to name a few– there’s more!) but we decided to do something a little bit different for the month of May since so many of our members are preparing for their oral certification exams.

While the structure of the NBCMI & CCHI Oral Exam Prep Study Guide (say that three times fast!) is a little bit different than a typical medical specialty study guide, it still includes many of the exercises our members have come to know and love, including:

Due to popular demand, we’ll also be finishing the month of May out strong with a fan favorite: a live championship to show off your interpreting knowledge and skills!  This is where our members participate and compete in a friendly competition live over Zoom, flexing their muscles before the big medical interpretation oral exam.  Winners don’t just get bragging rights, they also get a shout-out on our social media platforms, as well as a shiny certificate that they can show off on their resume or CV!  

But you have to be a member to participate in all of these exciting activities and exercises InterpreMed has to offer.  Knock your oral exam practice out of the park by subscribing now!

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