HomeNews & Views Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Professor & Certified Court Interpreter of Spanish and Portuguese

Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Professor & Certified Court Interpreter of Spanish and Portuguese


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Fátima Cornwall—a Teacher and Certified Medical & Court Interpreter who speaks Portuguese and Spanish. She studied Spanish at Boise State University and the University of California – Santa Barbara.

Fatima banner image

1. You teach Spanish, Portuguese, and Court Interpretation at Boise State University… What motivates you to teach the next generation of interpreters?
1st Day of Portuguese Class - Fatima at the white board in classroom
First Day of Portuguese Class

There is a great need in our state, and in our nation, for well-trained, certified medical and court interpreters to ensure equal access to services. Language students can use their culture and language skills to serve their community and make a living.

Throughout the years, I have had many students who were discouraged by the level of proficiency one must obtain in the foreign language to become a certified medical or court interpreter, but were still very pleased with classes for the professions, due to the practical vocabulary they acquire. Once, a student told me that she could identify metaphors and similes in poems written in Spanish, but couldn’t talk about her own medical condition (diabetes) if she ever needed to see a doctor while traveling in Latin America. Another student felt that the vocabulary acquired in the court class was extremely useful for his future career in law enforcement.

2. You’re also a state and federal certified court and medical interpreter. What does that entail, and what’s your favorite part of the job?

All my students know that I cannot stand blood, so I only pursued my medical certification because I am a self-proclaimed language nerd. I avoid hospitals to the extent possible.

student interpreters orientation at the courthouse
Orientation at the Courthouse

However, I do interpret on a regular basis in the court system. Mostly it requires simultaneous interpretation from English into Spanish so that the limited English proficiency individual (LEP) understands the proceedings. Court interpreters are an integral part of the justice system. That is one of the most rewarding aspects of the profession: to know that the LEP individual was able to understand what they were accused of, and aid in their own defense.

Plus, I absolutely love learning new words and phrases, both “old” idiomatic expressions/proverbs, and “new” millennial expressions in all three of my working languages. There hasn’t been a court trial that I didn’t walk away with some new linguistic gems in my languages.

3. Do you have any advice for students who are interested in interpreting and are there hands-on ways for them to get experience pre-certification?

Both court and medical interpreters need an ample vocabulary in all their working languages, so I always tell my students to read, read, read. Read anything and everything, and be linguistically curious.

In addition, I encourage them to study abroad, and fully embrace the immersion experience. Go observe court hearings in Costa Rica or Spain. Be linguistically proactive.

Here at Boise State we have sought out opportunities for students to get hands-on experience. We have partnered up with the local Concordia School of Law, and offered a clinic where language students interpreted and translated information to help the law students prepare their cases and clients for their day in immigration court. We also partnered with Make-A-Wish-Idaho to translate their forms and documents into Spanish. Other past collaborations included interpreting for Spanish-speaking parents at parent-teacher conferences.

4. What kinds of questions do you most often receive from students about language education, especially regarding future career success?
Spanish, Mock Trial
Students at a Mock Trial, Ada County Courthouse

There are usually two big questions: “How do I keep up my language skills after graduation?” and “What if I am not prepared to be a successful bilingual [insert profession here]?”

For the first question, I tell them again: read, listen to music, watch Netflix shows in Spanish, and volunteer at non-profits that need your bilingual skills.

For the second question, I always remind them that just like we did in my classes where we prepared glossaries for specific types of cases (Driving Under the Influence, Drug Trafficking, etc.), they have the necessary skills to research and prepare glossaries for their jobs, be it in construction management, law enforcement, social work, etc.

5. What advice would you offer to students who are undecided about considering language classes beyond any requirements (or at all!)?

I always remind them that it will not only serve them well, but they will be able to serve others in a more meaningful way.

Taking the time to learn a new language doesn’t take away from them becoming an accountant, attorney, nurse, police officer, engineer; it complements it. It allows for deeper connections and understanding of others and their plights.

I have seen bilingual nurses that do use the services of medical interpreters for the technical aspects of their jobs (explaining discharge orders, medications, etc.), but because they are bilingual they are able to assuage a little cancer patient’s fears by addressing the child in Spanish and reassuring them that everything is going to be OK, that they will take good care of them.  It makes them more human, in my opinion.

BONUS QUESTION: Could you share with us an anecdote about a student you know for whom language or interpretation classes have made a difference in his or her personal and future professional growth?
mock trial in classroom
Mock Trial in the Classroom

I am extremely excited that one of my students just became a conditionally approved court interpreter for the state of Idaho!

She was a very hard working student, and I knew she had what it took: skill, ability, and drive. So I offered to continue tutoring her every Friday from the time she graduated until she took the exam. It was fun to meet at different restaurants and cafes around town to work towards her goals. She already received her first assignment, and I was the first person she sent a text. I cannot wait to work a trial with her.


Curious about employing your language skills in the Translation & Interpretation industry? Check out our sector profile to learn more.

Also, visit our Lead with Spanish and Lead with Portuguese pages for resources on scholarships, university programs, student testimonials, and more!  Then tell us when and how you’re using your language skills @LeadWLanguages on social media.