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Language and communication, Race, ethnicity and culture

Child interpreters: Source of pride or cultural burden?

Sarah Crafter and Humera Iqbal on the positives and negatives of child language brokering in the everyday lives of immigrant families.

07 January 2020

In an ethnically diverse suburb of London, layered with rows of semi-detached bungalows and the odd corner shop, lay the massive comprehensive school that had invited us to collect some data. Having passed security checks, we wound our way through the long corridors to a classroom of 12- to 13-year-olds, who eyed us up with interest.

Our aim that morning was to start building relationships with a group of young people in the hope that they would grow to trust us enough to take part in our study. With the bounding enthusiasm of a research team entering the field for the first time, we explained that we were interested in their language skills and asked each pupil to tell us their name and if they spoke a language other than English at home. We were geared up for an outpouring of languages, words and phrases from across the globe. This was multicultural London, after all. Yet, unlike previous schools we had been in, here we were met with silence and a resistance to disclose this information.

One boy's discomfort particularly stood out in our minds. He had large green expressive eyes, olive skin and pale brown hair. Here we call him Samir. Although his teacher encouraged him to talk about his home language, Samir remained reluctant and we reassured him that there was no pressure to do so. Later, in a one-to-one conversation his reticence subsided and he quietly told Humera of his Afghani origins, his home language of Pashto, and the reason he didn't openly mention his background at school – when he did, people called him a terrorist. He agreed to be interviewed and we were surprised with the openness with which he spoke about his home life. We discovered that as well as speaking Pashto at home, Samir regularly translated and interpreted for his mother who was not a confident

Samir is not alone in translating and interpreting to help out a family member. When families migrate to a new country, it is often the children who rapidly learn the local language. Although this is not new or unusual for migrating families, it remains a paradoxically unspoken yet highly visible phenomenon. Translating can be a source of pride and empowerment for children, but also anxiety.

Cultural mediators

In 1977 Brian Harris first drew attention to the fact that translating and interpreting was not undertaken only by professionals but was also part of a bilingual's world. He discussed the case of a three-year-old in Canada with a French-speaking father and English-speaking mother, who translated sentences from one language to another. Harris (1974) referred to this as 'natural translation'. Since then, this activity has been called 'para-phrasing' by Marjorie Orellana and colleagues (2003) and 'family interpreting' by Claudia Angelelli (2016), but 'child language brokering' has gained popularity in academic contexts over the last three decades.

The term 'child language brokering' sets a distinction between the word-for-word translation and interpretation often associated with professionals, and the agency and influence that children and young people may exert over the nature and content of the messages they convey. In the academic literature, there has been some reservation expressed that children may miss some nuances (if not serious details) about the messages passed on, perhaps because of limitations to their vocabulary or because of the varying complexity of the setting. Equally, like many learned skills, children improve their bilingual skills with practice. Children may also alter the original meaning and act as cultural mediators between their family and those they come into contact with, who are usually adults in positions of authority.

A typical example of cultural mediation is navigating and understanding the National Health Service and the process of going to the doctors in the UK, which will be different to the private health care previously experienced in, say, Colombia. Imagine being a teenager or child, translating to the doctor that your mother has been experiencing migraines. What is the word for migraines in English? Will the doctor understand how sore their mother's head is? These are some of the things that might go through the mind of a child language broker.

Much of the early work on child language brokering from the 1990s onwards investigated the settings where brokering occurred, the types of tasks children and young people were asked to do and the prevalence of the phenomenon. This work has largely taken place in the US with Spanish-speaking communities (McQuillan & Tse, 1995; M. F. Orellana, 2009). Settings of brokering include home, school, banks, government offices, restaurants, healthcare settings, retail, police settings and solicitors' offices. It is usually undertaken for relatives and friends and may include face-to-face communication, reading or talking over the phone. Data on how many children and young people undertake language brokering in the UK does not exist. What we can say, is of the UK's foreign-born population of 8.9 million in 2016, around 9 per cent are children (0-15 years) and 10 per cent are youth (15-25 years). Moreover in 2015, about 19 per cent of primary school students and 15 per cent of secondary school students in England received support for English as an Additional Language, a figure which has doubled since 1997. Of these, it is not known how many are relied on to translate and interpret.

Navigating difficult situations

Research presents a mixed picture about the psychological impacts that language brokering might have on children and young people. The kinds of conversations that young people language broker for range from the benign, such as going shopping with a parent, to the problematic, such as brokering in police situations. Professionals in healthcare, housing and finance may have concerns about child language brokers. Is it right for a child to know about the family's debt? Or the side effects of their father's medication? On the other hand, language is an integral part of our cultural identity and many children and young people see language brokering as a normal part of everyday migrant family life.

Psychological studies that have focused on mental health and wellbeing risk factors have shown that high levels of brokering can be associated with psychological distress, such as anxiety, depression and stress. These risk factors also intersect with other variables including age. For example, in a study based in Chicago in the US, those who began brokering earlier (9-13 years) reported greater anxiety than those who began brokering later (14-18 years) (Rainey, Flores, Morrison, David, & Silton, 2014). As with Samir, the young Afghani interpreter we met in school, negative stereotypes associated with being a migrant can exacerbate feelings of anxiety around expressing ownership of translating.

Language brokering can affect family relationships. If parental relationships are strained, children can be in a 'parentified' position because they are undertaking roles and responsibilities normally done by adults. For example, in a study with working class Korean-American families living below the poverty line, some children talked about finding out how little money their parents had and the uncertainties this derived (Kwon, 2014).

Overall the research seems biased towards considering the negative features of brokering, but there is evidence that language brokering can provide gains. Language brokering has been linked to prosocial behaviour and greater empathy, higher levels of self-efficacy, empowerment and even improved academic performance (Dorner et al., 2007). Some studies report that parents of language brokers have closer ties to family, helping preserve heritage language and culture. These associations are not static; as parental language proficiency increases, children are relied on less (Orellana et al., 2003). Young interpreters also have a better grasp of both their home culture and host culture compared to migrants who don't translate, due to their mediating between the cultures. Some young language brokers see the activity as an extension of the care they provide for family. As one language broker who migrated from Cyprus explained, 'That's how it is in our culture, you need to be there for your family' (Bauer, 2016, p. 32).

Hostile environments

Language brokers often bear the brunt of climates of racialisation and suspicion that accompany many migrant experiences of being in a different country. Nash (2017) reports an experience by Palestinian born Salma, whose family moved to the US from Lebanon. Salma recounts a shopping trip to buy some lingerie with her grandmother, who was wearing traditional Palestinian dress. The sales assistant approached them, asked if they were lost, and after asking about the Palestinian dress said, 'are you sure your grandma wants to be here?' The implication for Salma was that the sales assistant did not think her grandmother belonged in 'such a nice store'. The interaction turned overtly racist when the grandmother asked for her free gift and the sales assistant replied, 'Arabs, cheap and loud'. Salma chose not to translate all of this exchange, withholding the racist remark from her grandmother.

In one of our own studies, some of the young people reported feeling very conscious of their immigrant status because of the visibility of their language brokering. Talia told us about a time she visited the housing office in her local authority to get the toilet fixed. The situation became difficult when the housing officer said, 'sorry I don't want to talk to you because you don't make sense', which Talia interpreted to mean, 'I don't want to talk to you because you don't speak English'.

The issues we are raising here are not unique to the UK, and there is work on language brokering taking place in Italy, Sweden, Germany and the US. In the UK, we are conscious that language brokers are operating in times of socio-political and economic challenge; austerity measures have led to cuts of many professional translating and interpreting services, increasing the use of children and teenagers during difficult or sensitive conversations. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May's 'hostile environment' policy, alongside the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment accompanying the Brexit campaign, added fuel to an already challenging adult arena for child translation activities.

Despite this backdrop, many parents often prefer using their own children to professional interpreters, believing them more likely to maintain confidentiality and advocate for the family's interests towards a shared goal. Parents from some minority ethnic communities frame children's roles within the family as a collaborative endeavour with children 'pitching-in' with a number of activities (such as domestic contributions to the household). Western ideology and child-rearing practices place more value on separating the activities of children and adults within the family (Rogoff et al., 2017). When viewed through the cultural lens of minority ethnic family practices though, language brokering could be perceived as one of a number of activities one undertakes to care for family (Garcia-Sanchez, 2018).

There is a paucity of research into professionals' perspectives on child language brokering. The research that does exist presents an understandable level of concern from some professionals in the use of child language brokers. In one study, General Practitioners in London worried about misdiagnosis and accurate translation of complex vocabulary (Cohen et al., 1999). Social workers felt that language brokers should be protected from the excessive responsibility of interpreting potentially distressing situations, and yet all those sampled had used language brokers in both planned and unplanned ways (Lucas, 2015).

In one of our own studies, teachers in schools told us they tended to see both the advantages and disadvantages of using child language brokers (Cline et al., 2014a; Crafter et al., 2017). On the one hand they recognised the skills and feelings of pride and empowerment leveraged by language brokering. On the other hand, teachers were wary of situations that could turn difficult or negative. Context was important. The impact on brokers was favourable when thoughtful school staff viewed brokering as an asset and ensured that language brokering activities were monitored so pupils were not over-burdened. In our own research we witnessed a number of children translating during a parent evening at Samir's school.

A way forward

This is clearly a complex area that raises significant ethical questions around child protection and children's competencies. Not all children enjoy interpreting, and some feel nervous or uncomfortable whilst doing it. Yet it is important not to lose sight of the advantages and rewards that language brokering can bring to the lives of children and their families. Ultimately, as psychologists we should be recognising the social and cultural significance of language brokering. Repeated experiences of language brokering over time, seem to enhance bilingual identities, increase mastery of both the host and home language, improve the understanding of host community institutions and assist parents in their acculturation and integration processes. Crucially, adults who encounter children in language brokering situations should ask them if they are happy to interpret, be mindful of situations that are inappropriate or potentially stressful, and thank them for their contribution.

Whatever the viewpoint, it is crucial to recognise the limitations set by the socio-cultural and political landscape in which immigrant and migrant children and families are living and surviving. In professional and institutional contexts where there is a lack of professional services as a result of national budget cuts, there should be further enquiry about the use of child language brokers, as well as in anti-immigrant hostile contexts. Far more investigation into first responder and emergency situations, where the use of children as interpreters can be inevitable, is needed.

On a national level, no policy exists around the use of children as interpreters. However, Cline et al. (2014b) developed a Guide for Good Practice for child language brokers in schools. This guidance is not necessarily applicable to other professional contexts, so further research would fill this gap. However, psychology has an important part to play in helping all parties involved in child language brokering develop caring and effective approaches. These are ordinary teenagers and children often undertaking the extraordinary work they do in their stride. To end with Samir's words: 'Times I'm happy to do it… when she [mum] really needs help with it… It can get boring at times but mostly I wanna help her out'.

-   Sarah Crafter is Professor in Cultural-Developmental Psychology, The Open University. @SarahCrafter

-   Humera Iqbal is Lecturer in Psychology, University College London. @HumeraIqbal1


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Bauer, E. (2016). Practising kinship care: Children as language brokers in migrant families. Childhood, 23(1), 22-36.

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Cline, T., Crafter, S., & Prokopiou, E. (2014b). Children interpreting in school: A guide to good practice. Retrieved from

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