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CHILD INTERPRETERS: Family’s pride or cultural burden?

The ‘child interpreting’ has now become a global phenomenon, especially in developed countries such as the UK, Italy, Sweden, Germany and the US. The first mentioned case of child interpreters was a three-year-old in Canada with a French-speaking father and English-speaking mother, who translated sentences from one language to another (1977). Afterward, this phenomenon was named as ‘family interpreting’ in the European Journal of Applied Linguistics. Recently, when ‘child language brokering’ has gained popularity in academic contexts, child interpreters issue is reconsidering more carefully.

Most ‘child interpreters’ were raised in immigrants’ families. Their parents often move to a new country with a dream of a better life for themselves and their family. However, all of them have issues to deal with when adapting to a new life. Learning the local language is one of these challenges which often makes adults go through a more difficult time than their children.

Therefore, many of them rely on their children’s language ability. Their children naturally become ‘interpreters’ when they need to fill out forms, go shopping, or visit the doctor etc.

In fact, there are some positive outcomes for being a ‘family interpreter’. Due to a study published in American Journal of Education, ‘child interpreting’ has been linked to prosocial behaviour and greater empathy, higher levels of self-efficacy, empowerment and even improved academic performance. Some studies report that parents of language brokers have closer ties to family, helping preserve heritage language and culture. Importantly, several ‘family interpreters’ see the activity as an extension of the care they provide for their family. As one migrated from Cyprus explained, ‘That’s how it is in our culture, you need to be there for your family’ (Bauer, 2016).

However, the dangers and potentially serious outcomes inherent in relying on underage and untrained bilingual children to interpret are undeniable. Interpreting is a complex process and requires proper training. ‘Child interpreting’ can lead to pressure and psychological distress, such as anxiety, depression and stress. 

Moreover, this process makes children find that they need to mature quickly and the act of being responsible for their parents can lead to social problems, risk-taking attitudes, and aggression. Especially, things become serious when the children have to interpret matters that are beyond their age and maturity level. Is it right for a child to know about the family’s debt? Or the side effects of their father’s medication? 

Besides, they often bear the brunt of climates of racialisation and suspicion that accompany many migrant experiences of being in a different country. Due to an experience by Palestinian born Salma and now living  in the US, when she went shopping with her grandmother, who was wearing traditional Palestinian dress, the sales assistant approached them and asked if they were lost. She 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.

To briefly, the ‘child interpreting’ has now become an global phenomenon, especially in developed countries such as the UK, Italy, Sweden, Germany and the US. 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. 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.

Source: The British Psychological Society

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