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Child Language Brokering

Understanding the lives of young translators and interpreters.

Pensive Lion (David Bishop, UCL Health Creatives)

4 June 2018

By Sarah Crafter

Child language brokers are children or young people who translate or interpret on behalf of adult family members, siblings or peers who do not speak the local language. When arriving in a new country, children often learn the local language faster than their parents do.

They language broker in many different spaces and settings such as shops, banks, schools, doctors, dentists, welfare offices, police stations, housing offices and so much more.

Children and young people who interpret and translate for their families and others make invaluable contributions to family life, local communities and institutions.

The Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU) at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) have conducted two studies with child language brokers.

Child language brokering in Schools project (CLBiS)

Previous work has shown that school is one of the most common settings where students translate or interpret for family members or peers. One of the challenges that their teachers and parents may then face, is the lack of a shared language for communicating about the school's expectations and the child's needs.

It is quite hard to like translate for me for my mum and when the person is me, so like the teacher's going to talk about me and then I have to translate about me, so it's quite kind of awkward to do that

The study showed that the three most common situations in which children acted as language brokers at school were:

  1. Formal meetings involving teachers and parents
  2. Informal meetings involving teachers and parents
  3. Translating for a new pupil from overseas

Young adults also revealed that they also translate letters and other paperwork that were sent home by the school.

With support from the Nuffield Foundation, two groups expected to bring distinctive and complementary perspectives to the topic of child language brokering in school were examined - teachers working in multilingual areas and young adults who had acted as language brokers in the course of their own school career. Groups were given an on-line survey questionnaire to complete and followed up with interviews with a small number of selected respondents.

Many of the young adults who responded to the online survey or met to talk individually presented a very positive picture:

  • They treasured the experience of having translated for others at school whether inside or outside their family.
  • They described themselves as "happy to do it" at the time and, took a pride in the role.
  • They noted that it earned them respect and admiration from others.
  • Different teachers described the impact on the development of many of them as being to:

  1. enhance their confidence
  2. underpin their sense of belonging in school, and
  3. offer a form of empowerment.

In order to ensure a positive outcome the process needed to be handled well. Those who acted as child language brokers in school found the role easier when they sense that staff in their school:

  • perceived bilingualism as an asset,
  • valued the role,
  • acknowledged the responsibility that came with it,
  • did not ask them to act in this role when the topic to be discussed made that risky or disturbing, and
  • did not ask them to do it too often.
It makes you look more mature and grown up and you take responsibility and you kind of learn professionally how to translate and I think your language improves a lot and you kind of learn a lot more about having proper professional conversations with grown-ups.

Drawing on evidence from those with experience of the language brokering process as teachers or students, a booklet to guide good practice in schools was developed, to suggest how the process can be most effective and positive at the time, how the worst problems can be avoided and how the experience can have the most beneficial impact in the future on those who take part.

Child Language Brokering: Spaces of identity belonging and mediators of cultural knowledge

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://youtu.be/6G4KvX59ttY

A dress of many words
Following on from the CLBiS study researchers wanted to know if language brokering across different contexts, beyond school, influenced how they saw themselves and their translating activities. This project, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to examine how child language brokers act as mediators of cultural knowledge, values and norms as a communicative and performative process.

As well as collecting data through interviews with young language brokers (aged 13-15 years old), a series of arts-based research workshops have been held to explore language brokering identities. A set of workshops put together in collaboration with Hampshire Borough Council, asked the children to celebrate their ‘young interpreter journey’ through creating ‘fashion’ items with newspapers, mono-prints, food and music.

The project is still ongoing, and further project details can be found here.

(Photos by David Bishop, UCL Health Creatives)