Many kids from refugee and migrant backgrounds are relied upon to translate for their family. The act of translating or interpreting on behalf of adult family members who do not speak the local language, and being a cultural and linguistic mediator, is called “language brokering”.
Though it’s impressive to see kids do this – and even seems cute – it can be a heavy responsibility that can lead to long-term mental and psychological consequences. To learn more, we spoke with an academic expert, teens and adults who language broker for their families, and a secondary college applying innovative solutions.
Once a broker, always a broker
The age that children start translating for their parents can vary; some adopt the language broker role as early as 5 or 6. Children acquire the new language faster than their parents because they usually start school soon after arriving in Australia, while their parents must prioritise finding accommodation and settling the family. The child’s language skills are depended upon as their parents navigate the many administrative and logistical hurdles involved in starting life in a new environment.
“I was five when I started translating for my mum. It could be anything from helping her understand street signs and how to use public transport, to translating complicated communications like financial documents or special medical conditions and concerns.” – Hong
Trust is a core reason why parents ask their children to translate. They trust that their children will translate accurately and keep sensitive and private information within the family. They worry that a professional translator – who is likely to be from the same cultural background – may repeat private family information to other members of the same cultural community.
“My parents only use a translation service if someone organises or offers it. Sometimes when it’s offered my parents say no, but that is because they feel embarrassed or shameful.” – Secondary student at Doveton College
Once a child takes on the responsibility of language brokering for their parents, it usually creates a life-long dependence. Parents continue to ask their children to translate for them, even when those children have become adults who are raising families of their own. Improvements in parents’ language skills don’t negate their need for their children’s continued assistance.
Research reveals that language brokering is typically a gendered role. Dr Renu Narchal, Acting Deputy Dean and Associate Dean, Engagement and International, School of Psychology, Western Sydney University, and researcher into childhood experiences of language brokering, explains that in a group of 100 child language brokers “around 80 will be girls, maybe a bit more”. This is due to two reasons. “One is cognitive development; girls develop language skills at an earlier age than boys. The other is culturally-influenced gender roles and societal expectations that girls need to be available at home to help their parents when needed”.
The invisible helpers
Kids translate for their parents out of respect, and to show gratitude for the sacrifices their parents are making – yet many parents do not acknowledge the importance of this role.
“Child language brokers are doing a massive job that’s unrecognised. They’re the hidden figures, and their role in family settlement is huge, but we don’t credit them” explains Dr Narchal. In collectivist culture especially, there’s an implicit expectation that everyone contributes to the wellbeing of the family. If you can do something to help your family, you’re expected to do it, no questions asked.
When the role is not properly valued, and its impact not fully understood, it can lead to serious consequences for the kids. What are these consequences?
Translating is an extra responsibility that kids can’t say no to.
Compared to their peers, kids from refugee and migrant backgrounds often bear a greater responsibility to help with housework and take care of younger siblings because their parents are working and lack the support of extended family to lean on. Translating requirements further reduce kids’ freedom and spare time. When needed daily, it can lead to frustration, especially when kids feel they don’t have a choice.
“There are no boundaries as to when my mum comes in and demands it. And it’s usually every day. That causes a strain on our relationship, only because she never takes no calmly, and asks the same concepts repetitively.” – Deb
When parents rely heavily on their kids’ translations to navigate daily life, they can overlook the importance that social activities play in their child’s integration into Australian culture. Dr Narchal explains it is crucial that kids can participate in these activities without guilt, and that it should not be interpreted as a lack of willingness to help.
“Parents and care-givers need to know that children are no longer living in Lebanon, or China, or India anymore. They are also living in the Australian framework and culture, so they need to blend here within their society, their peers, their culture. A blending requires them to participate in the day to day activities. “I’m going out to have fun” shouldn’t be taken as “I don’t want to help you”.” – Dr Narchal
The requirement to deliver the ‘right’ translation imposes an unfair burden on kids.
Translation requires time and proper training to master. It also requires a large vocabulary and life experience. How likely is it for kids to be able to translate ‘antibiotics’ or ‘CAT scan’?
Kids feel pressured to translate accurately – especially when dealing with legal, banking or medical scenarios – because they understand misinterpretation can have serious financial or health consequences, such as mistranslating medical diagnoses or pharmacy prescriptions.
In other circumstances, kids must use their judgement and adjust language and tone when translating, especially in situations where there is conflict. Dr Narchal explains:
“Parents might say “I don’t agree, tell that person he is stupid” but instead of saying “my father thinks you’re stupid” the child will mellow it down to say “My father is not very happy with what you are saying. He needs a bit more explanation.” The need to manage conflict can cause frustration in the child and place them in an intimidating situation if they’re having to deliver a negative message to an adult who might be a stranger.”
Kids can be forced to grow up faster than they should.
Language brokering can also expose kids to age-inappropriate information they need to be shielded from.
Translating official documents can make kids aware of their family’s financial situation.
“Having to make sure a parent knows their mortgage is overdue, or a way to pay off their water bill for example, places pressures on both the child and the parent” explains Amara Miles, Doveton College Wellbeing Coordinator.
It can also mean grappling with the issue of discrimination from a very young age. At only five and a half years old, Hong had to help her mum report a racist incident they had been subjected to.
“My mum was physically attacked. Having to sit beside her and talk to police officers and try to describe what took place was quite traumatic.” – Hong
Kids’ role as translators can inverse the parent-child relationship.
The added responsibility and early maturity can also have an adverse effect on the parent-child relationship because it generates a role reversal. This happens when parents become overly dependent on their children for communication, and children acquire nurturing, supportive, and care-giving behaviours, or undertake an adult responsibility such as calling their sibling’s teacher to report absence.
“I think it changed the parent/child dynamic. We had to care for our parents from a much younger age and share their burden of care and responsibility. Our parents were business owners, and because of their lack of English literacy skills we had to do their bookkeeping.” – Rebecca
When parents rely on children’s translation not only for functional support but also for emotional support, the consequences increase.
“If the parent has a functional dependency on the child for ‘procedural brokering’, the psychological impact is not significant – but if there is an emotional dependency, a sense of burden carried by the child, it leads to greater psychological harm and damage to the parent/child relationship” – Dr Narchal
In certain cases, kids’ language skills can give them the upper hand if they become the spokesperson of the family and take on the lead role. It can undermine the parents’ authority and help kids take advantage of certain situations.
“When translating for their parents, children might feel a sense of superiority – they know something that their parents don’t. It puts them in situations where they might negotiate for something in exchange for going with their parents to the shops, or doctor appointments.” – Bator
However, Dr Narchal’s research reveals that it’s not always for selfish reasons that kids change the meaning of what they’re asked to translate.
“During a parent/teacher interview, the child might change “I’m behind my peers” to “I need to work harder”, but that’s not only to get themselves out of trouble. They may also be wanting to shield their parents from additional stress.” – Dr Narchal
High frequency of translation can lead to significant long-term consequences.
Psychological studies show that regular and ongoing translation can lead to the development of anxiety, depression, and stress in children. The pressure to regularly language broker for parents can be so significant that one third of participants in Dr Narchal’s research admitted they contemplated leaving school early to help their parents.
Playing the language broker can also trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and marijuana abuse and risk-taking tendencies or aggressive behaviour.
Amara Miles, Doveton College’s Wellbeing Coordinator adds:
“It can make some of those development milestones a bit blurred too, such as moving out of home, going for a job, going to university. Kids may not necessarily feel they can detach themselves because of responsibilities placed on them in their home”.
Is offering translation services to parents enough?
Though free interpretation and translation services are offered by the government and official organisations, 42% of migrants said they did not know how to access interpretation services, and 38% said that services were unavailable when requested.(1) Unless awareness and accessibility of support is improved, parents have little option but to continue using their children to translate.
For Doveton College, a school with 54 languages spoken amongst its pupils, readily offering translation services is just one of the many ways they bridge language gaps between parents and education staff. Reception staff members speak a number of languages, as do many teachers. Notices are sent home in common languages. For parent/teacher interviews, the school arranges translators for parents, and books additional ‘roving’ translators of common languages such as Dari, so parents have the opportunity to ask for further clarification throughout the evening.
All of this is offered without stigma or shame.
Amara explains that the drive to create an inclusive environment comes from students as well as staff. “We really focus on student voice, and the students in our leadership program have recently presented a proposal which encourages teachers to learn a second language so they can communicate and greet their students in the other language.”
RMCC also understands the importance of providing support in an accessible and encouraging environment. Its Side by Side after-school program, designed to increase parents’ involvement in their kids’ education, is deliberately hosted at the child’s school so parents can become familiar with the school environment and staff members. Parents can learn about the Australian education system within a relevant setting and improve their English skills by participating in fun learning activities with their child, and alongside other parents in a similar situation.
The responsibility of creating a supportive environment for non-English speaking families extends beyond government services; we must all play a role in creating a judgment-free, non-intimidating community. All it takes is greeting the person with a smile, speaking slowly, and taking the time to explain. By truly seeking to assist parents and make them feel welcome, parents are more likely to ask for help themselves instead of via their children.
Validation and acknowledgement is the key.
As the family’s linguistic and cultural mediator, the responsibility that kids carry is enormous. Dr Narchal explains one way to minimise its negative impact lies with parents validating the importance of their child’s language brokering to the family’s settlement journey.
“The language brokers are the hidden figures. They do a lot, but it’s not very visible. Their role in family settlement is huge, but we don’t credit them the way we should. I’m not saying parents need to say “thank you” every day, but it’s about mutual respect and understanding what children undergo and what they forgo. It’s not just the parents that have done a lot; what the children are doing is equally big.
Having your contribution recognised and seen is important for your wellbeing. Children will feel encouraged, and will translate more readily and happily – because they’re no longer hidden. They can be seen.”
If you’re interacting regularly with people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, the link below lists the various free interpreting services available.
(1) English skills, engagement in education, and entrance into employment of recently arrived humanitarian migrant – Australian Institute of Family Studies.