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Research shows in these situations, children often end up interpreting – known as language brokering – for their parents. This is a heavy responsibility with psychological consequences.
Migrating to a new country has many challenges, including losing the closeness of extended family, needing to learn a new language and having to fit into a foreign society. These changes are often easier for children than adults.
Children attend educational institutions with locals, where they are subjected to the dominant language and culture. This helps them quickly learn the language and cultural nuances of their host country.
A survey based on 280 sixth grade (aged around 11 to 12) Latino family translators at a Chicago school found they performed significantly better on standardised tests of reading and math than their non-translating peers.
But translating and interpreting is a complex process. Where children saw their increased responsibility as a burden, it worked as a stressor, leading to risk-taking behaviours, such as drinking alcohol and using marijuana.
Children also often feel overburdened in complicated and serious situations, such as when they are required to translate documentation.
One study obtained longitudinal data from 182 first- and second-generation Chinese 15-year-olds. It found the children who more frequently acted as interpreters for their parents had poorer psychological health. Frequency of translation was also associated with parent-child conflict, particularly for those who held strong family values.
Now a child psychologist, the former child translator told the Los Angeles Times that not only were children likely to make mistakes in translation, the “youngsters cannot handle the stress”. Although the bill wasn’t successful, the process highlighted the need for better understanding and awareness of the issue.
Australia could consider a similar approach, but more research would need to be done to spell out the negative implications of language brokering.
If such a legal mechanism were implemented, we’d need enough translation services in medical, legal and other official settings to fill the gap child translators would leave behind.
An unpublished study I completed showed a number of children who acted as interpreters found their education was disrupted, while others considered leaving school due to their responsibilities.
Currently, there are no supports and services provided for children translators in Australia. Nor is there enough research on the prevalence of this experience in the country. There is an urgent need for the government, the community, and parents to better understand the potential impacts of language brokering on children’s health.
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