Kids in the middle

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University
studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an
image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are
brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions
or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other
community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language
better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key
in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even
their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found.
Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she
flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving.
(García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of
others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society
should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to
care for others in their families and communities than we give them
credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and
clarity.

Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that
children do?

Giving care is a very complex process that involves many
community members and resources — it is a community care network.
As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth
functioning of the institutions that serve their communities:
banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the
role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better
we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

How did you get interested in studying children as
translators?

I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities,
particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change
linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of
those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts
of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant
families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from
anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally,
largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very
complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it
involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is
acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which
adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social
complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is
the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose
emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

How does child language brokering work?

In immigrant communities, there are never enough official
translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community
members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are
playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving
around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Inmaculada García-Sánchez

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate,
mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for
the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is
something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

How do children do this if they are also new
arrivals?

It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition
in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if
they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also
important to note the availability of children. Adults in the
community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three
shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating
help.

Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s
shoulders?

Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are
young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial
Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that
children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time
of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class,
nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what
they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time.
For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much
more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or
peer babysitting than it is today.

“Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge
battle.”

Inmaculada García-Sánchez

In modern times, families have become increasingly
child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to
give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has
become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People
tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and
healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by
children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal”
childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t
necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than
other types of childhood experiences.

Where is the line between what children should and
should not do as caregivers, then?

There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s
competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a
huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood
experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are
very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a
doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that
in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that
child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an
adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more
mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza
or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never
just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance
team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my
work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in
Spain
, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the
immigrant parent or family member followed along in the
conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to
the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has
medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world
knowledge.

Is child language brokering treated like any other
household chore by immigrant families?

Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families,
just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it
willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research
that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language
brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger
responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s
development.

Do other positive things come from children doing child
language brokering?

Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental
psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied
first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had
done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had
done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives
, and
students who performed more brokering for people other than parents
had higher levels of empathy.

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In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that
surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications
in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or
misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one
example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to
spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated
that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The
children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes
and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting
their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s
competency at reading the politics of the situation is
mind-blowing.

What other surprises do you find with child language
brokering?

With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant
children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher
conferences
. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to
make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I
feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making
themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were
throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually
getting a worse report.

“In immigrant communities, there are never enough official
translators.”

Inmaculada García-Sánchez

Why was that?

One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn
is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot
their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that
children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that
teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the
conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking,
“The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not
that I get along with my friends.”

You call children “active and competent caregivers.”
What other types of care work are they doing?

In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other
all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could
learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children
organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just
arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability
is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between
Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Does doing work like child language brokering make
children more successful adults?

I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that
when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language
brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed.
They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and
empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our
children to develop.