Kids in the middle
Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators
Originally published: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2019/kids-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.
Interview by Kendall Powell
Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.”
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.
Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
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.
Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
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.
Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: Why was that?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.”
Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.
Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?
Inmaculada García-Sánchez: 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.