What is a Child Language Broker and can you use them?
There are many things to consider when working with children and families whose first language is not English. There are concerns about communication and how to get important messages across. Schools, councils, and the NHS often rely on professional and qualified interpreters to help in these circumstances, however, sometimes siblings or other family members are used as what is called language brokers. Language brokers have no formal interpreting education but they will often go beyond word for word interpretation and offer explanations when they feel the listener needs it.
There are many reasons why parents often prefer having their own child or a family member to interpret for them– one of which being that they can trust a family member more than a stranger interpreter. In small communities, it is also a way of protecting the family’s privacy and honour. It creates a sense of security, that if during the meeting not everything was understood, it can be discussed at home over the dinner table.
Even though these language brokers make valuable contributions to their families, using children as interpreters can sometimes impede the understanding of the message and will change the adult-child dynamic as they will feel the power shift when being the key holders to crucial communication. There is also the fear of a child becoming too involved in adult issues when interpreting in adult settings as there are no boundaries and too much responsibility is placed on the child. However, there are also positive benefits for the children used as language brokers in the terms of earning respect from their peers, feelings of pride, and boosting confidence.
Concerns with using child language brokers
- Children have limited vocabulary, especially when it comes to highly technical topics such as healthcare or legal matters. This results in inaccurate translations and will therefore result in misinformation.
- Children are not bound by contract to relay what is being said with 100% accuracy. Oftentimes, if the topic is sensitive, it can be easier to leave out difficult information to avoid hurting the recipient. On the other hand, the speaker may also leave out sensitive information which they find unsuitable for the child to interpret.
- When under pressure, be it time constraint or the pressure of an audience watching, children may miss out on information, or choose to simply not interpret at all and instead try to remember as much as possible for them to relay it at home. Again, this leads to inaccuracies and misinformation.
Based on these three points, you could argue that using child language brokers seem like an unfit solution, however, it is not as simple as that. Many families, and professionals, find that using an interpreter can be a cold and impersonal experience. It adds a layer of formality to settings that may otherwise be informal chats. Teachers and health professionals can also find it difficult to build a relationship with the adult, as they can feel they are dealing with an agent, rather than the person.
When choosing to use a professional interpreter, you guarantee that minimum standards of knowledge and skills are met. They are bound by contract to accurately and precisely relay what is being discussed. This means they will have a broad vocabulary and deep understanding of the topic discussed to efficiently convey the message in the recipient’s language. They will also have a great understanding of the recipient’s cultural references and may have been in a similar situation themselves when arriving in the country.
As a public service provider, it is important to create a positive image around using interpreters. You should make foreign language families feel welcomed and valued – and ensure that arranging for an interpreter is never seen as a burden or a hassle. You want to help and be their partner in getting the best out of the public services as possible. As a service provider it is also crucial to understand when to decide to use a professional interpreter or at the very least an adult.
When introducing an interpreter, they must ensure confidentiality. It can be a good idea to allow the adult to meet the interpreter one on one before the actual meeting takes place, to make them feel comfortable, and to build the connection with the interpreter. If this is the case, briefly tell the interpreter about their background and ask them to familiarise themselves with the family; find common ground that will enhance trust.
For some communities protecting the family’s privacy is incredibly important, therefore it is crucial that this is being respected. There are many ways to do this, but one of them is offering a private room when interpreting is taking place. It is also important to give meetings including interpreters extra time as this always takes a little longer.
During the meeting, always encourage the adult to ask questions if they don’t understand or if they need something explained in a bit more detail. This can for example be during school meetings, where norms and expectations are different in their home country. As a staff member, you can also offer extra information when talking to adults who are new to the country, though it can be a fine balance between assuming the adult has the background knowledge or assuming they don’t.
Even though you feel it may be a quick and simple meeting, don’t hurry the pace. The main goal is that the person feels heard and valued and that there is time for the extra questions they may have regarding the topic. It can be a good idea to use visual aids to enhance the message, for example, to show a pupil’s progression in the academic year.
If using a child language broker it is crucial to be aware of the dynamics in the meeting and whether they may suddenly change.
- The topic of discussion is of a sensitive kind or if it is culturally inappropriate for a child to discuss.
- Concerns regarding safeguarding or when the child is the subject of discussion. It is also important to consider maintaining appropriate boundaries between adults and the child.
- When complex language is used.
There are many factors to consider in the decision-making process regarding the interpretation and whether to use child language brokers. From an organisational point of view, on what basis is it decided? Oftentimes, there is less ambiguity if the organisation sets out a clear and explicit policy with information on how to arrange an interpreter in a crisis or when there is advanced notice.