What’s Wrong with Using Child Interpreters?

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Interpreting for your family is almost a rite of passage for bilingual children. While it may be harmless or even helpful for the family in many everyday situations, I would warn against relying on child interpreters in high-stakes situations that may have financial, legal, or medical consequences.

In my previous post I argued that bilingualism (some scholars propose the term “translanguaging” instead) is not sufficient for effective interpreting in these situations. To succeed, an interpreter needs to know how to accurately convey meaning from one language to another, how to handle contentious situations, and how to maintain professional role boundaries—hard to do when your client is a family member!

This does not imply that heritage speakers are somehow deficient. A deficit view assumes that these speakers do not have an adequate grasp on their heritage language because they learned it “socially” and not “academically.” Researchers including Dr. Nelson Flores point out that “if affluent white children were engaged in the same exact biliteracy practices they would not be positioned in this way.” Both heritage speakers and people who learned their second language in an academic setting can and should be trained—as adults—if they want to provide interpreting in high-stakes scenarios. In fact, the ATA Chronicle has published a fascinating report of how one such program for heritage speakers was implemented.

Nor am I arguing that children should never interpret—helping family members understand each other at dinner is probably fine as long as the child doesn’t mind. What I am talking about is when organizations “delegate” their legal language-access responsibilities under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to the clients’ children, leaving the families to deal with any potential fallout. Just as you wouldn’t have a monolingual 8-year-old negotiate with your mechanic or defend you in court, it should not fall to a polyglot 8-year-old to interpret in these situations! People, including the bilingual children themselves, have suffered harm because no qualified interpreter was provided—The High Costs of Language Barriers in Medical Malpractice details the medical and legal consequences of this kind of negligence in healthcare settings.

How My Parents Almost Got Stuck with the Bill

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I have a personal story, which I haven’t shared publicly until now, that illustrates why relying on your child for your language needs can quickly get messy. While purely anecdotal, it serves as my personal point of reference for the complex emotions and conflicting responsibilities a child interpreter may experience when tasked with providing language access.

When I was 12, my parents and I moved to Israel. I had only taken a few months of Hebrew before the move. I got enrolled in an Israeli middle school, where I would spend a few hours a day in a Hebrew-as-a-second-language class but, otherwise, take “mainstream” classes from day one.

On the first day of school, the first few periods were in the same classroom. Then it was time for electives. A kindly classmate tried to explain to me that I could take a lesson of my choice, perhaps math (“Matematika?she said and, seeing the blank stare on my face, tried the Hebrew word, “Kheshbon?”). I grasped the concept of an elective fine, but I still didn’t know what electives were available, how I could sign up, and, most immediately, where I needed to go for my next class.

The nice classmate was going to an art class, so, not knowing what else to do, I tagged along. For the next two years, I ended up taking art classes without explicitly signing up for them. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind the subject. But then my parents started receiving letters from the school. The letters, handwritten by one of the teachers, told my parents they owed the school for my art lessons and had to pay up ASAP to avoid any trouble. Guess who ended up translating the letters?

My parents were at a loss. After all, they had never signed me up for any paid electives! And I was too embarrassed to admit how I ended up in that class. The letters kept coming for a while. I don’t believe my parents ever addressed this issue with the school. What if the balance had been turned over to collections? What if there had been a heated standoff that I would have had to (try to) interpret? Luckily, these things didn’t happen.

Again, this incident happened in a different context. In the US, schools are supposed to provide language access to parents whose primary language isn’t English, including interpreters for parent-teacher conferences and translations of letters to the families. Schools may not always be compliant, but I’m glad the framework is there to spare schoolkids the tough role of negotiator between your parents and your school—both of whom have authority over you.

If there is one thing I’d like my readers to take away from this—if you are based in the US and are a medical provider or administrator, a public servant, a social worker, or a school employee—please find out what language access policies apply to your organization and advocate for language access for the people you serve. Children should not be responsible for handling high-stakes situations that may affect their and their families’ health, finances, criminal records, or immigration status.

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