Children as “language brokers”

September 20, 2015 11:00 am

PictureImagine that a family migrates to a foreign country and the parents do not have any knowledge of the host country’s language. It seems to be a common phenomenon in our globalised world, isn’ t it? Have you ever thought about what an important and active role can the children play in such a difficult and stressful family situation?

The term “language brokers” is most often used to describe children of immigrant families “who interpret and translate between culturally and linguistically different people and mediate interactions in a variety of situations including those found at home and school” (Tse, 1996a: 226).

Indeed, children are likely to learn the new language “at a faster pace than their parents” (Weisskirch, 2010: 68), while their school attendance provides them with direct exposure to the language and the culture of the host country.

Thus, living in a foreign country may require that the children of immigrants use their bilingual and bicultural skills to access resources for their families. These situations can occur either in their daily life or during specialized encounters and could range from translating simple words to translating legal documents or bank statements (Tse, 1996b).

There are numerous occasions when children can have a pivotal role in the smooth acclimatisation of their family in the new host country. Here are but a few examples: they can interpret during parent-teacher conferences, translate notes sent from school or help siblings with homework. And let’s not bypass the salient role they play when they act as an interpreter for parents during the doctor’s visits, or when they help parents fill out job applications and help them with citizenship issues. Last but not least, they can act as an interpreter during bank transactions, play the role of mediator when parents need to talk with landlords or neighbours and in many other situations.

In most of the cases professional interpreters are not available. Besides, parents prefer trustworthy persons that can handle the negotiation with discretion and confidentiality. More often parents prefer the older children of the family (as they are perceived to be more mature) and in particular girls to be the “brokers” of the family, as it is evidenced by the researches (Weisskirch, 2010).

Children’s participation in household functioning has multiple consequences for all parties involved. The family’s life is facilitated while children develop various abilities, e.g. strong interpersonal skills (as a result of their communication in the different environments) or metalinguistic and cognitive skills when they try to reformulate messages either in their L1 or in their L2 (Pimentel & Sevin, 2009). Furthermore, brokering can create very positive feelings, e.g. children may feel proud and self-confident, while sometimes it has been related to academic self-efficacy (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003).

Although most of the children refer to translating work as “just normal”, some have recollections of feeling embarrassed, because they had misunderstood something. In other cases children have reported that they became stressed and frustrated, especially when they had to interpret difficult terminology or when the negotiation included sensitive issues and sometimes inappropriate for a child to hear (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003).

What is also significant is that sometimes children as “language brokers” have to take on adult-like responsibilities and make decisions for them. This sometimes has effects on the normal dynamics of the parent-child relationship (Weisskirch, 2010). In these cases there can be a role reversal when parents become dependent on their children for the communication with people outside the family environment or when for example children undertake a responsibility which normally belongs to an adult, e.g calling to report the absence of parents from their work.

However, we should appreciate children’s contributions without exaggerating their power, taking into account that “language brokering” most of the times happens within the framework of daily activities which are regarded as “normal”. Besides, children may participate in family decisions but they do not generally make these decisions themselves. And last but not least, we should not overlook the fact that “language brokering” can sometimes contribute to “the very survival of the family” according to a former language broker (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003).


Orellana, M.F., Dorner, L., & Pulido, L. (2003). Accessing assets: Immigrant youth’s work as family translators or “para-phrasers.” Social Problems, 50(4), 505-524.

Pimentel, C., & Sevin, T. (2009). The Profits of Language Brokering. Language Magazine: The Journal of Communication & Education, 8 (5), 16-19.

Tse, L. (1996a). Who Decides?: The Effect of Language Brokering on Home-school Communication. The Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students 16, 225-234.

Tse, L. (1996b). Language brokering in linguistic minority communities: the case of Chinese- and Vietnamese-American students. The bilingual research journal, 20, nos. 3 & 4, 485-498.

Weisskirch, R. S. (2010). Child language brokers in immigrant families: An overview of family dynamics. mediAzioni 10,, ISSN 1974-4382.

Picture retrieved from: Linguistics research digest, Blogging on language issues,


Written by Dimitra Tsagkogeorga
Terminology Trainee at TermCoord
Student at the University of Luxembourg

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