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The Language Brokers (Audio)

The Language Brokers (Audio)

​Millions of children in the U.S. play a vital, but often overlooked, role in their families. These children of immigrants, known as "language brokers," help their parents translate job applications, medical documents and bills into their native language. They also help them navigate a completely alien culture. Researchers like Su Yeong Kim, in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, are debating whether being a language broker is good for children, or not.


MA: This is Point of Discovery. I'm Marc Airhart. Imagine you and your family have just come to the U.S., and you don't speak English. Navigating everyday life—not to mention school, work and government bureaucracies—can be bewildering. Children, whose brains are wired to learn new languages more quickly, often take on a special new role in families facing this situation.

SYK: So maybe a parent … gets a phone call from a telemarketer – and they need someone to translate because they don't know if it's an important call or a telemarketing call. Or they may need to pay a bill and the parent needs help figuring out how to even get on the Internet, how to create a user account and pay the bill online.

MA: That's Su Yeong Kim, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. She studies children who play this role, known as "language brokers." There are millions of language brokers in the US.

SYK: Or they may be performing more complex functions. So, for example, if the family is trying to get an apartment, they may have to help their parent understand what the lease agreement is, how much down payment they might need, or … how much deposit they might need.

MA: Some studies suggest being a language broker might benefit children. For example, bilinguals—a large group which includes language brokers—are better at performing certain cognitive tasks, and they might even have lower risk, later in life, for Alzheimer's disease. But being a language broker can also have a downside. A college student once worked for Kim who, as a child, had been a language broker. This student made a mistake a decade earlier that still haunted her. When she was 8 or 9 years old …

SYK: … she had to translate some medical insurance … information for their parents and, of course, at that age, she doesn't really understand a lot of the concepts, so she answered it to the best of her ability. And apparently what had happened was it resulted in her family losing health insurance … She said that because of the mistake she made as an 8- or 9-year-old, her family still cannot get health insurance because of some form she misunderstood or mistranslated.

Language Brokering: Good or Bad?

MA: Stories like these have led to a debate among researchers who study this phenomenon: is being a language broker good for a child – or not?

SYK: One set of scholars feel that no child should be asked to do this type of activity because it's too stressful, cognitively too demanding and too much to ask a child to do something that has implications for the survival of the family, right? Especially like the student I mentioned who resulted in her family losing health insurance. And then the other side of the debate says it's actually really important for kids to do this because they develop that sense of efficacy, they feel that they're helpful to their families and they feel valued and important and that helps them develop a lot of important skills.

MA: A few years ago, Kim started a long-term study of students in Central Texas whose parents immigrated from Mexico. She's teasing out which factors help determine whether a student has a positive experience as a language broker, or a negative one.

SYK: So the sixth, seventh, eighth graders in middle school is what we targeted … so we have participants who are the target language broker in the family, and we have mothers and fathers participating in the study. And the NSF CAREER award allowed me to sample about 600 and then a year later, about 438 of them stayed in the study, so about 80 percent.

MA: Based on surveys of these immigrant students and parents, Kim and her team found that adolescents with a strong sense of alienation from their parents – or those who had low resilience -- tended to view being a language broker as a burden. They exhibited more depression than their peers. They also seemed to experience other negative effects tied to language brokering.

That Was Not My Experience

SYK: That's why I'm so shocked when I see the data. And I'm like, Oh my god, these kids hate doing it. It's just surprising because that was not my experience …

MA: Su Yeong Kim has a personal connection to this research -- she was a language broker herself. When she was 9 years old, she and her parents came to the U.S. from South Korea. When she wasn't in school, she helped her parents run the family dry cleaning business in Southern California. She took customer's orders. She even helped the family secure a mortgage.

SYK: I was filling out a credit card application for my parents at age 12 or something like that. [laughs] Can you believe that? [laughs]

MA: As a young adult, she was way ahead of her peers in financial skills. Opening her own checking account and even buying a house was a breeze. It also enhanced her relationship with her parents.

SYK: So for me, it really helped me have a stronger bond with my parents, because I was helping them, and because they were always relying on me, I felt really important for my family and I felt like everything was really positive and thought it was so important to do.

MA: Kim says that appears to be one of the big factors affecting a language broker's health and academic success – whether they see being a language broker as burdensome or empowering.

SYK: … and so I just derived so many positive benefits from doing it for my family [laughs] but now I know that's not the typical story [laughs] – because that's not what the empirical data shows – there's a big range of how adolescents feel about language brokering from the positive to negative.

MA: She traces her motivation to study language brokers back to her time as an undergraduate student, reading about developmental psychology.

SYK: And I was reading about experiences of children and I thought, Oh my god, none of the experiences of myself as a child of immigrant parents is explained in any of these developmental theories.

Next Wave Study

MA: Kim is now in the middle of a follow-up study where she's going back to those same students who were in middle school and have now moved on to high school.

SYK: So we're trying to catch them right before they graduate and see how did their experience being a language broker as a middle schooler change across time and how is it influencing them … psychologically, physically and academically?

MA: This time they're going beyond surveys.

SYK: What we're doing for this new wave of data collection, we're doing a task activity visit, where we go to the family's home, we give the child a very difficult medical document to translate in front of their parent. We simulate being at a doctor's office where a doctor might say, This is your diagnosis, and have a child translate that. [14:10ish] We try to induce stress to see if we can see a physiological reaction to the translation activity …

MA: Meanwhile, the researchers collect saliva samples to measure cortisol, a stress hormone. They also track the students' sleep patterns and test their cognitive functions. It's all part of an effort to get a more complete picture of the positive and negative factors that contribute to the impact of language brokering on a child or teen. On the negative side, there might be stress from translating critical information, as well as external stressors like discrimination or low socioeconomic status. On the positive side, there might be affirmation from parents, a sense of pride in helping the family and sharper thinking.

SYK: So my perspective on this debate of whether it has a positive or negative effect is that it actually can have both -- it depends on the circumstances and the way that that experience is appraised by the adolescent and the context both family as well as … other contextual stressors they are faced with that determine what role language brokering has on their development.

MA: Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. We're on the web at pointofdiscovery.org. Christine Sinatra is our senior editor. I'm your host and producer, Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening!

About Point of Discovery

Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. You can listen via iTunes, iTunes U, RSS, Stitcher or Google Play. Questions or comments about this episode or our series in general? Email Marc Airhart.