Children as Language and Cultural Brokers in Asian American Families

By and — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

For many Asian immigrants, their arrival in the United States gives them hopes for a new beginning and a brighter future. As much as some Asian immigrants want to thrive quickly in the host country, they can face many challenges. For those with limited English proficiency, simply communicating in and understanding the new language and culture may be the greatest challenge.

Life in the United States may require Asian immigrants to have interactions with others who do not speak or write their heritage languages. These situations can occur while:

  • Applying for legal documents or government assistance.
  • Registering children to attend school.
  • Obtaining health insurance and receiving health care.
  • Seeking employment.
  • Shopping.
  • Trying to read letters and documents sent in English.

The Need For Children To Become Language And Cultural Brokers

There are over 10 million Asians living in the United States; about 40% of those aged 5 and over speak English less than "very well." The survival and success of this group depends on having someone trustworthy to help them with translation and interpretation.
Research on Asian immigrant families shows that many adults in these families (usually the parents) involve the children to assist with translation and interpretation. Children of Asian immigrants who take on the role in their families as designated translators and interpreters are known as language or cultural brokers.3 Here, the term "language broker" is used to represent both terms. Some children of Asian immigrants find themselves performing language and cultural brokering tasks for their families even as they themselves are learning the new language and culture.2 They are usually the first in their families to gain exposure to the English language. This often happens in school, where children of Asian immigrants are also immersed in U.S. culture.

Bridging Old And New Cultures

In addition to helping their family members and relatives accomplish simple everyday tasks, many children of Asian immigrants become an important bridge between their families' heritage cultural identity and the U.S. culture and institutions. These children use their newly acquired bilingual and bicultural knowledge to help their families gain access to opportunities, resources, and information. 

Characteristics Of Child Language Brokers

  • They have acquired some knowledge of the English language and the U.S. culture.
  • They have familiarity with their heritage language and culture.

Prevalence Of Child Language Brokers

Child language brokering is very common in many Asian immigrant families.
  • Many children of Asian immigrants begin performing brokering tasks within three years of arrival in the U.S.
  • Some begin performing language brokering tasks in the early grade school years.
  • Studies of high school students from Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean backgrounds have found that around 70% -90% took on the role as language brokers4,5,6.
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