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.
- 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.
Where Language Brokering Occurs
Language brokering frequently occurs in the home and school.
- Child language brokers primarily broker tasks for their parents, siblings, relatives, and friends.
- One study reported that 80% of participants brokered at home and 65% brokered at school3.
- Child language brokers frequently fill out school forms, write notes, and translate school letters and notices for their parents. Many facilitate communication among parents, teachers, and school staff.
- Some of the most frequent language brokering tasks include translating for parents, answering the phone or door, and scheduling or accompanying parents on appointments.6
- Language brokering also occurs at government offices, hospitals, banks, grocery stores, restaurants, post offices, and on the street.
The Process Of Language Brokering
The child language broker assumes the role of a mediator to facilitate communication and linguistic translation for other participants in the language brokering event. The child usually has to interact with adults in many different settings2 and try to understand complex social relationships. The child language broker often has to acquire sophisticated vocabulary and knowledge to perform language brokering tasks.3 He or she must also understand complex aspects of the adult world in order to competently and accurately convey messages between the parties involved.
Existing research shows conflicting results on how these children are being affected by language brokering.
Benefits of Child Language Brokering
Some children believe that brokering helps them learn more about their heritage languages and culture and increase their English proficiency.4
- Some also feel pride in being language brokers.4
- In a 1995 study, most participants enjoyed and benefited from language brokering.3 Brokering gave them opportunities to learn, to become more independent, and to broaden their knowledge of both their heritage and host cultures.
- Many participants reported that language brokering enhanced their cognitive skills, increased their comprehension of adult-level texts, helped them gain the trust of their parents, and helped them become more bicultural.3
- As a result of performing language brokering tasks for their parents, many child language brokers also reported that language brokering provided them the opportunities to learn about and become more aware of their parents' life experiences in the host country.3
Disadvantages Of Child Language Brokering
A 2007 study provides some insights into why language brokering sometimes imposes an immense burden on children.2
- Many of the children often had to assume responsibilities on behalf of their parents that affected the welfare and safety of the whole family. For instance, participants reported that they had to translate and interpret legal letters, accompany their parents to doctors' offices to interpret medical information, and interact with authority figures.
- Taking on such a responsibility may put child language brokers in states of fear and uncertainty.2 In circumstances where child language brokers have limited knowledge to deal with complex adult matters, they can find themselves experiencing high levels of stress.
- In traditional Asian families, parents wield great authority and power, and children are expected to defer to their parents. Role reversal may occur when children language broker for their parents. Children's language brokering may undermine the traditional power relationship between parents and children in Asian families.
How Schools and Parents Can Help Child Language Brokers
As the influx of Asian immigrants continues, many more children of Asian immigrants will become their families' designated language brokers. As language brokers, these children will be put in positions and situations where they may have to perform tasks and take on responsibilities that are beyond their cognitive and language abilities. In addition, these children may not have the skills, knowledge, or sense of maturity to carry out their responsibilities. The language broker's identification with his heritage culture, family values, and relationships with parents can be important determining factors in how the language broker is positively or negatively affected by the brokering experience. School psychologists, educators, and practitioners who work directly with children of Asian immigrants, as well as the parents of these children, can focus on helping these children to retain their heritage cultural values and traditions as well as promote positive parent-child relationships and strong sense of familial obligation.
1. Reeves, Terrance, and Claudette Bennett. We the People: Asians in the United States. U.S. Department of Commerce: Economics and Statistics Administration, 2004.
2. Hall, Nigel, and Sylvia Sham. "Language Brokering as Young People's Work: Evidence from Chinese Adolescents in England." Language and Education 21 (2007): 16-30.
3. McQuillan, Jeffrey, and Lucy Tse. "Child Language Brokering in Linguistic Minority Communities: Effects on Cultural Interaction, Cognition, and Literacy." Language and Education 9 (1995): 195-215.
4. Tse, Lucy. "Language Brokering in Linguistic Minority Communities: The Case of Chinese- and Vietnamese-American Students." The Bilingual Research Journal 20 (1996): 485-98.
5. Chao, Ruth. "The Prevalence and Consequences of Adolescents' Language Brokering for Their Immigrant Parents." In Marc Bornstein and Linda Cote, ed. Acculturation and Parent-Child Relationships: Measurement and Development. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006, pp. 271-96.
6. Trickett, Edison, and Curtis Jones. "Adolescent Culture Brokering and Family Functioning: A Study of Families from Vietnam." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 13 (2007): 143-50.
7. Jones, Curtis, and Edison Trickett. "Immigrant Adolescents Behaving as Culture Brokers: A Study of Families from Former Soviet Union." The Journal of Social Psychology 4 (2005): 405-27.
8. Buriel, Raymond, et al. "The Relationship of Language Brokering to Academic Performance, Biculturalism, and Self-Efficacy among Latino Adolescents." Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 20 (1998): 283-97.
9. Hernandez, Donald, Nancy Denton, and Suzanne Macartney. "Children of Immigrant Families: Looking to America's Future." Society for Research in Child Development Social Policy Report 22 (2008): 3-23.
10. Wu, Nina, and Su Yeong Kim. "The Role of Cultural Orientation and Family Mediators in Chinese American Adolescents' Perceptions of Their Language Brokering Experience " Journal of Youth and Adolescence (forthcoming).