How Translating for My Immigrant Parents Affected Me While Growing Up

Child language brokers are children—often from immigrant families—who linguistically translate for family members. I was one of them. Here's what experts have to say.

teenager helping her mother prepare and update account at her store
Photo: Getty Images

A guttural cry woke me up from the darkest corral of sleep the night before the big test. I had been studying for weeks under the florescent light at the kitchen table, the scene where a mountain of books and pamphlets about the U.S. government teetered close to a landslide. The test would determine U.S. citizenship, and it wasn't for me—it was for my immigrant parents, who needed my help.

I started translating for my Vietnamese-speaking parents when I was 7, for low stakes situations like asking a department store employee if a pair of pants were on sale. But also in high-pressure situations like when, at all of 9, I helped my frustrated parents translate questions from the citizenship test in the middle of the night.

Honestly, I wasn't a fan of the responsibility. Often, I struggled with the discomfort of speaking to grown-ups about grown-up issues or fumbled for the right words in either language. But translating was a part of growing up in my family, and it's completely normal in new immigrant communities, according to Marjorie Orellana, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches immigrant youth in urban schools and communities. There is even a name for children who translate for their parents: language brokers.

The Impact of Translating for Parents

Child language brokers are children—often from immigrant families—who linguistically translate for family members who do not fluently speak the language of the country they are living in.

Before I knew I was a language broker, I tried hard not to be one. This was before the advent of smartphones and translation apps that likely make language access easier, so when my mom asked 7-year-old me to bargain over the price of apples—an everyday practice in her native Vietnam—at a suburban Los Angeles farmer's market, I did not know how to handle the vendor's angry words taken straight out of an anti-immigrant playbook ("Go back to your country!") or action (throwing the $3 per pound sign at my mom's face).

How, at any age, do you translate big emotions or the contours of racism in American society?

It's a nebulous feeling Juan Alanis, a fellow former child language broker, understands deeply. Alanis is the middle child of seven who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley near the border of Texas and Mexico, translating for his Spanish-speaking parents.

"It wasn't my favorite thing to do," says Alanis, founder and chief content officer of Market Street Consultants in Houston. "I remember that there was a little bit of shame associated because you feel like other people may not understand you."

Alanis once wrote candidly about feeling "degraded" over his parents' lack of English language proficiency. Our conversation is filled with a lot of uh-huhs about shared childhood experiences and how they hit differently as adults. Looking back, our immigrant parents were structurally unsupported with language access, and that says something deeper about society, not families who are just trying to buy apples or groceries.

The Pros and Cons of Translating for Adults

Studies show that more than 90 percent of children of immigrants broker language for their parents at home, school, and grown-up settings like medical and government offices. A lot of early research focused on why language brokering can be psychologically bad for kids. But not every experience is the same.

In her research, Dr. Orellana has talked to many young language brokers who felt different ways about being the spokespeople for their grown-ups. Some felt burdened by the task, while others felt empowered. But overall, Dr. Orellana sees language brokering as a valuable skill. She notes that kids who are language brokers learn sophisticated linguistic and cultural negotiation skills, as well as gain exposure to and mastery of complex grown-up tasks like jury summons and credit card applications. There is also an argument that language brokers are better at seeing things from different perspectives. "That's a highly valued skill in my view," says Dr. Orellana, author of Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture. "That's what we need more of in the world."

According to Su Yeong Kim, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, there are three types of child language brokers: those who are ambivalent about the role, those who are burdened, and those who feel efficacious. The latter language brokers feel proficient in their bilingualism and enjoy better mental and physiological health, says Dr. Kim. But she said only about 30% of participants in her 2018 study reported feeling efficacious. Her research shows that for many kids language brokering stress is real. By measuring the cortisol—a hormone that helps regulate the body's response to stress—levels in participants' saliva, Dr. Kim found medical translation and arithmetic tasks did create a stress response in adolescents, but individual, family, and environmental factors play a role.

How do we increase the number of efficacious language brokers? "It's a real important challenge," says Dr. Kim.

How To Support Child Translators and Their Families

As a kid, I interpreted my mom's annual mammogram reports for her while trying to wrap my young brain around complex medical jargon. But when it came time to navigate my own exams and reports, let's just say I had already done my homework.

Children of immigrant parents are language brokering whether or not we think they should, so how do we provide more support and resources? When a child language broker is translating for you, speak in short phrases, approach the situation as a team effort, and don't forget to thank the translator for their service.

There is a framed picture in my parents' bedroom that is a little washed out with age and exposure, but their smiles are still visible as they hold their little American flags in celebration of becoming full citizens. In college, when I sat for my own U.S. citizenship test and interview, I felt confident. I learned the word "bicameral" at 9-years-old—even though back then I could not successfully translate its meaning to my parents. I look at their picture and feel proud.

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