Child Translators

Learning a second language is a very complex process, and it’s especially challenging for adults because it involves a lot of brain stretching in several stages. Kids have it a little easier. Their brains are flexible, they don’t rely on previous knowledge as much as grownups and they are still learning pretty much about it all, so a second language comes just as a part of that process.

It’s been demonstrated that a better reading comprehension is developed by bilingual children. They are used to reading materials, understanding them and then explaining them to their parents. They also develop agile minds, better verbal ability and general reasoning, tutoring skills, civic responsibility and social maturity. On the not so bright side, translating for their families can be a real burden for both parents and kids. Just because kids speak two languages, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can translate or interpret.  Most people don’t realize how hard it can be. It’s not just switching words between languages, but ideas that need to be delivered and children may not know the appropriate vocabulary to express the information.

Some common situations where children are asked to translate include parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments, in stores, restaurants, on the street and texts like receipts, insurance papers and manuals.

There are some risks in having the children translate: from not getting the message through and lack of accuracy to hurting the kid’s self-esteem and confidence. At school for example, students may not feel comfortable interpreting for their parents if they don’t like the information being presented or if they’re getting in trouble. I read a case where the teachers reported that some students told their parents that ‘F’ stood for “fantástico”. This also impacts in the parent-child dynamic, when parents find it hard to discipline kids having to depend on them for some of the tasks at home, like the 12-year-old who has to translate insurance and credit card bills, “government mail and regular tax stuff” and writes checks for his mom.

For some of these children, the amount of responsibility they feel is overwhelming. It can be really stressing as the child feels responsible for not being able to solve a problem for the parent. In a study where they interviewed the kids, a 9-year-old girl explained how scary it was to translate for her mom at the doctor’s office, she was nervous that she wouldn’t understand the “big words” doctors use. Another teenager wasn’t thrilled to interpret for her mother at the gynecologist’s either.

Even when Spanish speaking parents make an effort to study and try to learn English, their children still play a crucial role as mediators.  Though the commendable purpose of deciphering for their families is fulfilled, it also produces many interesting side effects.