Child Language Brokers

When I held my first ever Parents’ Evenings at a school in Brent, North London, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer range of meetings I experienced there.

This was a multi-lingual area of huge diversity with around 40 languages spoken in the school and my first language was ‘Derbyshire’.

The number one difficulty was sharing my comments and observations because some of the parents didn’t speak English – or put another way, I didn’t speak their language. There were quite a number of single-parent Somalian refugees and there were no adult interpreters to help either so this made things pretty awkward. Having a shared language is vital and I was all at sea and so was every other teacher.

But there were some interpreters and reluctantly I had to involve them – the children.

There were some children who had been at the school for a while who had managed to learn English pretty fast and so they became language brokers for many of the staff in a number of situations. This made me uncomfortable especially if the child I was talking about what doing the actual interpreting.

The Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU) at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) have conducted the Child language brokering in Schools project (CLBiS) and found that language brokering was commonly found in three main situations in a school setting:

  1. Formal meetings involving teachers and parents
  2. Informal meetings involving teachers and parents
  3. Translating for a new pupil from overseas

Of course, children and young adults were also language brokers in a range of settings beyond the schools gates too.

Their research found that these language brokers were “happy to do it” and took pride in the role but that was not my experience. Many of the children felt uncomfortable at having to translate important information and act as ‘mini-adults’.

Rather than enhance their confidence and offer a form of empowerment, some children just didn’t want the responsibility because it wasn’t “their job”.

Bilingualism is an asset and within the classroom there are lots of opportunities where children can translate but to employ them as interpreters in more formal situations can put pressure on them and we can’t be sure that what is being said is being said in the way it was intended or even said at all. For younger children, in primary settings, I don’t think children should be expected to translate in a Parents’ Evening.

Tony Cline (UCL), Sarah Crafter (TCRU at UCL Institute of Education) and Evangelia Prokopiou (UCL) have produced a guidance booklet to help us think more about child language brokering and what is involved.

Their Child Interpreting In School: Supporting Good Practice poses some interesting questions to think through and how we can best involve children.


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