Child language brokers: the middle children.
Dr Sarah Crafter explores ‘child language brokers’ — children and young people who, following migration, act as translators and interpreters for family and friends.
My research focuses on children and young people who, following migration, act as translators and interpreters for family and friends who don’t speak the local language. Termed ‘child language brokers,’ their rapid language learning at school means they often linguistically mediate on behalf of family very soon after arrival — they also find themselves acting as cultural mediators as they navigate different institutional practices, norms and values. The brokering, which takes place across many spaces including school, healthcare, banking, housing and more, also takes different forms: face-to-face communication, telephone discussions and reading text and documents. Most importantly, it usually occurs between the child or young person and two or more adults, and can involve conversations that are sensitive or tricky to navigate.
Creative methods formed an important part of my study Child Language Brokering: Spaces of Belonging and Mediators of Cultural Knowledge (funded by the AHRC under the Translating Cultures Innovation Pathway). In conjunction with more traditional social science methods, it aimed to provide new understandings of how cultural knowledge and identity are mediated through child language brokering and to explore whether young people were aware of translating cultures. Arts-based methods gave the young people (aged 13–16 years) who took part a chance to talk about migration, language brokering and identity and our focus was on the narratives that emerged as part of that process. Another overall aim of the project was to raise awareness and visibility of the practice of language brokering and, as part of this, we ran two workshops, one involving drawing and the other sculpture.
The drawing workshop was led by Evangelia Prokopiou, a cultural psychologist with a background in using art for family therapy. Nine young people joined the workshop on a Saturday morning (a feat in itself!) and were asked to think about a specific occasion on which they had had to translate and to try to express how they felt about it. Afterwards they were asked to write down the story that described their drawing. The group then put their drawings together, deciding themselves what order the collection should follow, which facilitated a group discussion about how their stories and experiences were similar or different.
Some of their stories described the stressful side of language brokering. Estera, for example, told how her mum sometimes asked her to phone ‘someone very important’ and how stressful this was — especially if the person and her mum were both getting angry.
Others were more positive. Kokumo told us how she had once been in Italy with a friend who couldn’t speak English. When they bumped into two Japanese tourists who couldn’t speak Italian and were trying to find a specific piazza, Kokumo told them the road and bus route to get there. When her Italian friend wanted to know what was being said, the tourists thought he was talking about them. Kokumo eased the developing tension by explaining to each party what the other was trying to say and understand.
As part of our dissemination activities, we then had the stories re-designed by Kremena Dimitrova as an online comic book , which we exhibited in the two schools and during the Bloomsbury Festival in October 2016.
In another school, nine child language brokers took part in a series of sculpture workshops led by freelance artist and teaching assistant, Pia Jaime . Inspired by Ex-Votos — religious offerings that take the form of texts, paintings and symbols — she developed plaster hands the young people could paint and engrave with symbols and imagery related to their identity as language brokers. As they did so, they discussed their lives, often focusing on stories from before they had come to the UK. More formally, they also told us the narratives of their sculptures.
Ofelia’s hand, for example, tells the story of her identity as a positive person (strongly influenced by her mother) and the family story of a brother who died at the age of two and who she had never met. In the booklet she had re-written some treasured personal letters and messages from family back in Ecuador. These transnational kinship links and the maintenance of identity through shared language — the letters and the brother she had never met — represented ties of belonging and her links to her country of origin.
Creative methods not only allowed us access to the informal conversations about migration and language brokering experiences that occurred during the process of production, they also helped us develop a closer relationship with our respondents.
Dr Sarah Crafter is a Senior Lecturer at the Open University in the School of Psychology, and tweets from @SarahCrafter. This article was previously published in September 2017 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.