Language Brokering Initiative

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Change Can't Wait

Language Brokering is a part of the Change Can’t Wait initiative. Change Can’t Wait aims at supporting innovative new efforts and programming for Calgarians struggling with mental health and addiction.

Project Information

Language Brokering (LB) is the practice of non-English speaking parents using their children as translators or interpreters in formal and complex situations.

This initiative will equip immigrant parents and their children with tools to mitigate the negative aspects of LB, and maximize the positive ones. Research about LB will also help inform future decisions made by program developers and policymakers.

This will be accomplished through a Knowledge Building stage and an Intervention stage.

The Knowledge Building stage will:

  • Identify the most common situations in which LB occurs amongst Calgary-based newcomers, and how frequently it occurs
  • Distribute 50-100 surveys to students attending programs at TIES
  • Conduct 10 interviews of Language Brokers and their parents (5 parents and 5 children)

The Intervention stage will:

  • Implement a module of discussion-based lessons about LB into the LINC Program curriculum.
  • Conduct weekly 2.5-hour workshops with 20 parent and child pairs who have self-identified to be practitioners of LB. Workshops will be conducted in 4 intakes, with 10 participants in each intake. Participants will learn strategies to manage the benefits and risks of LB.

Often overlooked in studies and programming within Canadian integration contexts is how youth and children are often agents of linguistic integration for their parents who lack English proficiency. This very common practice is referred to as language brokering (LB) and is prevalent among immigrant families (Tse, 1995). While common, it comes with emotional wellness caveats that must be managed through awareness and programming to overcome its negative psycho-social impacts on the participating youth.

Rainey et al (2014) suggested that LBs have higher levels of anxiety/depression as emerging adults. Weisskirch & Alva (2002) indicated that children did not believe they benefitted from or helped their parents learn English in filling LB roles. According to Alvarez (2017) language brokering duties compelled youth to prematurely grow up, but also suggests this negative consequence is less intense than what the overall literature conveys. Hua & Costigan (2012) found that LB activities resulted in poorer psychological health for adolescents who held strong family obligations and perceived parents to be highly psychologically controlling with more parent-child conflict.  Some research has shown that when the intergenerational gap in acculturation between parents and children is wide, there are conflicts over cultural values and attitudes, which may override the positive impacts of LB with negative outcomes.This project proposes, however that this acculturative gap can be managed through awareness and training.

Indeed there is a significant amount of research that point to key educational benefits of LB when these issues are managed. Niehaus & Kumpiene (2014) indicate that successfully brokering in complex situations may help increase students’ confidence in their abilities to master variety of difficult tasks, including academic tasks in classroom. Lee, et al (2011) show that LB events enable 2nd language learners gain access to critical information in complex learning contexts. They also position LB children as being more ‘able’ in relation to non-LB students.

There are limited Canadian studies specifically focusing on LB, and no programming focusing on mitigating this otherwise common practice. Upon conducting our literature scan, TIES held an exploratory focus group with 3 immigrant English learning parents (benchmark 2-3). The purpose of the focus group was to learn how they navigate everyday situations and their overall involvement in their children’s education. We learned that parents are reliant on their children for “small things”, such as English language correction, completing forms, grocery shopping, interactions with social workers, etc. TIES students’ children are thus being actively used as brokers without their parents always realize what impacts this may have.

The knowledge-building portion of this initiative will focus on developing LB as a tool of learning with strategies to mitigate the stress and anxiety imposed on the youths. The pilot will test a new intervention utilizing language brokering as a tool of learning to maximize the positive impacts.

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