The Dangers of Using Children as Their Parents’ Interpreters

Dynamic Language | September 26, 2019

Migrants dream of a better life for themselves and their family in a new country. However, the process of transition is never easy. New residents of the United States, no matter their country of origin, previous financial standing or educational level, all have issues to deal with as they adapt to a new life.

Parents and children can tend to lose the closeness they share with their family and friends left in their country of origin. They often need to live in a society where the language is foreign to them. They have to find ways to fit into an unfamiliar environment. Through it all, the adults often go through a more difficult time than their children.

Responsibility as an Ad Hoc Interpreter

Children of school age will be attending schools with other children, exposing them to local culture and the dominant language. It helps them quickly assimilate the local culture and language of their new country.

Participating in the typical process of having a child in schools is often one of the first times that parents need to communicate in a formal setting in English.  Parent-teacher conferences are a regular part of the school system in the United States. These conferences are parents who speak English as a second language (ESL) rely on an interpreter to facilitate communication.

In some communities, professional interpreters are available, but that’s often not the case. This so happens, that without planning and awareness, ESL parents end up depending on their children to interpret and translate for them. The children are learning the local culture and language, usually at a very fast rate, often faster than the parents. Many parents find it expedient for their children to act as their interpreter when necessary. They rely on their children’s ability to speak English during their interviews with teachers. This is when they need to fill out forms, and sometimes, even when a family member visits the doctor.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for even very young children to be called on to act in this capacity if their spoken level of English is significantly superior to that of their parents.  If the parent needs the child to be an ad hoc interpreter, even an can be called upon, as long as the child can already understand English and speak it, even if not fluently.

However, such situations not only disturb the parent-child relationship, but they also pose risks to immigrant children and their families. The children find that they need to mature quickly and the act of being responsible for their parents can lead to social problems, risk-taking attitudes, and aggression.

Children as Interpreters for Adults

There are some positive outcomes for being an interpreter or translator for their parents. It can enhance the child’s interpersonal, emotional, social and cognitive skills. They can perform better in school because of the increased challenge required to interpret.

However, the dangers and potentially serious outcomes inherent in relying on underage and untrained bilingual children to interpret far outweigh the potential benefits of having them take on the challenge of communicating on behalf of their parents and family members. Interpreting is a complex process and requires proper training. Ad hoc interpreting can lead to pressure and stress. Especially, if the children have to interpret matters that are beyond their age and maturity level. They feel overburdened because they are given a responsibility that requires the skills of a trained professional interpreter. In addition, to sometimes being exposed to issues and situations beyond their understanding. As well as, exposing them to be aware of things that are not age-appropriate.

In the hospital or clinic setting, where the consequences of mistakes can be serious and even life-threatening. It would seem inherently obvious that a bilingual minor, no matter how high their linguistic skill level, should never operate in the capacity of an interpreter between a medical professional and a family member.  However, surprisingly and disturbingly, it is known to happen. Especially when the non-English language that they speak is perceived as rare or difficult to find.  Because of the risk of litigation and liability, however, many medical facilities have been made aware of the dangers of choosing to go this route, particularly when there are alternatives such as:

  • Over the Phone Interpreting (link to Dynamic service page)
  • Video Relay Interpreting (link to Dynamic service page)

The situation in Aurora City School District

Aurora City is one of Colorado’s most diverse cities. Almost half of its population of 374,114 (2018 estimate) is of African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander ethnicities. The city is Colorado’s refugee center, housing more than 30,000 Nepalese, Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees.

The practices regarding interpreting services in the public schools in Aurora are not clear-cut; thus, there is confusion among parents whose children are learning English. Some say they are left out because they cannot understand the school notices and report cards that are written in English. Children sometimes have to leave their classes to interpret, disrupting their studies.

The staff and teachers in Aurora City public school district in Colorado want to put an end to, or at least limit the use of students as temporary interpreters, except during emergencies. They are proposing a policy that will do just that.

In their proposal, they state that the school district should be responsible for interpreting and translation services in public schools. They assert that children should not have to act as ad hoc interpreters. At the same time, the parents will benefit greatly from the professional language services the schools would provide.

The occurrence of using children as interpreters for their parents and other relatives is ongoing in the U.S. However, several states recognize that it puts these children and their families at risk. For example, the settlement agreement between the Westminster Public Schools and the Department of Justice should be seen as an official declaration of the need for school boards to provide access to professional interpreting and translation services.


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