Family: Using Children As Interpreters

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Research shows that immigrant children learn English faster than their parents, therefore it is understandable why some parents use their children as interpreters. Parents requiring assistance might be reluctant to ask questions because they feel that their English is weak, their questions might be embarrassing, or they may not know the proper vocabulary to transfer thoughts and emotions from their native language into English.

Parents may not know that the services of a qualified interpreter are available to them, and if they do, they sometimes worry that they live in a small community where everyone knows each other and the interpreter will gossip about them.

This is an ungrounded fear. Interpreters are trained professionals. Just like counsellors, doctors and nurses they are bound by ethical principles to keep client information confidential. Clients should not fear about their private information being shared in the community.

As a counsellor I do not allow children to be used as interpreters for many reasons.

Regardless of their age, children often have a personal stake in the information being passed between the service provider and the parent . Children may be embarrassed by the information, not agree with the information or may edit the information giving their own version of the situations.

When dealing with medical concerns, domestic violence or parent and teacher meetings, using the children as interpreters puts them in a very difficult emotional situation which can have a detrimental impact on them. If the medical news is bad the child might want to protect the parent from the bad news. If there is domestic violence they will want to shield one or both of the parents. In a situation with school they might not relay the correct information from the teacher to the parent.

It is also possible that the children may withhold important information from the service provider because they do not want their family to look bad and the family may not receive appropriate care.

A doctor friend shared with me how hard it was for a fourteen year old daughter to explain in English a very common problem called ‘heart burn’ in English. In Punjabi, which the mother spoke, there are many different ways to explain this problem but translating it into English is very difficult.

Finally, when children are under stress they may not be able to keep information confidential. They might share the information with their friends, relatives, teachers or other people they trust.

The child might also feel guilty as keepers of important information and worry about the consequences. For example, if there is domestic violence the child might worry that the family is going to break up and they might lose one or both parents. Sharing ‘adult’ information with children, regardless of their age can impact a child’s emotional and mental health. They do not know how to deal with ‘adult problems’.

Children who have adult information also have new power over their parents and this creates an imbalance of power and role reversals in the family. The child can choose what information to share with the parent. The child can decide what help the parent should receive.

In addition to the reasons mentioned above, there may be cultural, religious, spiritual and moral restrictions against involving children in adult situations and discussions (e.g., sexual practices, reproductive health, substance use and abuse, and domestic violence). The majority of the social services and many of the doctors’ offices will have an interpreter for you if you make that request at the time of making your appointment.

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