Is This Student a Translator? How the Hidden Skills of Bilingual Students Promote Literacy

Translating from English to a home language is an everyday skill in the lives of many bilingual children whose parents speak little English. Because translating often does not require professional training or numerous years of schooling, children who translate have not received the recognition for the immensely important work that they do for the good of their families. Researchers have coined a term called “language brokering” to capture the essence of what children translators do- translating, mediating, interpreting, and negotiating for their loved ones in schools, banks, hospitals, government offices, restaurants, and other diverse settings. Although there are concerns about children being language brokers for their parents, there may be hidden strengths that we (researchers, practitioners, and policy makers) aren’t fully considering.

Andrew’s journal entry

Let’s take a look at one of my bilingual students named Andrew (pseudonym) who is 10-years old, Vietnamese, and routinely translates for his family. In his journal, he describes a time he made an order at a McDonald’s drive-thru that left him “completely out of breath” because his mom did not speak much English. Even though his mom sat in the driver’s seat and was positioned to make the order, Andrew stretched over her and gave a detailed order so that they could enjoy a meal that included all the condiments. Andrew explains, “When your parents only speak your language in the USA, you might need to be a translator” and concludes with a hope that his mom “can order us a meal herself one day.”


Andrew is one of the 1.374 million “English learners” in California’s public schools. Almost 43% of California’s students speak a language other than English in their homes, and the two most spoken languages are Spanish (83.5%) and Vietnamese (2.2%).  It is not difficult to imagine that many of these students (and other bilingual students all across the United States) share Andrew’s language brokering experiences. So if we expand our understanding of language brokering, we could aid schools in meeting the challenge of assisting over a million bilingual students. Narrowing the achievement gap between bilingual students and their monolingual English-speaking peers would lead to more educated citizenship and a stronger economy.

Language brokering

Language brokering involves skills and knowledge that are rarely recognized in schools when in reality, the tasks that language brokers take on are often cognitively far above what schools ask them to do. When bilingual children mediate situations between their parents and the English-speaking community, they develop a set of cognitive, academic, social, and emotional skills that have the potential to promote and enhance their literacy learning.

Cognitive development: Language brokering is more than simply translating one word to another; children exercise negotiation and interpretation. Honing problem-solving skills also sharpens critical thinking skills, which is a central goal of formal schooling.

Academic performance: Some studies show that language brokers achieved high scores on standardized tests and that translating helped them learn English faster.

Social development: Language brokers have many adult-like experiences, which may accelerate their social development. Those who strengthened both their home language and English experienced positive social interactions with diverse members of their community.

Emotional development: Many are concerned that language brokers suffer from anxiety, depression, and stress. However, many language brokers felt proud, helpful, useful, independent, and mature. Nine first- and second- generation Latina adolescent language brokers, who mostly translated for their moms, felt that school-related issues were the most stressful brokering experiences.

Ultimately, bilingual children felt that they did not have the power to refuse their role as language brokers. While some have mixed feelings, others come to realize that translating can be empowering.

Skills required for language brokering overlap with literacy skills

Considering the skills involved in language brokering, we must keep these three principles in mind when working with bilingual students:

  1. View students’ home languages and cultures as cultural capital assets or classroom resource.
  2. Acknowledge student’s oral language capabilities and align with the Common Core State Standards.
  3. Ensure challenging, rigorous content and avoid watered-down curriculum.


Thinking back to my students’ journal entries, I see how the ways in which students describe their actions reveal their feelings of identity and self-efficacy towards this responsibility. While Andrew was confident in his skills, others felt anxious that they might be misinterpreting. The consequences for misinterpretation are too high to place on a child’s shoulders. This speaks to the complexity of language brokering. Immediate feedback from their parents, the English-speaking community, and schools play an integral role in how language brokers view themselves and their skills. Today’s reality is that it is normal for children to be exposed to many languages. More than ever, we must work towards a classroom climate of inclusivity that will equalize the academic playing field for children who have taken it upon themselves to ensure their families’ survival in a country where their home language is not the language of the community.



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  1. #1 by Ninger on September 19, 2017 - 11:27 am

    Interesting observation!

  2. #2 by Kay on September 22, 2017 - 10:19 pm

    Excellent post, Tien! It was certainly interesting to gain some insight into bilingual children’s everyday experiences. Thanks for sharing.

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