Children as Linguistic Mediators
Consider the impact of children’s linguistic skills for their immigrant parents. Even when young, children educated and brought up in the receiving country often have far greater skills in the new country’s language than their parents (see Portes and Hao 2002). In one crucial way, this reverses the usual skill distribution within the household. Studying Mexican immigrant households in Los Angeles, Abel Valenzuela (1999) recognized that these families typically faced urgent problems with respect to social and cultural capital. They knew little of how U. S. institutions—schools, workplaces, churches, unions, courts, and banks—functioned. Of more immediate importance, they often lacked the English language skills to negotiate with such institutions.
Children became their parents’ indispensable allies. In sixty-eight interviews, including forty-four adult heads of immigrant households and twenty-four of their now-grown children, Valenzuela drew from their recollections of past interactions. He found that children occupied three key household roles. They served first as their parents and siblings’ tutors, translating, interpreting, and teaching. Besides straightforward translation of television news or government documents, the children mediated delicate transactions between their parents and physicians, teachers, bank officials, and other authorities. Children’s second role was as advocate, intervening on behalf of their parents in complex or controversial interactions—for instance, when a public official or salesperson misunderstood or became impatient with their parents or siblings. Valenzuela’s interviews revealed a strong gender pattern; daughters assisted their parents with financial, employment, legal, and political transactions more often than their brothers did.
Following up the Valenzuela study, Marjorie Orellana, Lisa Dorner, and Lucila Pulido (2003) went directly to observation of young children (see also Orellana, Reynolds, Dorner, and Meza. 2003). They studied bilingual fifth – and sixth-grade children of Mexican and Central American immigrants in four communities— one in central Los Angeles, two in Chicago, and a fourth in Engle- ville, Illinois. Drawing on extensive interviews, participant observation in children’s homes and classrooms, and audiotaped data, Orellana and her collaborators closely documented the remarkable range of parental reliance on their children’s linguistic skills. Children, they report, intervened as translators in seven different domains:
1. Educational: for example, translate at parent-teacher conferences for themselves and/or siblings, cousins, or friends; call schools to report their own or siblings’ absences.
2. Medical/health: for example, translate at doctor’s and dentist’s offices during family visits; interpret instructions for medicine, vitamins, and other health-care products.
3. Commercial: for example, shop for or with parents; complete refund transactions, settle disputes, and check for mistakes in sales transactions.
4. Cultural/entertainment: for example, translate plot and dialogue at movies; read and translate stories, self-help guides, song lyrics, or instructional manuals.
5. Legal/state: for example, call insurance company regarding car damage or car accidents; obtain welfare or Social Security by accompanying parents to office, answering questions.
6. Financial/employment: for example, cash or deposit checks at the bank or currency exchange, or help parents fill out applications for work or for unemployment benefits.
7. Housing/residential: for example, translate between parents and landlords; talk to managers regarding things broken in the apartment. (Adapted from Orellana, Dorner, and Pulido 2003: 512-13, table 1).
Children experienced most of these linguistic encounters as no more than daily routines of family life. Some of their interventions, however, not only demanded skill but also produced considerable stress. Skill and stress coincided most often when the children mediated between their parents and formidable outsiders. Take the example of Jasmine in the medical arena:
When I was about 8-9 years old we went to the doctor because my baby brother was 1 month or so. He had to go for a check up and a doctor told (asked) my mom if she was going to give my baby brother milk from he(r) breast, but I did not know what breast meant. So I told the doctor if she could explain what breast meant. She was nice and kind and said yes of course.
She touched her breast and (I) told my mom what the doctor was saying. As far as I can remember this was the scariest translating thing I (had) ever done. I did not translate things that much this week but I did work long time ago translating stuff. Well, I felt so nervous to translate for the doctor because I thought I would not be able to understand the big words doctors use. (Orellana, Dorner, and Pulido 2003: 516)
In these circumstances, children of immigrants assume serious responsibility for their parents’ and their household’s welfare. In the process, they are not only performing fundamental services but adding to their family’s capital. Orellana, Dorner, and Pulido note that children’s knowledge of English and U. S. cultural practices enhance their families’ household reproduction. Nevertheless, as Orellana and her collaborators warn, these children sometimes resist and negotiate their obligations, while parents sometimes impose them as family duties (see also Fernandez-Kelly 2002: 198). In her study of Salvadoran immigrants in San Francisco, Menjivar often heard complaints that children had not performed as their elders expected. She recounts, for instance, Lolita Q.’s anger when her twelve-year-old nephew and translator took dangerous liberties during an interview with a legal caseworker:
To her dismay, he had portrayed her as a felon who smuggled people across the border as her main occupation. He had mistaken her political imprisonment in El Salvador for U. S. criminal incarceration, and because he had heard that his aunt tried to enter the United States more than once, he concluded that it was a routine activity. (Menjivar 2000: 215)
Lolita was unsure whether her nephew’s misinterpretation had been an innocent mistake or deliberate revenge. The day before the interview, Lolita had chided him for treating his parents disrespectfully.