As we walked together into my ninth grade homeroom, my parents instructed me to tell them everything my teacher said. It was time for my parent-teacher conference, but my parents spoke very limited English. It was my job to translate.
“Your child is doing a really good job in school,” the teacher started.
My parents nodded and smiled, and I could tell they had understood.
From there on, though, I translated everything. It was challenging since my family had moved from Bangladesh only a year before — and I, too, was still learning English.
I had to navigate a new language and cultural differences, and try to fit into an environment that still felt foreign. On top of that, I became a “language broker” for my parents, meaning I was tasked with translating between our native language, Bangla, and English.
Though we all came to the U.S. knowing little English, I picked up the language more quickly than my parents because I was going to school and socializing in an environment where English was the dominant language. My mom, meanwhile, stayed at home to care for my younger siblings, so she didn’t have the same level of exposure to the new language. Interpreter is a role that has become second nature to me over the past five years. I have translated at school conferences and doctors’ appointments, including when my mom was pregnant and when my sister had to be rushed to the ER due to a high fever and a rash. Sometimes, when interpreting, I hold space for my mom to try to use her English, but most of the time, she relies on me to step in.
My parents have made so many sacrifices to give my sibling and me a better future, namely uprooting their lives to come to America. Translating for them feels like a way to honor their sacrifices, and it has also improved my social and communication skills. It has never felt like a burden, but it hasn’t always been easy or convenient. Most kids don’t have to think about tax filings or immigration paperwork, let alone help their parents understand it and fill it out.
I’m hardly alone. That’s because some 17.8 million U.S. children live with at least one immigrant parent, and more than half of them reside in households where parents speak limited English. Like me, many of those children are responsible for helping their families communicate, which can have benefits and drawbacks. Research published last year in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships showed that child language brokers may experience enhanced self-esteem and empathy, but the role can also add stress, cause problems at school, and leave families feeling that parent-child roles have been reversed.
It has never felt like a burden, but it hasn’t always been easy or convenient.
To better understand the phenomenon, I spoke with a friend who has been her family’s language broker since she was 8, and her family moved here from Egypt. She talked about how hard it was to translate every single word and how she worried about saying the wrong thing. One day, she accompanied her mom to her sister’s pulmonologist appointment. “The pulmonologist asked, ‘What happened to your baby?” my friend recalled. “As I was explaining the condition of my sister, the doctor asked my mom, ‘Is that what happening with your baby?’” The doctor wanted to communicate directly with her mother, but that was impossible.
I, too, have been in situations where I’ve been overwhelmed because I don’t know how to translate medical terminology into Bangla, and I didn’t want my parents to get the wrong information.
This fall, I’m heading to Haverford College, an opportunity that my parents’ sacrifices made possible. But I know the transition will be hard on my mom, especially, who has depended on me to translate for her since we came here in 2017. It won’t be easy for me either. Interpreting is sometimes hectic, but I’ve gotten used to it. Soon it will be time for my brother, who is 11, to pick up where I leave off.
Umme Orthy is a senior at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia and will be attending Haverford College in the fall. She is a Chalkbeat Student Voices fellow. Read her recent Chalkbeat essay, “In America, I experienced Islamophobia right from the start.”