Multilingualism and education

Children who help others to understand

Child translators: most of them are glad to be able to help and be appreciated for doing so  Foto: Charles Benavidez © iStockphotoChild translators: most of them are glad to be able to help and be appreciated for doing so  Foto: Charles Benavidez © iStockphotoThey explain a letter from the job centre to their father and tell their granny which tablets she has to take. When migrants with a poor knowledge of German need help, the children of the family often step into the breach to translate.

“When dealing with migrants, people have no hesitation about contravening laws and regulations simply to save money,” criticises Reinhard Pohl in his report on a project on child translators, which took place in Kiel from October 2004 to June 2005. None of the institutions approached wished to comment. That is definitely not because they had nothing to say on the matter, says Pohl. Rather, the problem is their bad conscience about “promoting child labour on the one hand” and acting illegally in dealing with doctors’ confidentiality obligations or data protection on the other. Also, peoples’ “bad conscience regarding youth protection [...] seems to play a role.” Nobody wants to talk about it.

How reliable are children’s translations?

They're performing certain translation tasks surprisingly successful  Foto: Loretta Hostettler © iStockphoto“For schoolchildren, the contents and forms of doctor-patient communication are often inevitably beyond their own range of experience and linguistic scope,” says Professor Franz Pöchhacker, a researcher on interpretation who polled staff on the subject at Viennese hospitals. The results of the survey and of the analysis of an interpreted doctor-patient dialogue were that children’s and young peoples’ inadequate translation skills can lead to comprehension problems.

In contrast, other studies provide evidence that in some cases, bilingual children are already surprisingly successful at performing certain translation tasks at primary school age. Presumably, children who interpret regularly develop their own strategies to perform this complex task. Ten-year-old Elisha, for example, who very frequently translates for her Arabic-speaking mother, paraphrases words she does not know and when translating lengthy statements she moves along from one keyword to the next. Her mother helps her by keeping her statements short and simple and letting her daughter interpret word by word.

“How does it make your father or mother look?”

When children become their parents' spokesperson ...  Foto: Loretta Hostettler © iStockphotoBut a lack of language skills is not the only reason for faulty translations. After all, how should a ten-year old girl feel when she has to accompany her mother to the gynaecologist and translate questions on menstruation and sexual matters? Or when she has to communicate a diagnosis of a serious illness to a relative? And how does a schoolchild react when he has to interpret conversations between his parents and teachers at a parents evening where they are discussing his own problems? It is understandable if children and young people translate incorrectly or incompletely, particularly in such difficult interpretation situations, on account of fear, shame or self-interest. However, if a letter from the job centre or medical instructions are not understood, or are not understood properly, the consequences may be disastrous.

Experts debate the effects on family relations when children interpret for their own parents. On the one hand, a study with young interpreters in the USA shows that the activity of interpreting opens up possibilities for communication between children and parents which strengthen mutual trust and respect, thus having a positive effect on the relationship. On the other hand, many fear that it leads to conflicts when children and young people become their parents’ spokesperson, reversing power relationships within the family. “How does it make your father and mother look when their own young child has to translate for them? What does the child think about it?” is a concern voiced by Younes Kheir, for example, who himself acted as an interpreter for his own family when he was a child and now works as an intercultural facilitator in a primary school.

Translating is fun

Some of them even enjoy translating  Foto: Charles Benavidez © iStockphotoA poll of 22 child translators in Neukölln in Berlin showed that there are indeed children who translate in difficult situations and see this as a burden or feel overtaxed by this interpretation work. The great majority of the ten to twenty-year olds polled, however, perceived the activity much less negatively. Most of them are glad to be able to help and be appreciated for doing so. And some of them even enjoy translating. Thus, almost all of them are happy to help out as voluntary interpreters as long as the subject under discussion is not too emotionally charged or linguistically too difficult and the dialogue partners show their appreciation of the interpretation work. And there should be enough time left for hobbies and chilling out.

Janna Degener
studied linguistics, ethnology and modern German literature and is a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2009

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