The Language Brokers

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Millions of children play a vital but often overlooked role in their families, helping their parents translate everything from job applications to medical documents into their native language. These children, known as language brokers, help parents navigate a completely alien culture. 

Professor Su Yeong Kim in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences researches language brokers and is exploring the impact of the experience on children.

“One set of scholars feel that no child should be asked to do this type of activity because it’s too stressful, cognitively too demanding and too much to ask of a child,” Kim said. “This is something that has implications for the survival of the family.”

But Kim’s own experience growing up aligns with some research that finds there are benefits of being a language broker. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was 9 years old, and she helped her parents run the family dry-cleaning business, as well as tackle tasks like securing a mortgage. She says it helped her develop confidence, sharper thinking and financial skills, something the research indicates can occur.

“It really helped me have a stronger bond with my parents,” she said, “because I was helping them and because they were always relying on me.”

Kim now is conducting a long-term study in Central Texas to tease out which factors influence whether a child has a positive or negative experience being a language broker.

To hear Su Yeong Kim explain the research in her own words, listen to our podcast feature with her.