Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More American Language Brokering (cont.)

(This post has been delayed by one of the commonest of modern afflictions: computer trouble. In the end I had to go and buy a new printer. I wouldn’t mention it if it were not for the hard-copy "Getting Started" guide that came with it. It’s in 27 languages. As a result it weighs half a kilo. And that’s only the starter guide; the other manuals are on CD. A lot of work for translators of the Technical Expert kind! The English is ‘native writer’ standard, although, since it’s a Canon product, the source text may well have been in Japanese. The proofreading and printing of the languages I know are impeccable. And yet it only covers the European languages plus Arabic and Farsi, nothing East of Iran. So what was my surprise to notice that the colophon on the back cover says PRINTED IN VIETNAM.)

Language brokering (LB) is generally regarded as an activity conducted in an immigrant family setting or between family members and the community. However, LB (or something very much like it) has been observed in other settings too. In prison, for instance (see References).

But closer to the family setting is its occurrence in schools. I myself collaborated with an Ottawa, Canada, schoolteacher to describe something that had been going on in a local school where there was a large immigrant component. Now I’ve come across another paper that describes LB in school, but with a different function. In the Ottawa case, the immigrant children had formed their own corps of interpreters, and they mediated as community interpreters between children and teachers or other school staff on social, administrative or disciplinary matters. In other words, in school but outside the classroom. In this other study, the interpreters mediate in the teaching/learning process inside the classroom.
In many classrooms, like the one we focus on here, teachers possess minimal or no command of the language(s) spoken by their recent immigrant students. Thus, they rely on other students to act as language brokers to make the curriculum at least minimally accessible to new arrivals… However, classroom language brokering as seen from the point of view of the intended beneficiary, the child who does not have a sufficient command of the language of instruction to obtain full access to the curriculum without the aid of a translator, remains an unexplored area.
Here’s a sample to give you an idea of it.
Ms. J [teacher, monolingual English with a few words of Spanish]: This time you’re going to remove four toothpicks to form two squares that are equal in size, they gotta be the same size.
Little Manuel [Mexcan immigrant, newly arrived]: Ay ¿Aquí qué tenemos que hacer? ¿Copiar aquello? [What do we have to do here? Copy that?]
Nellie [bilingual student, in US schools since kindergarten]: No en éste pero en otro. [Not in this (book) but in the other (book).]
Little Manuel: Ah. Bueno, ¿en ésta qué tenemos que hacer? [Ok, in this (book) what do we have to do?]
Nellie: No más dibújalo así y luego lo dibujas así. [Just draw it like this and then you draw like this.]
Little Manuel: ¿Cuál? [Which?]
Nellie: Dibújalo así y luego lo dibujas así. [Draw it like this and then you draw like this.]
In this case a student requests the translation. No student is specifically designated by the teacher to translate, so it's all done by voluntary cooperation. Occasionally a student translates without having been requested. Infrequently the teacher herself translates a little in her inadequate Spanish, but never the course content. And occasionally there is translation failure where the teacher’s message doesn't get through to the student who needs it:
Teacher explanations of new academic content involve complex concepts that are unfamiliar both to the translator and to the beneficiary of the translation. Indeed, because the content is both unfamiliar and complex, student language brokers often lack the necessary domain-specific vocabulary in the language into which they are translating. Such domain specific scientific vocabulary provides a basis for developing scientific concepts and relationships and forms part of what students are learning for the first time in Ms. Jackson’s class. None of the students who undertook the task of translating for their peers had ever studied science in Spanish beyond the elementary school level.
None of the students had ever been taught translation.

Altogether a well-observed study of brokering and translation in yet another everyday context.


Anita Wilson (Lancaster University). ‘He wrote something rude …so I hit him’: Language and literacy brokering in prison settings. 2005. Paper to Children and Adolescents as Language Brokers, ESRC Seminar Group one-day conference, Manchester Metropolitan University, 12th March 2005. http://www.esri.mmu.ac.uk/resprojects/brokering/calb.php

Carolyn Bullock (Carleton Board of Education) and Brian Harris. Schoolchildren as community interpreters. In S. E. Carr et al. (eds.), The Critical Link: Interpreters in the Community. Papers from the 1st International Conference on Interpreting in Legal, Health and Social Settings, Geneva Park, Canada, 1-4 June 1995, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 1997, pp. 227-235.

Robert Bayley, Holly Hansen-Thomas, and Juliet Langman (U. of Texas at San Antonio). Language brokering in a middle school science class. In J. Cohen, K. T. McAlister, K. Rolstad, and J. MacSwan (eds.), ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, 2005, pp. 223-232.


  1. I liked the intro about the new printer. Nobody reads these manuals anyway. Why not have it online in any possible language and save the paper? But then again, we got to translate many manuals here on http://www.tomedes.com ...

  2. I suppose they supply the Startup Guide as hard copy because you need to refer to it before you can install the full CD manuals. It's amazing how complex a 50 euro printer-scanner can be these days. And to make it more complicated, my new netbook doesn't even have a CD drive.

    Incidentally, I've just read that IBM translates its websites in 100 languages.