Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Language Brokering in Germany and Australia

It's some time since we had a post on language brokering (LB), but that doesn't mean it's any less prevalent. Wherever there is migration there is language brokering. And the corollary is this: Wherever migrants have children, there is child language brokering (CLB). The children don't have to be exceptionally gifted. It follows that as the waves of migration continue, so too, in their wake, do LB and CLB
Ruaa Abu Rashid

Ruaa Abu Rashid is a Syrian girl who fled to Germany with her parents  and siblings when she was 18. When she arrived she knew no German but she soon found her way on to a language course "even though my heart sank at the thought of learning German." She travelled more than 100 km a day to  go to classes. Four years later she is now a proficient German speaker and is about to start a degree course at university. She sees herself
"as something of a spokeswoman for the whole family. She has had to translate for her parents everything from rental contracts to the strict rules governing the allotment [where they grow vegetables], as well as accompanying them to parents' evenings at her sister's school."
Besides acting as interpreter, she's also the interface between her family and German society, With regard to the latter, she
"does not shy away from talking about her frustrations, especially her encounters with unfriendly bureaucrats… the dogmatic teachers who don't like their authority being questioned, and the apparent randomness of rules. She also feels a lack of willingness to understand or at least respect her religious beliefs."
Notice the following in Ruaa's case.
* She was already 18 when she came to Germany, hardly to be considered a child. LB is far from confined to children; indeed language brokers can be any age. Many are adolescents or young adults.
* She made a deliberate and sustained effort to learn the new language. She didn't 'pick it up' as many language brokers do.
* Her functions went beyond the linguistic. Indeed the very term language broker may be misleading because it ignores the cultural aspect (for more about this, enter culture brokerimg in the Search box on the right).
* Her motivation was partly service to her family and partly to further her own ambition.
* She knew some frustration as well as satisfaction.

Anne and her mother

Now let's take a leap to the other side of the globe. An article has recently appeared about LB in Australia, and it's of particular interest because, as its author says, "For a country of migrants such as Australia, there has been surprisingly little research done on 'language brokering." There is mention, though, of research being done by Renu Narchal at West Sydney University.

The article mainly describes with photos the brokering done by two informants who are now mature women but who began brokering as children. One is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, the other is Polish. Remarkably, after several decades in Australia, they are still brokering for their mothers - which goes to show that brokers may be of any age. It also shows how their services are still needed because there are migrants who never fully master the language of the receiving country, The Chinese mother, now 79 years old, worked long days in restaurants and never found the time to learn English.

The article paints a revealing picture of brokering from childhood through adulthood. Anne, the Cantonese speaker, describes her weekly visits to her mother:
"Before dinner can be served, mum and daughter sit down at the kitchen table and methodically open all the letters that have arrived that week, and Anne translates them from English into Cantonese. It's a role she has played since she was a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne. When Anne was born, it seemed the role of interpreter was the one she was destined to inherit. Even today, correspondence that seems important doesn't  wait for her weekly visits. Her mother painstakingly conveys the words, letter by letter, over the phone as Anne tries to work out how to interpret them.
"All the mail, any forms, any newsletters from school -- I would not ony have to translate them but also fill out the forms as well. Any words I didn't know, I would have to look them up in the dictionary and try to work out what the hell they meant."
Again, the broker's duties didn't end with translation and they involved transactions well beyond what children are usually entrusted with. Anne says that for her,
"translating naturally moved on to making decisions. I would go to the bank with [my parents] and open term deposit accounts with them standing next to me and I did all the talking. But I remember being on my tippy-toes, trying to see over the teller counter, that's how small I was still… It did cause a lot of stress, because if I didn't know something I didn't know who to turn to for help. I felt responsible for them and it all rested on me."
That kind if stress is one of the downsides of CLB.

For the experiences of the Polish broker, which were similar, go to the article. The link is below.

None of the brokers desribed above received any instruction in translating. None of them is extraordinarily gifted. Their experiences from childhood and adulthood in widely separate parts of the world and their different languages entitle us to postulate that LB and CLB are social universals of Natural Translation. The story of Anne on her 'tippy-toes' reminds me that one of the observations which first led me to the Natural Translation hypothesis 40 years ago was witnessing a little Portuguese girl interpreting a form for her father at the counter of a post office in Ottawa.

Kate Connolly. Two years on, has Angela Merkel's welcome culture worked in Germany? The Guardian, 30 August 2017.  Click [here] or go to

Cathy Prior for Life Matters. When kids translate for their migrant parents. Alternative title: Language brokering: when you're the only one in the house who speaks English., 10 August 2017. Click [here] or go to

Image credits
Maria Fick, The Guardian
Fiona Pepper, ABC RN