Saturday, October 1, 2022

Language Brokering and the Pandemic in Canada

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the concept and practice of child language brokering (CLB). It's the translating and interpreting done by the children in immigrant families for their elders and peers. While a good deal has been written about it in some areas, including this blog, it’s always interesting to hear about it in other places, other languages and other contexts.


The Tyee is an independent, online news magazine from the most westerly Canadian province of British Columbia. Last year it published an article about CLB in that province, in the form of interviews with adults who had grown up with CLB in Vietnamese, Chinese and Punjabi. The article is of particular interest for the light it throws on the effect of the Covid pandemic.


In Metro Vancouver, the metropolis of British Columbia, people who have no knowledge of the official Canadian languages, English and French, total about 136,000. But in terms of what language people are most comfortable speaking at home, 621,110 people exclusively speak an unofficial language. In these circumstances we can be sure there is a lot of CLB.


The following is a condensation of the Tyee article. For more, follow the reference below.


Mimi Nguyen, Vietnamese


It was Mimi Nguyen’s older sister Kim who first modelled the expectation that the children of newcomers should step in as the family’s translators. Their parents settled in East Vancouver, by a stretch of Kingsway that many other Vietnamese refugees have called home since the late-1970s. Growing up, Kim helped these families too, translating teacher’s notices so that parents could keep up with their kids’ school progress. Because Mimi was educated in Canada, it was common for her generational peers to translate for their families as soon as they learned English.

Kim once helped their mother with an English question at just five years old, with the help of a cousin on the phone and a Vietnamese-English dictionary in front of her. The well-thumbed volume is still in the family’s possession.

It wasn’t until Mimi entered her preteens that she took over helping her parents, translating at in-person appointments and interpreting documents like bank slips.

“Sometimes it would take the whole community to translate bits and pieces of a document, calling one person and another to verify words,” she said. “Nobody in our network was fluent enough to translate everything confidently, so oftentimes, people felt like they were shooting in the dark.”

Language barriers are an age-old problem for immigrants and refugees, affecting everything from housing to health care, education to employment. But the pandemic has meant there’s more to translate than ever — and there have been dire consequences for those who can’t read the vital information. Even for people who do speak English in B.C., it’s hard to keep up with official sources and sort out the bad ones. But the “infodemic” weighs more heavily on families like Nguyen’s, who don’t get translations of government information as quickly or completely compared to official languages, if at all.

Nguyen is now 25, and with her sister living out of town, she is her parents’ primary translator.

It’s a privilege to be able to access information about the pandemic, and Nguyen worries about those who don’t have the language, time or know-how. “Every single day, those inequalities are heightened even further,” she said.

Mimi Nguyen and two of her friends started Bo V Collective for Vietnamese Canadians. The group initially thought if it “translated enough information just to help people to apply for CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit], that would be enough,” Nguyen said. But there seemed to be no end to important new information related to the pandemic, from news of various lockdowns to the vaccine rollout.

Kevin Huang, Chinese

I’ve never been a full-time translator like Nguyen, but as an on-call translator for family members, I’ve had some experience regarding what happens when facing systems that don’t use your language.

Accompanying grandparents to medical appointments, we’ve always had pleasant experiences with the doctors themselves. One ophthalmologist, not a native Cantonese speaker, made an effort to learn phrases in the language such as “Is it blurry?” and “Look this way” for patients like my grandfather.

But the gatekeepers are another story. A receptionist at Broadway’s Fairmont Medical Building belittled my grandmother by asking, “No English? Really? No English?” Another time, accompanying a relative who could speak English but needed a ride to a medical appointment, the receptionist, upon seeing us approaching, angrily said, “I can’t help you! I don’t do anything for Dr. Kwon!” We were not there to see Dr. Kwon.

When it was time for my grandparents to receive their COVID-19 vaccines, my mother and I tagged along without question. We went to the Sunset Community Centre in South Vancouver, where the vast majority of the seniors were Cantonese and Punjabi speakers. Not a single one of them went without a child or grandchild to help with translation.

Kulpreet Singh and Harjeena Heer, Punjabi

Singh, the eldest of three siblings, began translating for his grandparents at age 12. He provided help as his grandfather navigated a lymphoma diagnosis and a knee replacement. Over the years, he’s noticed things like health-care workers speaking louder and more curtly to his ganspaents or ignoring them entirely in favour of speaking with him or an English-speaking family member.

With as sensitive an issue as health care, messages don’t always come across word-for-word from English to another language, said Singh. That’s why interpretations that focus on meaning, use visuals and take cultural contexts into account are important.

Harjeena Heer and volunteers at the Sikh Health Foundation have applied this to their work translating for Punjabi audiences. Heer, 20, also grew up in a household with her grandparents, and began translating for them at age seven, taking on more responsibility as she got older. She recalls, for example, helping renew passports and answering calls regarding finances.

“My grandpa had a stroke, so I went with him for all the appointments,” Heer said. “My mom would come too, but I’d do most of the translation.”

Because most of the appointments were in Surrey — where Punjabi is the most common native language after English — her grandfather was comfortable when the person behind the counter spoke Punjabi as well. He was more nervous if there was an appointment in Vancouver. But most of all, it was reassuring to hear medical information in his native language from a trusted source like his granddaughter. “It definitely made him more comfortable to hear things coming from me, especially if it was something scary, asking if it was true.”

It’s not easy for institutions to build the same kind of trust that exists on an individual level. With so many touch points, it’s easier for governments or civic entities to sour a relationship with an individual. “It can take just one time to lose that trust,” said Huang of Hua Foundation. He understands that it can take governments time to get translation services set up, and mistakes happen. But whether it’s pandemic information or neighbourhood planning, approaching large groups of the population who don’t speak the official language in their native tongue is crucial to democracy, especially in a diverse place like Vancouver. “You’re enabling community members to become citizens, to participate in the civic agenda,” Huang said.

Mimi Nguyen’s father often pops into her room to ask what words mean. One phrase he was confused about last year was “social distancing.” Nguyen tried to think of a way to explain it in a way he’d understand. It turned out the key to interpreting it for him was to compare it to “long distance.” “I saw the light go on in his eyes,” she said. “It was because he and my mom had done long distance for a while. He was in Vancouver a full year before she joined him.”

There’s a racist double standard at work, says Hua Foundation’s Huang: “Why don’t people recognize that not everyone has the opportunity and privilege to learn English? Why is that when a primary English speaker speaks an ‘ethnic language’ it’s celebrated, but for people for whom English is their second or third language, they don’t get the same credit?”

These days, Mimi Nguyen’s father can speak conversationally, but he’s shy about getting something wrong. Paperwork an d appointments have always been “suffocating” for someone in his position, he said. Over the years, he’s feared needing an official translator because of the cost, and he’s also feared having to miss work and lose out on income — a common scenario among immigrant workers during the pandemic. “Có ti con thì ăn ui mt chút đnh (Having you children gives me comfort), he told his daughter.

While relying on English-speaking family members is one solution, Nguyen said adults like her parents sometimes feel bad for burdening young people like her, and young people also worry about letting their elders down. “When I’m doing it, I get livid,” said Nguyen. “If [something’s] not accessible, I worry about people who don’t have kids at home, or if their kids are abroad. I think about what if I wasn’t born. I know kids who have planned their futures to be close to their parents because they know that this is inevitable.” It’s a big responsibility to take on, especially when her generation might already be struggling with growing up as part of a diaspora, “trying to figure out how to fit in, how to get people to accept you.”

The pandemic has been a dramatic reminder that children like her can’t do it all.



Christopher Cheung. The translator kids. The Tyee,  30 April 2021.



Mimi Nguyen. Photo by Christopher Cheung.