This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

10 Questions: Marjorie Faulstich Orellana on the immigrant child translator

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Orellana resizedLast year, Arizona passed a highly controversial immigration law that gained nationwide attention. Professor Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, who studied the daily lives of migrant children who often serve as language and culture brokers for their families and others, asserts that Arizona’s new legislation will ultimately stigmatize these children. In her book, “Translating Childhoods:  Immigrant Youth, Language and Culture” (Rutgers University Press, 2009), Professor Faulstich Orellana addresses the complex role played by these youth, who today comprise one out of five children in the U.S. 
 
An education professor at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Faulstich Orellana sat down with writer Kathy Wyer to discuss the work of these migrant children and the potential impact of this new law.  
 
How did your interest in the work of immigrant children as translators and culture brokers for their families first take hold?
 
After I completed my dissertation, in 1995, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the community around the school where I had served as a bilingual classroom teacher from 1983 to 1993.  I worked on an ethnographic study examining children’s daily lives and experiences.  Theory guided me to view children as active contributors to social and cultural processes.  My interest in language and literacy, cultivated through graduate work, led me to see that these child translators are ubiquitous in immigrant communities, although they are largely invisible to the research world.
 
How do these bilingual children help their parents and others in this role?
 
There are so many ways. Children read and interpret written texts for their families, such as information that comes in the mail, or that is sent home from school.  They may help families fill out forms, including complex ones like credit applications. They speak for their families to teachers, doctors, lawyers, service personnel and more.  They answer the phone, make appointments, and help out in everyday encounters in stores, restaurants and other places.
 
Bookcover.What are some of the positive effects on a child who performs such services?
 
They develop social skills and learn how to deal with all kinds of people. As one young woman put it, “I became a huge ‘May I help you?’ kind of person.” They also develop language and literacy skills in both English and the home language, and cultural competencies.  I’m particularly interested in the trans-cultural competencies that youth develop as they negotiate across cultural lines and explain things to people who may operate with very different sets of values and beliefs.
 
And what are the drawbacks they may experience?
 
Much attention has gone to the burdens these experiences may place on children, and some of the situations I documented certainly seem troublesome. Children may see their families treated in racist and xenophobic ways in public encounters, and they themselves may be the ones who have to respond in those situations. This may lead them to feel responsible when their families are mistreated. These youths may also feel responsible when something goes wrong in the translations, or when their families are misunderstood.
 
Some situations are potentially traumatizing for children, especially encounters involving legal or medical matters.  For example, a child may become the translator when his father is pulled over by the police in Arizona. A young person could worry that his or her words could lead to the father’s deportation. And children may be criticized when adults feel they didn’t translate well without understanding just how complex translation tasks are.
 
What role does a child’s native culture play in his or her experience as translator?
 
Cultural values and beliefs certainly shape the experience.  In many immigrant households, children are expected to help the family and to pool their skills for the collective good. Most of the kids I worked with saw translating as “just normal,” or “just something you do to help your family.”  Language brokering may be experienced as more burdensome in cultural groups where children are not expected to contribute to the family welfare.
 
And what if the immigrant child translator is illegal and undocumented?
 
Undocumented youths may feel particularly vulnerable when translating for their families in public encounters because the very act of translating marks their families as immigrants.  Also, the stakes are so much higher; they may feel that their translation work could implicate their families, putting them at risk for deportation.
 
How might anti-immigration sentiment affect immigrant children overall?  
 
This could be a long discussion, but we might consider how children feel if they are told that the people they love are “illegal,” and that they do not belong in the only place they have ever known as home.  The effects of anti-immigrant sentiment can be both subtle and direct, and both immediate and long-term on immigrant youth and their families, as well as on native-born citizens.
 
How do you anticipate Arizona’s strict new immigration policy to affect Latinos in that state over the long-term?
 
This law will affect all Latinos, including those with full rights of citizenship. They will be affected even if the law is ultimately ruled unconstitutional, because the law gives license to the general public to point out whom they think are potential “illegals.” And many people will base their judgment on superficial, stereotyped and racialized criteria — on the way someone dresses, their skin color and language.
 
What are some of the implications of your research for teaching practice and legislative policy?
 
Whatever one might think of the work that children do as language and culture brokers, the fact is they are doing work that holds tremendous learning potential. Teachers would do well to recognize the skills involved in language brokering and help youth to leverage those skills for academic language development.
 
I have been working with a team of UCLA graduate students to design and implement a curriculum that does just this. For example, translation experiences can help youths tailor their writing for particular audiences.  The curriculum we designed is available for downloading. 
 
In terms of policy, I would argue that all legislative public policies need to be considered from the perspective of children and families, and that we should better evaluate the long-term consequences of whatever is legislated.  Unfortunately, children are conspicuously invisible in most policy discussions, although the effects on them are very real.
 
If there were one point you’d like the public to understand about children who serve as language and culture brokers, what would it be? 
 
That the children of immigrants contribute to the social good. Child language brokers make it possible for their families to live, eat, shop and sustain themselves as workers, citizens and consumers.  The entire society benefits from this invisible work that the children of immigrants do.
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