College Student Language Brokers

Weisskirch, R. S., Kim, S. Y., Zamboanga, B. L., Schwartz, S. J., Bersamin, M., & Umaña-Taylor, A. J. (2011). Cultural influences for college student language brokers. Cultural diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 17(1), 43-51.

“Language broker” is the term used to describe children from immigrant families who are placed in the role of translating written and spoken communication for their parents.  The literature on language brokers has been inconsistent in terms of the effects on identity and well-being.  Weisskirch, Kim, Zamboanga, Schwartz, Bersamin, and Umaña-Taylor (2011) suggested that language brokering may act as an acculturation strategy in that it allows the broker to retain the heritage culture as well as acquire skills needed to function successfully in the dominant culture. They proposed that ethnic socialization takes place through the process of language brokering, in that parents teach children about their heritage culture and traditions, and that this may strengthen ethnic identity.  Just how language brokering affects young adults is unclear.  The authors suggested that this age group may experience a clash between family responsibilities and pressure for individuation and autonomy. Their study surveyed a diverse group of 1,222 college students to investigate the relationship between language brokering and ethnic identity and acculturation.  The participants came from 14 different universities and were either immigrants or children of immigrants.  Frequent language brokers were found to score highest on measures of cultural heritage values (such as familism, filial piety, and communalism), ethnic identity, and acculturation, followed by infrequent language brokers and then non-language brokers. No relationship was found between frequency of language brokering and acculturative stress.  The authors concluded that language brokering may facilitate successful adaptation to multicultural societies.

Making Connections

Acculturative stress
Ethnic identity

Media Supplement

Teenager Sara Martinez produced this story, Bilingual Teen Torn Between Family Duties, for WNYC’s Radio Rookies program. Sara is not only a language broker for her parents, but looks after her younger brother, who is autistic.