Burden of being a mother's tongue

11th September 1998 at 01:00
The perils of letting your children do the talking, the value of homework and the pitfalls of a researcher's life featured at the British Educational Research Association conference this year. David Budge and Reva Klein conclude a two-part report.

Fluency in more than one language is always seen as a valuable asset - but it can be a heavy burden to Chinese adolescents who have to act as their parents' interpreter.

A Manchester researcher who questioned Cantonese-speaking children about their out-of-school lives found that they were not only having to act as interpreters at the doctor's and the post office but translating all their parents' business conversations.

One child said that she had to speak to insurance men, the bank manager, and even the health and safety inspector who visited the family takeaway restaurant. Another said that she dealt with her family's accountant, VAT inspectors, and the gas and electricity companies.

The problems these responsibilities create are described in a paper presented to the BERA conference in Belfast by Nigel Hall and Sylvia Sham of Manchester Metropolitan University.

One child told Sham that she had found a hospital visit particularly stressful. "It was difficult ... to translate into Chinese medical terms which I could make my mum understand. I always felt it was a big responsibility for me. She was very worried about what was wrong and if she needed to have an operation."

Another typical comment was: "The whole thing ... being an interpreter for my parents ... my family. I feel it is too much sometimes. I often ask myself why my mum and dad came to England. Why am I their No 1 daughter? I feel I am a translating machine. It is no fun at all. I have my schoolwork to do too, and helping in my parents' chippy after school."

One child experienced acute anxiety when a "big tall man" from the health and safety department visited the family takeaway. "My dad and mum could not understand what he was going on about. The man talked to me instead of my dad. I was shaking with fright. My dad told me: `Don't answer his questions because we can lose our shop and business.' Every time it is something like this. I could not sleep for nearly a week."

Children who did not appreciate the seriousness of such inspections ran a bigger risk. One child told Sham: "When the fire inspector came to our takeaway, I just translated it totally differently to my parents because it would stop them worrying about it, and then I told the fire inspector what I thought the appropriate answers were to avoid my parents getting into trouble. "

Hall and Sham speculate that: "Privacy and face are very significant in Chinese families, and this may dispose families to rely more on children within the family than to readily seek assistance from other community members when problems arose."

"Language brokering by children", by Nigel Hall and Sylvia Sham, Didsbury School of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University. Contact: 0161-247 2069 e-mail: N.Hall@mmu.ac.uk

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