TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

A New Perspective

By Robert Sheppard

So, if I’m honest, the true highlight of my week in Baltimore was discovering lunch at Trinacria Foods—porchetta and roasted red pepper panino, rare little bottle of Manhattan Special, good lord!—but if we’re sticking to academics, there was one poster session in particular, by Dr. Rachel Adams Goertel, that stuck with me.

The title was ELLs as Language Brokers: What You Need to Know. It caught my eye because of its relevance to my work. I work in a community English program serving the immigrant community, and we talk a lot about linguistic isolation, that is, households in which no one over the age of 14 speaks English well.

Dr. Goertel defines language brokering as, “the act of translating and interpreting within immigrant families by children for their parents.” Initially, I thought linguistic isolation and language brokering might be nearly synonymous, but as she began to explain her work, I recognized that she was speaking in very different terms than I would have expected. In my work we discuss rates of linguistic isolation as a problem to be addressed; we speak of the limitations and burdens placed upon a family that depends on children to translate.

Dr. Goertel, however, was focused on the obverse of this relationship: what effects—positive or negative—does the responsibility of brokering have upon the child? She acknowledges that this relationship can create stress in the family and adversely affect socio-emotional health and adjustment, but she also reports that children who serve as language brokers “were significantly linked to better scores” on standardized tests, “skill in transcultural perspective-taking” and the “development of empathic concern.”

She stressed the need for more research and support for immigrant families, but this was an entirely new perspective for me. What I so often cite as a limitation, a disempowerment, can also be seen as an empowerment for a young immigrant.



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