Sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community

Many people will have seen the video of the cute young girl Claire Koch singing Christmas carols and simultaneously signing the songs in American Sign Language for her deaf parents that went viral in December 2013. The general response was the feel good factor – how amazing, considerate and talented this little girl is.

Children like Claire are often referred to as ‘Children of Deaf Adults’ – Codas. This term is typically used as an overarching term for people of any age whose parents are (or were) deaf; sometimes, however, the term Koda (i.e., Kids of Deaf Adults) is used to distinguish between adults and young people.

Apart from her obviously impressive bilingual skills, the video also highlights one aspect of society that is often hidden from public view – the fact that young bilingual children often function as ‘language brokers’ for their parents or family members. What this little girl was doing was ‘brokering’ to help her parents understand a message that they would not otherwise have been able to access.

Language brokering

The term ‘brokering’ (rather than ‘interpreting’) is used specifically in relation to the experience of children assisting their parents with communication as it “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285). There is a range of research studies that have explored ‘child language brokering’ experiences with immigrant children in different countries, that reveal how children will often broker for their parents in a range of contexts, and may feel empowered and at other times burdened (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003) by the experience.

Professional sign language interpreters have, until relatively recently, traditionally been Codas (Napier, McKee & Goswell, 2010), and some will have brokered from a young age. Since the introduction of professional sign language interpreting services, people often assume that children no longer need to interpret for their deaf parents. However, based on anecdotal observation, and Jemina Napier’s preliminary research (in press) with deaf and hearing people that have deaf parents, this is not the case. Napier’s international survey of 240 deaf and hearing Codas revealed that their experience mirrors those of spoken language child brokers: many of them had brokered from as early as 4 or 5 years old, and they felt their brokering experiences contributed to their positive self-esteem.

Claire’s father was quick to clarify in a Vlog post that they do not expect their 5-year old daughter to interpret for them, and that there was in fact a professional interpreter present at the Christmas concert, but their daughter wanted her parents to watch her directly.

For many years, deaf people have asserted their right to a professional interpreter and assured themselves and others that they do not ask their children to interpret for them. Perhaps not, but the video of Claire supports Napier’s research in revealing that Codas still broker for their parents, and they may not have been asked – they volunteer.

Desire to help

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and his colleagues have produced various articles (e.g., 20112013) that indicate that toddlers and young children have a natural instinct to want to help others, and they go to great lengths to cooperate with adults. This may explain why Codas still offer to broker for their deaf parents, even when it is not required of them: the children know that their parents cannot hear what is being said, so it is a natural instinct for them to want to help their parents to understand by signing for them.

Professional signed language interpreters have traditionally ‘evolved’ from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005), but since the introduction of formal interpreter training programs anyone can choose to be a sign language interpreter (Stone, 2008) and be ‘schooled’ into the profession. Fewer Codas seem to be choosing to work as professional interpreters, or we are experiencing attrition from interpreter education programs as Codas do not complete the course of study, meaning that fewer interpreters come from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005). So what happens to the earlier ‘desire to help’ that can be seen in young Kodas?

There are still huge supply and demand imbalances in the signed language interpreting sector worldwide, so more people need to be attracted to the profession, regardless of whether they are Codas or not. Many Codas still continue to broker for their parents when they are adults, even if other professional interpreters are available, because it is the only legitimate option due to the family member being the only professional interpreter that can understand the deaf person, for example, due to onset of dementia (Major, 2013).

Plus Codas who work as professional interpreters still feel undervalued in terms of what they bring to the profession, and want to have it recognized that although they may have grown up doing language brokering, they have still worked hard to develop their professional interpreting skills (Williamson, 2012), and can “bring value” to the profession (Colonomos, 2013), but should not be automatically valorised.

Thus it is vital to explore the nature of language brokering that is performed by Codas for several reasons:

(i)  to gain a clearer picture of the interpreting needs of the Deaf community, to account for interpreting demand that may currently be ‘masked’ by the fact that supply is met by children rather than professional interpreters;

(ii) to ascertain how the Coda brokering experience can be harnessed into positive linguistic and social competence, and mentor Codas into becoming professional interpreters and translators (such as Angelelli 2010 suggests for young spoken language bilinguals); and

(iii)  to draw parallels with the experience of immigrant children to inform community interpreting policy and practice more generally for all languages in the UK, Europe and internationally.

Although Napier’s initial survey study was useful for “sketching the broad contours of the [brokering] practice” (Orellana, 2010, p.51), more research is needed to further contribute to the body of child language brokering research and explore “how adults narrate their experiences as child language brokers, and how their perspectives on their language brokering experience change as they grow from children into adults” (Bauer, 2010, p.127). Furthermore, it is also necessary to explore the language brokering experiences from the young Codas themselves, and deaf parents’ and other stakeholders perceptions of their language brokering experiences (as Cirillo & Torresi, 2010 did in Italy regarding institutional expectations with spoken language brokers). Thus further replication of spoken CLB research is needed.

The next step will be to replicate the work of Valdes et al (2003) with Latino children, and conduct a qualitative, ethnographic study involving interviews, focus groups, non-participant observations and simulated interpreting tasks to observe ‘language brokering in action’ (Orellana, 2009, 2010). This approach will enable us to examine sign language brokering experiences of Codas in more depth, and from different perspectives, and build upon the findings of Napier’s survey study.

2014 and beyond

Therefore as of 2014, Jemina Napier and her research team in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University will begin the next phase of research to explore sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. The research will build on the initial survey study, and involve focus groups with deaf parents, Codas/ Kodas, sign language interpreters and hearing service providers.

The research team includes people that represent each of the key stakeholder groups: (1) Professor Jemina Napier, who is a Coda and interpreter; (2) Clare Canton is a deaf parent of three hearing Codas and a qualified deaf interpreter, who is a PhD student on the project; and (3) Yvonne Waddell, who is a hearing (non-Coda) qualified interpreter and is also a PhD student on the project. See: https://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/ for a profile of each member of the research team, and also the BSL teaching and research team at Heriot-Watt University.

It is envisaged that the project will be carried out in collaboration with key organisations who represent the Deaf, sign language interpreting and Coda communities. It is vital to carry out this project in collaboration with the Deaf community, deaf parents and sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the communities can directly benefit from the research findings.

To see a summary of this article in International Sign click here

For more information, or to participate in the project, please contact Jemina Napier:

Email – j.napier@hw.ac.uk

Facebook – Jemina Napier

Twitter – @JeminaNapier

2 thoughts on “Sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community

  1. Pingback: PSYCHOSOCIAL WORKERS: WORKING THROUGH AN INTERPRETER - Samara

  2. Pingback: Collaboration and innovation to explore sign language brokering experiences | LifeinLINCS

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