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Language brokering: When you're the only one in the house who speaks English

Anne and Mee Chiew.
From flyers to phone bills, each week Anne Chiew sits down to translate her mum's mail.

ABC RN: Fiona Pepper

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Anne Chiew's visits to her 79-year-old mother Mee are something of a ritual that play out in the same way each week.

Before dinner can be served, mum and daughter sit down at the kitchen table and methodically open all the letters that have arrived that week, and Anne translates them from English into Cantonese.

It's a role she has played since she was a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne.

Her father and mother arrived in Australia from Xinhui in China's Guangdong province in the 1960s and 70s respectively.

They quickly immersed themselves in the business world of Chinese expatriates, and there was no immediate need to master the language of their new home.

When Anne was born, it seemed the role of interpreter was one she was destined to inherit.

Even today, correspondence that seems important doesn't wait for her weekly visits. Her mother painstakingly conveys the words, letter by letter, over the phone as Anne tries to work out how to interpret them.

Mee Chiew
Mee worked long days in restaurants and never found the time to learn English.

ABC RN: Fiona Pepper

"All the mail, any forms, any newsletters from school — I would not only have to translate for them but fill out the forms for them as well," Anne says.

"Any word I didn't know I would have to look them up in the dictionary and try and work out what the hell it meant.

"I would go to the bank with them and open term deposit accounts with them standing next to me and I did all the talking. But I remember being on my tippy-toes, trying to see over the teller counter, that's how small I was still."

Big shoes for tiny people to fill

For a country of migrants such as Australia, there has been surprisingly little research done on "language brokering" — the act of translating between child and parent so common in many migrant families.

Renu Narchal, a senior lecturer in psychology at Western Sydney University, is hoping to change all that, and is conducting research on how translating during childhood affects family dynamics and what effect it has on children.

"Most children start as early as eight or nine … Very big shoes, whilst they are very tiny," she says.

"It's an obligation that immigrant children have towards their parents because they see them stressed out over little things.

"Settlement can be a difficult process in itself, so they put their hand up and they take on much of the burden."

Anne Chiew
Anne says she has acted as a translator for her parents for as long as she can remember.

ABC RN: Fiona Pepper

It's common for one sibling to act as the translator in a family. In many cases it is the eldest, and more often than not a daughter, because girls often develop verbal skills earlier than boys and there are sometimes cultural beliefs that they can be better trusted in this role.

Dr Narchal says children can be called upon to translate at the doctor, at the real estate agent, with lawyers, "all complicated stuff which is way beyond their cognitive thinking and ability".

"There is a lot of research on adult settlement issues, but the contribution that the children have made towards the settlement of their parents has not been acknowledged, particularly in the Australian context," she says.

From translating to a bigger role

Anne Chiew says for her, "translating naturally moved on to making decisions".

"I wasn't only telling mum and dad what the letter said, I was telling them what they should be doing with it and what the next steps were," she says. "This wasn't normal for an eight-year-old, right?

"They say as you get older you end up looking after your parents and the role of carer is reversed. I felt like that happened to me since I was in grade four.

"It did cause a lot of stress, because if I didn't know something I didn't know who to turn to for help. I felt responsible for them and it all rested on me."

Anne Chiew
Anne Chiew remembers standing on tiptoe at the bank so she could be seen by the teller.

ABC RN: Fiona Pepper

Dr Narchal has conducted an anonymous survey of adults about what they remember of translating as kids.

A quarter of respondents said they found the experience very difficult, and that they were often called on to miss school because of translating duties.

Some even reported they had considered quitting their own studies because of the difficulty of fulfilling this family role.

She would like to see a support organisation for children who act as translators — their experience tends to be much more positive when parents, and society at large, acknowledge their work.

The challenges of communicating adult ideas

This experience of suddenly finding yourself as a quasi-adult at a young age resonates with Anna Duthie, who emigrated with her parents from Poland in the 1980s.

She didn't speak English when she arrived in Sydney as a 12-year-old, but her immersion in a local school meant she picked up the language a lot quicker than her parents.

Her experience as a translator, however, was tempered by the fact that she was surrounded by other migrant kids who were doing the same thing for their families.

Two black-and-white photographs of an 11-year-old girl and her mother.
Anna, aged 11 and a half, with her mother, Renata Śliwińska, before they moved to Australia.

Supplied: Anna Duthie

But she vividly remembers her father venting his frustration with the bureaucracy he was trying to navigate, often with a colourful turn of phrase.

"Subconsciously I always thought that both parties could understand the languages and if I didn't translate exactly what was said then I would be found out," she says.

"It was quite interesting seeing the surprise on the adults' faces where I had to translate word for word … coming away from this situation, I remember turning red with embarrassment."

One of the issues of having children act as translators for parents, Dr Narchal says, is that sometimes they worry about relaying bad news or upsetting information.

Slightly tweaking the message in translation, can create even bigger problems for their parents. In the case of medical information, it can be downright dangerous.

A relationship like no other

In Australia, children are now no longer allowed to act as translators in a hospital setting, but it is still common for visits to the GP.

Now living on the east coast of Tasmania, Ms Duthie says she still visits her mother at least once a week to help her translate letters and fill out forms.

A woman aged in her 40s, wearing a spotted dress, stands next to her mother, with arms around each other.
Anna says translating for her mother has brought them closer together.

Supplied: Anna Duthie

It's a role she has become so used to that it was a shock to find she was no longer allowed to act as a translator for her mother when she was admitted to hospital six months ago.

"On reflection, I took it very personally because I had been doing this for the past 36 years but all of a sudden, my help was not accepted or approved of by the hospital," she says.

"It was really quite interesting. I felt hurt … I can understand why they are doing that, definitely, but to me it was quite a shock."

Ms Duthie says one of the advantages of acting as a translator for her mother for so long is that they have a much closer relationship than they might otherwise have had.

"We are very much in tune," she says. "She does ask for my advice, and she has asked for my advice since I was 12 years old … so it has definitely brought us together."

Unexpected advantages

Even Anne Chiew acknowledges that despite the difficulties, being the keeper of the English language in the family has sometimes worked in her favour.

"One instance I remember is that I wanted to spend more time playing with my friends after school, so I lied to my mum about her needing to sign me up to afterschool care so I could work on a school project with my classmates," she says.

"As usual I filled the form in for her, and all she needed to do was to sign for it.

"It's become a habit now for me to mark an x next to any line that requires a signature, because that is how mum and dad knew where to sign."

Mee and Anne Chiew
Anne says habits she developed as a child have stuck with her into adulthood.

ABC RN: Fiona Pepper