Translating at an early age

By Matt Jensen, NewsNetNebraska

The United States is a meshing pot of people from different cultures and backgrounds. People who come to the United States often bring their language with them, but what do they do when they come here and don’t know English? What about the other way around? What would we do if we went to a country that didn’t speak English? A lot of us would have to rely on some way of getting a translation between the languages. That is what many immigrants here in the United States do until they learn English.

 How and why 

According to an article from the web news outlet, children often adopt the new language and culture much quicker than an older person would. said this is because the students are thrust into the culture and language right away through school. The children are submerged in it. Immigrant parents usually are not. According to, because of this, immigrant parents will use their children (sometimes as young as eight-years-old) as translators for many things including doctor’s appointments, legal situations and parent-teacher meetings.

Carlos Hernandez, a Nebraska resident who used to translate for his parents said, “I would even translate for everyday things like going to get food at a restaurant or going to the grocery store…I still do when I come home.”

Dr. Velázquez, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Modern Language professor said, “Parents will use their kids to translate because you know sometimes that is their only option.”

The parents may not have enough money to afford a translator and a translator can’t be present for everyday things like reading the mail.

 The Possible issues of children translating 

According to the article, some research shows having children translate can have negative effects. It can put too much pressure on the kids and lead to mental health issues. According to an article in the LA Times back in 2003, a Chinese immigrant from California who translated for his parents and now is a child phycologist, Leeland Yee, said he too believes translating can put too much stress on the child. In the article, Yee also said children tend to not always be the most accurate with their translations, especially in medical or legal situations. The LA Times article said Yee tried to get child translators under the age of 15 banned from translating in California for things that involved local and state government funded programs. The bill did not pass.

Studio portrait of Isabel Velazquez, Arts and Science, Assistant Professor of Modern Language. Photo by Greg Nathan, University Communications Photographer.

 The good side of children translating 

Having children translate for their parents isn’t an all bad thing. According to Dr. Isabel Velázquez, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Modern Language professor, many children can actually really benefit from translating for their parents. Dr. Velázquez said students who translate will retain their native language better as well as learning the new language. She believes retaining your native language is very important.

Dr. Velázquez said, “… it is the language of your family, the language of your identity, the language that allows you to speak with your grandparents.”

She also believes learning the new language is important so you can do everyday things.

Dr. Velázquez said, “… it is the language of employment and the language that allows you to communicate with your neighbors.”

According to Dr. Velázquez, translating improves communication skills and job skills. These skills can help the children with jobs in the future, and help them to help others with translating.

Dr. Velázquez said parents can benefit from their children translating too. According to Dr. Velázquez, parents will learn more of the new language and culture through their kids translating and explaining the new language and culture to them.

 What the government does to help with translating 

A lot of states provide translation services at government funded agencies and programs. According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Section 504 of the Rehab Act of 1973, these agencies are obligated to provide translation services to people who are not fluent in English, but the services are not mandatory. This has helped eliminate children from translating in these settings.


Immigrant parents having their children translate for them may never change, and children may not always be the best solution for translating, but there are benefits that come along with it. The important thing is kids should not feel like they have to translate, especially in situations they don’t feel comfortable in.

Because of our diversity in the United States, we will always need translators, and sometimes children are our best and only option.

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