More time spent translating for non-English speaking parents is associated with feeling burdened and feeling like parent-child roles are reversed, according to findings published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Empathy among students who translate for their parents was associated with reduced burden, role reversal, and depressive symptoms.

Immigrant parents often struggle to speak the language of the host country, leaning on the language skills of their children who serve as language brokers. These younger members of the family often act as translators for their older relatives in various situations — from doctor’s offices to parent-teacher interactions.

The psychology literature suggests that language brokering can be both beneficial and harmful for mental health. For example, while more frequent language brokering has been associated with increased depression and family conflict, it has also been associated with greater self-esteem and improved parent-child relationships.

Researchers Robert S. Weisskirch and his colleagues proposed that the psychological impact of language brokering might depend on the language broker’s feelings about their role. Those who feel good about language brokering, such as feeling high self-efficacy, will likely feel stronger empathy. Those who feel negatively about their role, perhaps perceiving it as a burden, will likely feel decreased empathy. These differential effects on empathy may then affect well-being.

“As a child of immigrants, I had to translate for my grandparents and other relatives in simple and complicated situations,” explained Weisskirch, a professor at California State University, Monterey Bay. “Even as an adult, the experience was stressful. In working with kids, I noticed that, for many children from immigrant families, translating and interpreting was commonplace, and there were few people giving voice to the experience of language brokering on these children and their families. I wanted to know more about the impact of language brokering on children and their families.”

The researchers recruited 459 university students who spoke at least one other language than English and who indicated that they sometimes translate for their parents. The students came from three different universities in California and were between the ages of 18 and 25. The majority (66.2%) were Latina/o, 24% were Asian American/Pacific Islanders, 4.6% were White, 3.7% identified as multiracial/other, and 1.5% were African American.

All students completed online questionnaires where they answered questions relating to how often they typically translate for their parents, how skilled they feel at translating for their parents, the extent that they perceive translating as a burden, and the extent that they experience parent-child role reversal when translating (e.g., “I feel more knowledgeable than my parent because I translate for him/her”). They also completed measures of empathy, anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, and somatic symptoms.

In general, the more often students translated for their parents the more they felt burdened by language brokering and the more they perceived a reversal of parent-child roles. Empathy, however, was negatively associated with feeling burdened and perceiving role reversal. It was also negatively associated with depressive symptoms and positively associated with self-efficacy at language brokering.

Next, the extent that students perceived language brokering as a burden was positively tied to depressive symptoms through reduced empathy. Additionally, the extent that students felt competent in language brokering was negatively tied to depressive symptoms through increased empathy. “With a strong sense of empathy present, the sense of burden when language brokering relating to depressive symptoms may be reduced,” Weisskirch and his team say. “Similarly, efficacy when language brokering may be more protective from depressive symptoms when empathy is present.”

Interestingly, the frequency with which students translated for their parents was unrelated to empathy. This may indicate that it is the way language brokering is experienced by the translator that supports empathy — and not how often it is practiced.

The study authors say that their findings may suggest that contributing to the family by helping them with language can help youth cope in other parts of life, through the development of empathy and the buffering of mental health symptoms.

“When individuals language broker for others, they may develop greater empathy. When language brokering, greater empathy may reduce their depressive symptoms,” Weisskirch told PsyPost.

However, the authors note that their study was cross-sectional and a next research step may be to explore how language brokering and mental health relate over time.

“There is so much that occurs during language brokering in terms of the individuals involved, culture, identity, language, power dynamics, relationships, and development to name a few,” Weisskirch said. “Research has not yet been able to account for all of these. At the same time, most research has been on Latino and Asian American youth. We need more research on other immigrant groups around the world to develop some potential universals about the experience of language brokering for youth.”

“Our research has supported the idea that the subjective experience of the language broker may be just as important or, perhaps more than, just the frequency with engaging in language brokering,” Weisskirch added. “It may not be how often one language brokers but more about how one feels about language brokering that affects the outcomes.”

The study, “How language brokering relates to empathy and psychological well-being”, was authored by Robert S. Weisskirch, Shu-Sha Angie Guan, and Vanja Lazarevic.

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