HumanIT Blog

How Language Brokering Shapes Professional Interpretation

May 7, 2019

Written By: By James “Jamey” Edwards


At Cloudbreak Health, we are passionate about ensuring that we deliver the highest quality of interpretation services. Much of the “heavy lifting” in this regard is performed by our Quality Assurance (“QA”) team. They train, monitor, share best practices, and improve processes, so our team is always staying ahead of the curve, handling minor issues before they become larger problems and constantly learning from our experience.

QA is more than just monitoring calls and handling complaints when and if they arise. The team also participates in and conducts research around topics that are relevant to our staff, as well as to the partners who we serve. We don’t just read about the latest and greatest trends and standards; we also help shape them. So, a member of our team recently presented at the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) with researchers from The Ohio State University and The University of Texas, Austin.

The research set out to find, among professional interpreters, how prevalent is previous experience as a language broker and how has that experience shaped interpreters. “Language broker” is a term that typically refers to children of immigrant families who are relied upon in a variety of situations to interpret and/or translate. It’s a role—often challenging—they didn’t choose but are called upon to do in the context of shopping, education, travel, and yes, healthcare.

Our video medical interpreters certainly encounter this regularly—family members of non-English speaking patients often accompany their kin to help broker the discussion in the doctor’s office. But even so, those discussions can be difficult and interpreting medical terminology requires precision and mitigation of any potential bias, which is why our interpreters are so often called upon to join these brokered conversations.

We know language brokering looms large among the populations we serve. So, the researchers conducted a survey and followed that up with a focus group to find out more about the interpreter’s brokering experience. There were a whole host of findings, but here are just a few to highlight:

  • The average age participants started brokering language was 14, though there was some variation
  • About half the participants reported brokering daily or weekly
  • Overall, positive feelings about the brokering experience were about twice as prevalent as negative ones

The findings are significant, but just as impactful can be the qualitative information shared in free form by some of the interpreters who took part in the research. Here are a few of the quotes that struck us:

“I grew up in an area … South Texas to me is a different world. I can say that because I lived there from the age of seven all the way to the age of 25. The Spanish that I spoke just a few years ago is not the Spanish that I speak nowadays because the area is very close-minded when it comes to traditions, culture, when it comes to some of the Mexican and even Mexican-American things there. … I wish I would have been exposed to more correct Spanish as a kid.”

“…as Dominicans we have a lot of Spanglish so I think there’s a struggle there of having to really push myself to learn proper Spanish.”

“…I have two different types of feelings. There was more fear then than now. I feel less scared than I did when I didn’t have training, so I think that fear is no longer [there]. And I think with the background knowledge of professional interpreting I push back when people say we don’t have [an] interpreter. I am more of an advocate now.”

“…In the preteen years I started to notice that my parents deserved more. I would see the unfairness, I would see the treatment. It would make me upset but when I think of the fact that I was only a kid, to me it was not of the magnitude that it is today as an advocate. Some providers seem to have cultural diversity training; you can see the sincerity but others you just think ‘what planet are they from?’”

Because we know that many of our current and future interpreters have some background with language brokering, these findings and insights have some implications for our training and professional development. Among the most tangible takeaways from this research:

  • Brokering can come with feelings of shame and experiences of injustice.
  • In training, there is often a focus on more standard language situations, which is understandable; but this also has the potential to introduce bias in the interpreter testing process.
  • Language brokers have keen intuitions. Current industry training sometimes focuses on suppression of these intuitions.
  • Interpreters viewed previous brokering experiences as both an advantage and a disadvantage.

So, what can we do with these insights? We can incorporate some of this thinking into ongoing instruction programs. At Cloudbreak, we are constantly revising training protocols, so we can focus more attention on developing the instincts of language brokers more appropriately. Professional development is about making our interpretation staff the best they can be, and sometimes that means providing opportunities for processing emotions and learning from their experiences. It’s one more way we are shaping the trends in language services and ensuring the highest levels of quality for the patients and families we serve.