British Columbia

These are B.C.'s translator kids, helping their immigrant families navigate Canadian life

'Translator kids' are children relied upon to provide translation services for their families, especially when their parents do not speak English.

Translator kids say Canadian institutions need to be more inclusive of non-English-, French-speaking residents

A man wearing a hat and holding a coffee cup stares into the distance.
JP Catungal and his family moved to Canada from the Philippines when he was 14. He says he ended up taking on the role of translator for his parents and other relatives from that generation. (Danielle Wong)

Harpo Mander was six years old when she started translating for her parents, who only spoke Punjabi and needed help understanding English and Canadian life. 

Mander was tasked with everything, from comprehending medical appointments to ordering take out. 

Now 26, she says the experience forced her to step into adult life early. 

"You don't have the bandwidth and you don't have the intellectual capacity to do these adult things, and yet you're being asked to do them at age five, seven, 10," she told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn. 

"It makes you a lot more mature for your age, and it makes you a lot more emotionally intelligent."

Mander is considered a 'translator kid' — children asked to be interpreters for their families from a young age.

A girl wearing a pink sweatshirt and jeans smiles for the camera
Harpo Mander is one of the many translator kids in Canada working to help their families navigate language and life in the country. (Submitted by Harpo Mander)

Daphne Tse started translating for her parents around age eight — about the time her older sister moved out. 

Now, at 26, she's still doing that work.

"It takes a lot of empathy and emotional energy that I think a lot of people don't understand," she said. 

She said public services are typically inaccessible for Canadians who don't speak English.

For example, she's currently helping her father apply for Old Age Pension. Aside from the translation, she said the technology has been challenging to navigate — and she works in the tech industry. 

"If I wasn't here, what would they have done?"

'Migrants feel like their English is not good enough'

JP Catungal says he was — and still is — a translator kid at 38.

He and his family came to Canada from the Philippines when he was 14. Although his family spoke English, they still struggled to navigate Canadian English and other aspects of Canadian society, he says, which meant he had to help.

A family smiles for the camera on Christmas.
JP Catungal, right, has translated for his parents for more than 20 years — and plans to continue as long as they're around. (The Catungal Family)

"It's not necessarily a lack of proficiency in English that requires the translation work," he said.

"My parents and a lot of migrants feel like their English is not good or good enough because it's not the right type of English that is valued or understood here. There's a kind of hierarchy of English. There's a racialization of that kind of English that they speak."

Whether it's calling the internet company, or going with your parents to get a prescription refilled: children of immigrants often have to take on extra tasks because they're the only English speakers in the family. We hear more about what it's like to be a "translator kid."

The issue, he says, is that systems in Canada — including health care, the justice system and finances — aren't built for immigrants who use the language differently, or do not speak it at all.

He's working with the Hua Foundation in Vancouver to come up with tools for institutions to deal with language barriers without having to involve children, giving adults the agency to understand and navigate those systems themselves. 

'A very convenient way to get interpretation services'

There are some companies in North America trying to alleviate the experiences of translator kids, including one called Language Line Solutions, based in California. 

The company offers translation services for more than 200 languages in seconds by phone, using professional interpreters. 

Despite their services and others, Chief Marketing Officer Suzanne Franks says she often sees children acting as translators for families.

Suzanne Franks, chief marketing officer at LanguageLine Solutions, explains how their third-party service reduces immigrant families' reliance of their children if the parents don't speak English.

"It seems to be a very convenient way to get interpretation services just to ask your child to do it," she told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko. 

"Children can often not interpret correctly, they don't have the emotional maturity and the vocabulary to handle some of these very difficult conversations," she said.

"Consequently, the parent can't ask the next best logical question and get a real understanding of what needs to happen to rectify whatever situation they're in."

Enhancing communication skills

Tse says while it was isolating for her and she felt she had to mature quickly, it was even more isolating for her parents. 

A family of four takes a selfie
Daphne Tse, second from the left, is pictured with her family. She says public services are typically inaccessible for Canadians who don't speak English. (The Tse Family)

But being a translator kid wasn't all bad, according to Mander, who says she learned how to become a strong communicator and that it made her more empathetic.

"You have to sort of test the emotions of the people that you were translating for and then also be able to understand the emotions and the frustrations of the people that you were translating on behalf of," she said.

"It did make me a well-rounded person."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson is a journalist in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

With files from CBC Radio

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