Across the globe, as families migrate and face language barriers, children often take on the role of interpreter. Children tend to pick up new languages more easily than adults. The convenience of asking a child to interpret, however, is substantially outweighed by the risks, especially in education and health care settings.
Legal Obligation to Provide Language Tools
In the United States, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 13166 issued in 2000 require specific federal, state, and local programs to provide language services to LEP individuals.1 These laws cover nearly all healthcare and public education systems. Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act further reinforces the requirement to provide language access services in the healthcare environment. Additionally, many states require specific language assistance for students.
Especially for health care services, many providers and regulatory agencies restrict the use of children as interpreters except in extreme emergencies. For example, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act specifically prohibits the use of children as interpreters except in “emergencies to prevent imminent patient harm”. Similarly, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) prohibits the use of children as interpreters for non-emergency care. In fact, the OHA offers LEP individuals preferred language cards to show healthcare providers.2
In public school settings, children are regularly used to interpret between the school and parents. However, when requested by the LEP parent, schools must provide access to language assistance. This is true even if the child is proficient in English. The school cannot legally require a child to interpret or translate.3
In fact, a failure to provide interpretation for families and forcing families to rely on children as interpreters recently resulted in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Legal Services NYC. In New York City, around one-third of students with disabilities have parents with LEP classification.4 The lawsuit describes a “pattern and practice” of failing and refusing to provide language access services to LEP parents of students with disabilities including for communication about special education services, health risks, bullying, and other serious topics.
An Unfair Burden on Children
Children, whether they are “fluent” in English or still learning, are still children. Their vocabulary is necessarily limited by their education and life experience. No one would expect a five-year-old to understand even some of the most common language needed to interpret in a health care environment. Did you know what an “MRI” or “CAT Scan” was when you were a child? How about a “vaccine” or an “antibiotic”? Children may also be put in psychologically scarring situations when having to interpret for a parent. Should a child be the one to tell her mother that she has end-stage breast cancer and only months to live? What would happen if a child made an interpreting mistake that caused injury or death, like mistranslating medication dosage or frequency?
In the education realm, teachers and administrators must often communicate with parents about the child … and it’s not always good news. The teacher might need to discuss academic challenges, behavioral concerns, or disciplinary matters. Not only might it be challenging to openly discuss these issues in a child’s presence, but some children might also try to purposefully misinterpret to avoid getting into trouble.
When parents are forced to depend on children with command of the English language to act as interpreters in adult situations, it places an unfair burden on the child. However, many LEP parents are new to the United States and do not understand their rights. They often feel helpless and see no alternative but to use their children’s English language knowledge.
A Better Way Forward
In almost all cases, there is a legal requirement, moral imperative, or both not to use children as interpreters. Children lack the maturity, cognitively and emotionally, to manage the stress of accurately providing complex information through interpretation. Additionally, they frequently lack the linguistic skill and vocabulary needed to successfully interpret. Because of this, it is crucial to develop an effective language assistance plan for LEP parents.
Start by creating a policy in line with legal requirements that state LEP individuals have a right to interpretation and translation services and your organization does not allow child interpretation (except in emergencies). Follow your policy and hold your organization accountable when policy failures occur.
At Vocalink Global, we offer translation and interpretation services in line with legal guidelines. We support a variety of organizations, schools, government agencies, healthcare providers, and businesses with customized language solutions to meet their specific needs.
Contact us today to discuss your language needs. We’ll work together to find the best solution to keep you in legal compliance and avoid the use of child interpreters.
- LEP.gov, “Frequently Asked Questions.”
- East Oregonian, “When Children Have to Translate for Their Parents.” 2019.
- U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, “Information for LEP Parents and Guardians and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them”.
- Chalkbeat, “‘Why don’t you learn English?’: Lawsuit blasts NYC translation services for special education families.” 2019.