Many children to take on an informal interpretation or translation role for their family

a young man speaking to two adults

It is not uncommon for refugee and asylum seeking children to take on an informal interpretation or translation role for their parents and other family members in communicating with service providers in the community. These children however, should not be expected to interpret sensitive or excessive information regarding health and social care needs that are inappropriate for their age or that the parent may want to keep confidential.

Interpreting roles can include:

  • Language translation for someone who does not speak English.
  • Sign language for a person who is hearing impaired.
  • Scribing for someone who can speak the language but cannot read or write in either their first or second language, or both.

When families migrate to a new country, children who attend school or have been learning English in their home country often acquire competence in the new language before their parents or other family members.

Adults from asylum seeking families may find it difficult to learn another language as quickly, or may not have the opportunity to develop any language skills to a higher level.

This could be due to: 

  • Being excluded from the community either socially or in terms of employment and therefore not having the opportunity to practice a new language.
  • Feeling nervous about integrating with a new community and be too fearful or shy to approach others or join community groups or language classes.
  • Being unaware that language classes are available locally.
  • Not wishing to learn a new language and integrate with the new community in order to hold on to their own culture.

Children and young people as a family interpreter

The role of interpreter can often fall to the children and young people within the family. There are a variety of situations they may have to deal with: 

  • An asylum claim.
  • Health services, including translating medical information between the health services and family members who may be chronically sick or disabled.
  • Social services, including assessments.
  • Schools, including parents' evening or enrolment at school.
  • Benefits agencies.
  • Shops and local community events. 

This role as interpreter can impact the young person in various ways: 

  • The role can cause a considerable amount of stress and tension, as well as frustration and embarrassment for the child and parent. They may worry that they are not translating correctly and that important information regarding the family’s health, well-being or asylum claim is going unnoticed.
  • The child could resent the role of interpreter or resent their parent for needing them to do it. This is particularly so if they are missing out on school or socialising with peers in order to attend appointments.
  • They can find themselves in a position of power and responsibility that could shift the family dynamic in a way that gives the child authority over the parent.
  • Tensions caused by these changing dynamics can also result in an adult feeling resentment or frustration at a perceived loss of authority within the family.

Good practice and not-good practice

It is not good practice to expect young carers to interpret for other family members, particularly when it involves someone with an illness. It also not appropriate to rely on a person, including children, with limited English for interpreting and translating assessments regarding specific or complex health issues.

It is good practice to:

  • Be aware of the impact and vulnerability of using children as interpreters and avoid using children in this role.
  • Remember that children should never be asked to interpret for a family member when it involves conveying a person’s health, social care needs, experience of torture or human rights abuse.
  • Organise a translating service, prior to the appointment, so it is available from the beginning of the appointment.
  • Avoid using community members where confidentiality may be an issue, and develop a means of checking whether the client is happy with the interpreter.
  • Use national telephone interpreting services that are approved by health and other services.
  • Arrange for the same interpreter to be present when a client has more than one appointment. This may help increase trust and improve the quality of communication.
  • Use Google translate­ so the person with care needs can keep track of their own appointments, including timing and location.
  • Be mindful of tribal and cultural conflicts (eg someone speaking the same language may be from a rival tribe or country which is at war with the client’s homeland); when considering translation services, consult with the family first to find out who would be an appropriate interpreter (gender, dialect, nationality), to ensure the needs of the individual are prioritised.
  • Provide translated information materials explaining the role of the service and the assessment process.
  • The provision of trained advocates is necessary when assisting families in accessing information and understanding service provision - it is good practice to offer help in finding advocates.
  • Where possible use bilingual advocates to help understand the cultural and medical context.
  • The use of audio and visual aids may support communication with families in addition to language specific leaflets, particularly with family members who may be illiterate.
  • Ensure that all policies, protocols and procedures are culturally inclusive and reflect the needs of refugee and asylum seeking families.

NHS support and other useful resources 

NHS England has developed principles for the provision of high quality interpreting and translation services within the NHS.

The NHS 111 phone service can provide an interpreting service in many languages.

Other useful links include: