Sign language brokering in deaf-hearing families
Updated: May 5
by Jemina Napier
Note: this blog is about the book Sign language brokering in deaf-hearing families (London: Palgrave), a monograph authored by Jemina Napier. In this post a summary of the key themes from the book are presented.
Many people will remember the cute video of the 5-year-old hearing girl Claire Koch who was signing Christmas songs at her school concert that went viral in December 2013. It generated a lot of discussion about whether it was appropriate that she was 'interpreting' for her deaf parents.
With the push towards professionalisation of interpreting, communicating via an untrained, bilingual person has been discouraged. But Claire's video shows it happens. Everyday. Everywhere. This is often referred to as natural translation: a task that bilinguals naturally partake in throughout their lives.
The term child language brokering (CLB) is used to separate the intercultural mediation role that kids do from professional interpreting, as it often encompasses more than would be expected from interpreting from language a to language B. Research on CLB is a newly emerging field.
CLB has been found to occur in migrant and refugee families where parents have little or no competency in the language of the country that they have moved to, so the (mostly female) children do brokering in a variety of contexts including schools, banks, government offices, stores and restaurants, and doctors’ offices (see Antonini, et al, 2010; Weisskirch, 2017). Several researchers have looked at the cognitive and socio-emotional impacts of brokering on children into adulthood and have considered CLB to be a burden on children. Others have considered it an asset. Language brokers have reported having mixed feelings about their CLB experiences, and that their feelings can change over time.
Although we know that brokering does happen in deaf-hearing families (Napier, 2017), very little research to date has specifically explored CLB in deaf-hearing families. Hearing children with deaf parents are typically referred to as Children of Deaf Adults (Codas). I prefer the term heritage signers - children who have grown up using a sign language at home with deaf parents. Deaf people are also heritage signers, which is why I prefer this term, as I have included deaf and hearing heritage signers in my research, and the term Coda only refers to hearing people.
There have been some discussions of hearing heritage signers' perspectives on their experience of growing up with deaf parents, usually about their bilingual-bicultural identity, which touches on their experiences of brokering (e.g. Preston, 1994). But I wanted to explore the experiences of SLB for both deaf and hearing heritage signers, as it is not only hearing kids who do it; and also to include perspectives of kids and adults, and also deaf parents themselves.
My book reports findings from a multi-country, mixed-methods study that investigated the phenomena of CLB in in deaf-hearing families where sign language is the home language, what I refer to as sign language brokering (SLB). I did an international online survey of 240 deaf and hearing heritage signers from 16 different countries, 11 one-to-one interviews with deaf and hearing heritage signers aged 13-55+ in Australia, and also did group interviews with 17 young hearing heritage signers aged 5-15 and 10 of their deaf parents in a separate group in the UK using vignette (presenting case studies of SLB for discussion, including the video from Claire Koch) and visual methods (artwork with the kids and photo elicitation with the parents). I analysed the data generated through the survey and interviews through different theoretical lenses, drawing on childhood studies, applied and sociolinguistics, interpreting studies and developmental psychology.
My findings cover three main themes:
(1) Attitudes towards SLB as a gift,
(2) SLB as a form of shame resilience and
(3) SLB as a form of cooperation and responsibility.
“I am who I am today because of my family”: International attitudes towards sign language brokering.
Results showed that heritage signers engage in SLB from a young age and in a range of settings, thus confirming that SLB is a mostly unseen activity in wider society like CLB, regardless of the availability of professional interpreters. There are parallels between CLB and SLB as a gendered activity, with the majority of brokers being female and brokering for their mother, but the selection of the family language broker also seems to be dependent on the age, confidence and personality of the child.
Heritage signers also have mixed feelings about their SLB experiences and their feelings about brokering often change over time. Thus, perceptions of SLB are also nuanced and multidimensional. Heritage signers feel that their SLB experiences have positively contributed to who they are today as adults, and impacts positively on families. Many heritage signers continue to broker for their parents into adulthood, and a large proportion also become professional sign language interpreters. SLB is an asset; a form of giftedness that enabled them to develop knowledge and skills that they would not otherwise have, that they can then go on to apply in their adult lives.
“My experience was just part of my life”: Life, shame and brokering
The interviews showed that there is a complex 'shame web' associated with SLB. Deaf parents report feelings of being stigmatised because they are deaf, and by association heritage signers experience courtesy stigma (what Goffman, 1963 suggests that people can experience as the negative impact resulting from association with a person who is marked by a stigma). Deaf parents, and hearing and deaf heritage signers report feelings of shame as a consequence of the stigmatisation, particularly at their use of sign language ('language shaming'). Adult heritage signers may have experienced and reacted to language shaming as children but have overcome the shame as adults, developed ‘shame resilience’ and turned their experience of being bilingual positively to their advantage by embracing their brokering role. The younger heritage signers and deaf parents also reported experiences of language shaming, and the parents report strategies for developing shame resilience for themselves and their children. A form of shame resilience for all participants is to develop a sense of pride in using sign language and to embrace brokering as a way to move face up to, rather than always try to conceal shame.
“I can’t not help them…”: Brokering as responsibility and cooperation
I found that the act of SLB typically emerges because heritage signers have a sense of distributed responsibility that comes from the desire to cooperate and to be helpful to their deaf parents, and that it is just something that they do as part of family life; a way to show that they care. However, the narratives illustrate tensions on both sides, from heritage signers about when they offer and when they are asked, and from deaf parents in wanting to allow their children to be helpful but feeling uncomfortable about accepting help. Heritage signers often 'downplay' SLB either because they say it is "not really interpreting" or because it only happens in low-stakes contexts like the fast-food restaurant drive-through or at the local shop. From both perspectives, heritage signers and deaf parents agree that there are clear boundaries around when, how and what kinds of brokering is appropriate in terms of the contexts where heritage signers broker and the responsibility they take on for brokering.
To conclude, we can see that uncovering the perspectives of deaf and hearing heritage signers and deaf parents on SLB practice contributes to understanding communicative practices more generally, including CLB and intercultural mediation (interpreting). This study also contributes to our general understanding of language shaming experiences, cooperation and the desire to help when living in bilingual or multilingual families; and the nature of responsibilities in families. The status of SLB is multifaceted, as there are tensions between recognising that it is a valid, and valued, practice alongside the expectations of children during childhood and whether it is considered an imposition; assumptions about what deaf people can do communicatively, and the fact that CLB is a largely invisible practice in wider society. So the role of SLB is an important relational languaging practice in deaf-hearing families as it is regarded by deaf parents and heritage signers as something that is a natural, instinctive, cooperative responsibility offered to parents by their children. These findings mirror the experiences of CLB in migrant families. But much more research is needed to better understand SLB practice.
I would like to acknowledge the funding sources that supported this work: A Macquarie University Safety Net Grant (2012); a Heriot-Watt University School of Social Sciences Internal Research Grant (2013-2018) and 6-month sabbatical (2018) to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. Thanks to the support of key organisations who assisted in organising data collection: the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association, CODA International, the Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK, CODA UK and Ireland, and Deaf Parenting UK.
1. There was actually a professional interpreter at the concert, but Claire said she wanted to sign for her parents to include them, and her parents made it clear that they did not expect her to interpret for them.
Professor Jemina Napier is Chair of Intercultural Communication and Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She is a hearing heritage signer from a multi-generational deaf family and grew up bilingually using British Sign Language and English. She now uses several sign languages. Jemina is an applied linguist who conducts linguistic, social and ethnographic explorations of direct and mediated sign language communication to inform interpreting studies, applied linguistics, and deaf studies theories. She’s on Twitter as @JeminaNapier