Bilingual students gain literacy skills as family translators

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Adriana, 14, is working on a task more challenging than her high school assignments: Her mother, an immigrant from Mexico, has asked her to translate a jury summons. When Adriana struggles with unfamiliar vocabulary, such as summons and jurado meaning jury, her mother fills in real-world savvy to help her daughter make sense of the legal document.

Translating for family members is often considered a burden on bilingual children that can distract them from schoolwork, says Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, now an education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. But her study of nearly 300 bilingual students in Chicago, including Adriana, found just the opposite was true.

Most children who serve as translators for relatives are comfortable in the role and improve their own literacy skills. In fact, students who translated for their families every day scored significantly higher on standardized tests compared to bilingual peers who rarely translated, the study found.

However, teachers often do not recognize translating skills as an opportunity to build literacy even further, Orellana explains. Encouraging parents to read to their children is generally good practice, but working immigrant parents may not have easy access to books in their native language, she observes. “Many practices that take place every day in immigrant homes have literacy value, and teachers could learn to build on these,” she says.

Orellana says scant research exists on the experiences of immigrant youth as translators, and little is known about how they learn from translating. In conducting her study, Orellana wanted to know what children do when they encounter complicated ideas, or unfamiliar vocabulary and how their parents helped them make sense of it.

Two years ago, Orellana and a team of Northwestern University researchers surveyed 280 students at one Northwest Side CPS elementary school, most of whom were bilingual, and observed 18 bilingual students at home and in class. Those students were asked to keep a journal about their translating tasks and to tape record some sessions with family members.

The 18 students were predominantly the children of Mexican immigrants; all of them spoke Spanish at home. About 80 percent of the 65,000 bilingual CPS students are Spanish-speaking. The rest speak 17 other languages.

Regardless of the language spoken, the skills children gain through translating are essentially the same, Orellana explains. “They have to make sense of words and ideas in one language and explain them in another. They have to choose words that make sense for their audiences.”

Children who were tracked in the study translated conversations ranging from parent-teacher conferences, to doctor appointments, to commercial transactions in stores and restaurants. They also translated a variety of written documents, including medical forms, greeting cards and letters, and television guides. The reading children did at home was often more challenging than their schoolwork, researchers found. “School texts carefully control vocabulary and readability levels, but ‘real world’ texts don’t come in neat grade level packages,” Orellana observes.

Active translators—children who translated daily or those who regularly served two or more relatives—performed the best on standardized tests. Compared to other students who rarely translated (about half of those surveyed), active translators scored 16 points higher in reading and 12 points higher in math on the 5th-and 6th-grade Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

They were also used to decoding a variety of difficult texts, such as bills and bank statements. According to Orellana, student translators draw on skills that are employed by good readers and writers.

Summarizing. Translating involves more than exchanging an English word for a Spanish one. Since many words and idioms in one language have no direct equivalent in another, the translator must first make sense of the information, and then interpret how to phrase it it in the second language.

To make sense of unfamiliar information in a textbook or story, good readers apply the same strategy, pausing to mentally sum up what they’ve learned.

Teachers in the study, however, often summarized textbook information and instructions for their students, rather than allowing them to figure it out for themselves.

Building Vocabulary. Searching for words in two languages makes children aware that words with similar spellings often have similar root words and meanings. For instance, the Spanish word jurado and the English word jury both come from the same Latin root— jur. To draw on students’ bilingual skills, teachers can simply ask if a new word looks or sounds like one in their native tongue.

Building background knowledge. Children often lack the life experience to make sense of the legal, medical and financial material that adults need translated. Translating then becomes a team effort where children supply their English skills and adults fill in their real-world expertise. Developing a wider knowledge base builds children’s reading comprehension.

Audience awareness. Children who translate for relatives learn how to communicate effectively with adults. They learn how to vary word choice and tone depending on who they’re speaking to. Talking to someone in the doctor’s office requires more formal diction than translating social conversations.

Reading with purpose. Because family members are depending on them, young translators are particularly resourceful and persistent in deciphering difficult texts. One girl had to translate directions on bathing a baby to her mother, and looked up the words she didn’t understand, “fussy” and “drafts,” in an English dictionary. A boy who had to translate the label on his grandmother’s medication studied the words until they made sense to him.

Teachers who do not realize the complexity of the translating that students do at home may view the child’s primary language as an obstacle to overcome rather than a resource, Orellana says.

To better draw on a child’s translating skills, teachers need to first understand it, she adds. They might ask children to bring samples of written materials they have translated at home or to keep journals describing their translating experiences, she suggests.

Some officials from the CPS Office of Language and Cultural Education say Orellana’s study raises an important issue that could be addressed by providing professional development on the subject to teachers.

However, Manual Medina, who oversees CPS bilingual education programs, was wary of burdening students with too many sensitive translating tasks, such as medical records.

But Orellana notes that there’s nothing school officials can do about that. “No matter how we feel about it, families are going to draw on their children,” she says. “Let’s work with it.”