A Good Read: A Doctor Empathizes with Child Translators

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 23, 2009 1 min read

Before voters in the city of Nashville rejected a proposal to make English the official language of government in that city, a Nashville physician wrote an opinion piece about what it might feel like to be a child translator for health matters. In “Children Often Caught in Translating Nightmares,” published Jan. 20 in the Tennessean, Dr. Gregory Plemmons, the medical director of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital, argued against the English-only proposal because he thought it would make it more likely that immigrant children would end up translating for family members at clinics and hospitals. (hat tip to Colorin colorado.)

Here’s how the doctor imagined a child ends up translating for a parent at a doctor’s appointment:

When you arrive at the clinic with your family, there's no one around who speaks your mom's language. It's not really a true emergency—no one's bleeding or dying. "Can you talk to the doctor for me?" Mom asks. You've never heard of a uterus, you're not sure you understand the prescription—but he said something about cancer and blood tests.

He concludes that “children often lack the vocabulary and the psychological and emotional maturity required to communicate health information.” And their translation mistakes can have serious consequences.

I wonder how policies concerning immigrants and English-language learners in this country might look different if everyone had the same ability as Mr. Plemmons to imagine himself or herself in the shoes of an immigrant child. From what I hear, it’s still not uncommon in schools for teachers to rely on children to serve as translators for meetings with parents, sometimes even to discuss the child’s own school work.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.