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Considerations for Interpreting with Children

Graphic with text: Considerations for Interpreting with Children.

Interpreting situations that involve children require a range of unique considerations. Mark Rockford, GLOBO's VP of Linguistic Quality, breaks down how organizations can ensure they're accounting for the nuances involved. Keep reading to learn more: 


While children are able to pick up new languages more quickly than adults, there are millions of children in the U.S. who may not speak English well, or at all— or, they simply prefer to have information relayed to them in their native language.

These children may live in one of the 67 million households in the U.S. where their family members primarily speak a language other than English. They may also be a part of the Deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) community. 


Children of LEP Parents

Often, children are asked to translate for their parents — especially in healthcare, education, and legal settings. But these situations involve complex words that require a higher level of understanding. Children may not be able to accurately convey the necessary information and are more likely to make up a word or improvise when they do not know what something means. Children are also placed under undue pressure in these situations, as the subject matter itself may not be appropriate for the child. Imagine, for example, translating even simple health questionnaires for your parents that deal with sexual health, alcohol/drug use, or any other number of sensitive topics that are not appropriate for the child’s age or maturity level. Not to mention the likelihood of getting a truthful answer from the parent when the information must pass through their child.

In healthcare, inaccurate information can lead to serious or even fatal medical errors. A child may not even be able to grasp the potential consequences of making mistakes while interpreting.


Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Out of every 1,000 children born in the U.S., about two or three have detectable hearing loss. Children who are deaf can be born to two hearing parents, and hearing loss is more common in children with:

  • An intellectual disability
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Vision impairment
  • Some type of “syndrome” (for example, Down syndrome)

Children can also lose their hearing after an accident or injury or as a result of a medical condition. All of this may mean that English is no longer their primary language, as they may communicate principally through American Sign Language (ASL).


How Interpreting Differs for Children

Children have special needs for interpreting that can vary significantly from language support services for adults. For that reason, when interpreting for children (or using an interpreter to communicate with them) it is important to keep in mind the following:


1. Shorter Attention Spans

Children have attention spans that are dramatically shorter than most adults. This can make it more difficult for a child to focus during a conversation, especially if they cannot hear or understand what is happening around them. For this reason, telephone interpreting can pose more of a challenge and while it may be the best choice in most situations, it may not always be appropriate to leverage with children, especially younger children. Video remote interpreting or on-site interpreting may be more appropriate if there are emotional, mental health, or technical challenges that need to be overcome with the child and English-speaking professional.

Interpreters who are trained to work with children know to use short, simple sentences to help them comprehend what is happening. This can help to keep their attention for as long as possible, even in difficult or distracting situations.


2. Simpler Vocabulary

A child’s vocabulary is much more limited than that of most adults, especially in very young children. Translating complicated information to a child may not be successful unless the provider understands how to communicate effectively with a child. Since an interpreter is bound by their code of ethics to relay messages as they are given to them, they will interpret exactly what the provider is saying.  Since the interpreter cannot adjust the message for children, it means that the provider must do so.

In many situations, the speaker will need to determine the level of knowledge that a child has while communicating with them. That can be difficult to do when a situation is complicated or tense, such as during legal proceedings or emergency healthcare. It may require a certain level of trial and error where you have to explain certain words or concepts in simpler terms. It is highly recommended that the English speaker check for understanding by asking the child to repeat back what they have understood. Asking the child if they understood is not a good method, as they will often respond yes, even when they did not understand; this may be out of fear of disappointing the adult, embarrassment, or simply because they think that the adult wants them to respond affirmatively.

While non-verbal communication like sign language can be helpful to talk to children who are Deaf or hard of hearing, the child may still be learning American Sign Language (ASL) and might not be fluent yet. It's critical for your language support provider to work with qualified interpreters who can help determine the child’s communication/language level and allow you to adjust your message as needed.

It’s also important that an interpreter not try to explain something in more detail when a child doesn’t understand. Since they are only transmitting the message that was given to them, they cannot know how the speaker would explain, elaborate, or adjust the message. They may also not know the original speaker’s intent with the phrasing, content or tone of the message, which is why the interpreter maintains all of those pieces of the message. The interpreter should not try to create their own explanation, which can lead to inaccuracy, misinformation, or misunderstandings. After all, the interpreter is a professional at interpreting, and are not doctors, lawyers, psychologists, nurses, judges, insurance agents, etc. All of those professionals will craft their message in order to accomplish their professional goals and the interpreter’s role is to transmit that, not to interfere. 


3. Varying Levels of Trust and Comfort with Adults

Children may also present unique challenges to an interpreter because they are not always comfortable speaking to adults. Some children are shy and reserved, and even if they trust the adults to whom they are speaking, they may be guarded and quiet. Other children have very low levels of trust in adults or prior traumatic experiences that make them more hesitant to interact with an adult.

To effectively communicate in these situations, it helps to have an interpreter who can gain a child’s trust. The interpreter will want to introduce themself to the child and give a pre-session, explaining that their role is to interpret everything said, everything will be confidential, and ask the child if they have any questions about why they are there. 

The speaker should help to build trust through the interpreter. Some ways that adults can do this include:

  • Using a casual or informal tone
  • Avoiding very formal language
  • Using informal language or local slang that a child would easily understand
  • Remain calm and keep your tone warm and compassionate
  • Crouch or sit down so you are close to eye level with the child


4. Emotional Challenges

Children are also in the process of developing emotional maturity. Even at an older age (such as a teenager), they do not have the same capability to regulate emotions as adults. Children and teens may get angry or upset during a conversation, especially one that is stressful or tense. They may withdraw or lash out during the conversation, and the interpreter must be able to handle these situations by remaining impartial, without getting emotional themselves.


A Different Approach

Working with children requires an adjusted approach from the English-speaking professional. The interpreter, as a perfect conduit for the communication, will maintain the speaker’s tone, message, complexity (or simplicity!), allowing communication to take place and the professional to achieve their goal.


Patient-Centered Communication (at Any Age)

Health systems can boost the quality of care they provide by leaning in on the patient-centered care model and improving language access to their limited-English-speaking patients (including children). Improving language support for these patients not only increases patient satisfaction but can create more favorable health outcomes.

Discover how to improve language access and cultural competency by watching our free webinar, Connecting the Dots: Health Equity, Language Access & Cultural Competency.


Additional Resources

Additional Resources