Psychology / Raymond Buriel
Inspiration often strikes at the oddest moments. For Professor Raymond
Buriel, a conversation overheard at a used car dealership in the heart
of the Los Angeles basin lit the fuse for the academic research that he
would continue to explore -- in his own work and in guided research by
Pomona students -- over the next 10 years.
Buriel, the Harry S. and Madge Rice Thatcher Professor of Psychology and
professor of Chicano studies, happened to notice a 10- or 11-year-old
boy who was translating for a father who was trying to buy a car.
What struck Buriel was the authority given to the child in representing
his father's wishes. "Deal or no deal," states Buriel, "the weight of
that transaction was there. Everything hinged on this young man. And I
thought to myself, 'Wow, here he is in the middle of this transaction,
and if it succeeds or fails, it'll be on his shoulders.'"
Known as "language brokers," children all over the nation from many
different ethnic descents are translating the English language in
conversations held at the bank, the doctor's office or other commercial
or institutional enterprises. Parents often choose one of their children
to turn to as their preferred language broker, perhaps a son whose
language skills are more developed or a daughter whose ties to the
family are traditionally stronger because of an unwritten cultural
One slightly surprising result of all these weighty linguistic
challenges is enhanced academic performance. In general, immigrant
youths who function as language brokers perform better academically and
have higher self-confidence and a more positive relationship with their
own biculturalism than their peers, says William Perez '97, who was a
language broker for his family when they arrived from El Salvador. As a
Pomona student, Perez took Buriel's initial results as the foundation of
his senior thesis project in psychology.
"When you have to negotiate with adults on an equal level, as an 11- or
12-year-old, it's not just a matter of translation," says Perez. "You
also have to express the tone and intent of your parents' interaction,
and you have to develop the necessary social skills to do so. I had
never realized that my interpersonal skills were related to my
experiences as a language broker."
Language brokering, Perez recalls, "forced me to think about developing
my own English language abilities. I remember paging through
dictionaries to look up the meanings of words and to expand my
vocabulary. When I came to this country, I had to translate even though
I was still learning the English language. It was hard, stressful at
times, but it was something that in retrospect, I feel truly helped me
with my own English language development."
Buriel's research began with a core group of students from The Claremont
Colleges, interpreters for immigrant families of Chinese, Vietnamese,
Salvadoran and Mexican descent. The group was able to reflect upon their
personal experiences, as well as process and analyze how their roles
directly affected their development. They answered questions about how
they felt as intermediaries, their contribution to their families, their
relationship with their parents and their connection to their parents'
culture. Although originally considered an annoyance and on some
occasions a case for sibling rivalry, additional stress or feelings of
resentment, their role undeniably became one of value in their lives.
Buriel's research later included Los Angeles area high school students
and middle school children. Evidence suggests that an increase in the
amount of language brokering during a child's development resulted in a
general increase in the level of biculturalism and self-efficacy.
Like Buriel, Perez -- now an assistant professor at the Claremont
Graduate University School of Educational Studies --continues his
research on immigrant youth and their psychological adjustment, focusing
on issues of acculturation, ethnic identity, biculturalism and
bilingualism. Language brokering, he says, is "enhancing the experience
of these young adults, allowing them to develop better linguistic
abilities and better social skills, a skill set that can ultimately
translate into better academic achievement."