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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Psychology / Raymond Buriel
Language Brokers

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 expectation.

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."

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