Imagine a 10-year-old explaining the intricacies of a mortgage application to their parents. Or a teenager translating a doctor's diagnosis of their grandparent’s serious illness. This is a harsh reality for the estimated 11 million children in the U.S. who act as interpreters for their families due to language barriers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While their intentions are pure, the pressure to bridge this communication gap places a heavy burden on young shoulders and creates risks for everyone involved.

It's crucial to understand that in many situations, relying on a child interpreter is not just irresponsible, it's against the law. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, specifically prohibits the use of children as interpreters in medical settings except in emergencies where a professional interpreter cannot be reached.

This legislation recognizes the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication when complex medical information is filtered through a child. Similarly, legal consultations and other sensitive situations demand a level of accuracy and nuance that children simply cannot provide.

The Prevalence of Child Interpreters

Despite the legal and ethical concerns, the reality is that millions of children still find themselves in the role of "language brokers" for their families. 

One in four children have an immigrant parent, and 21 percent of U.S. school children speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Millions of children in the U.S. act as child interpreters in situations meant for adults, including doctor's appointments, parent-teacher conferences, and legal consultations.

While some may see this as a sign of maturity or a way to help the family, the reality is far more nuanced.

The Impact on Children

Research paints a concerning picture of the impact this responsibility has on children. Studies reveal a link between children interpreting and increased stress, anxiety, and even academic challenges.  

Daphne Tse, who still translates for her parents at 26, poignantly describes the emotional toll: "It takes a lot of empathy and emotional energy that a child simply doesn’t have."


Harpo Mander, who began translating for her Punjabi-speaking parents at the age of 6, echoes this sentiment. 

"You don't have the capacity to do these adult things, and yet you're asked to do them at a young age," she said. “Children lack the emotional maturity and life experience to navigate sensitive topics like healthcare or legal matters. Explaining a diagnosis or interpreting a contract can be overwhelming for a young mind.”

The Weight of Responsibility

Beyond the emotional toll, relying on child interpreters creates a web of complications. 

Children often lack the necessary vocabulary to accurately translate complex terms, especially in technical fields like medicine or law, making the potential for misunderstandings significant.  

This not only hinders clear communication but also increases the risk of misdiagnosis, incorrect legal advice, or simply feeling unheard and misunderstood.

The dynamics within families are also negatively impacted when children take on the role of interpreters. It creates an unhealthy power imbalance, infantilizing parents and putting undue pressure on children. A parent-child relationship thrives on trust and open communication, both of which are compromised when the child becomes the interpreter of adult situations.

Furthermore, children might feel compelled to withhold or alter information to protect their parents or themselves. This lack of complete transparency can lead to breakdowns in trust and hinder effective communication within the family unit.

Importantly, professional interpreters are trained to handle sensitive and complex conversations with neutrality and professionalism. This is a stark contrast to child interpreters, who may unintentionally convey bias or misunderstand intricate details due to their limited life experience and vocabulary.

Relieving children from the language broker role removes a significant emotional and psychological burden. It prevents children from being exposed to potentially traumatic or inappropriate content for their age. Professional interpretation ensures that sensitive matters are handled by adults, preserving the child’s role within the family, and protecting their mental health.

The Risks to Organizations

Organizations that rely on child translators expose themselves to significant legal and ethical risks. Here's a breakdown of some key concerns:

  • Federal Regulations: The Affordable Care Act Section 1557 specifically prohibits the use of child interpreters in healthcare settings, except in emergencies to prevent imminent patient harm. This highlights the federal government's stance on prioritizing clear communication and protecting patient safety.
  • State and Local Laws: Many states have additional regulations restricting or prohibiting the use of child interpreters in various settings, including education, legal proceedings, and social services. These regulations aim to ensure accurate communication and protect individuals' rights.
  • Ethical Considerations: Children lack the maturity, emotional capacity, and specialized vocabulary to handle complex medical, legal, or financial situations. Their presence can create undue stress for both the child and the involved parties.
  • Potential for Misunderstandings: Relying on a child for translation can lead to crucial information being misinterpreted or omitted. This can have disastrous consequences, particularly in legal consultations, where misunderstandings can impact the outcome of a case.
  • Liability Issues: If a misunderstanding due to a child interpreter leads to a negative outcome, the organization relying on the child could face legal repercussions. This could include lawsuits for negligence or malpractice.

Using professional interpreters helps organizations comply with legal requirements. By utilizing professional interpreters, healthcare providers, schools, and financial institutions avoid the legal and ethical risks associated with using child interpreters.

Across the country, there have been lawsuits pertaining to a failure to provide professional interpretation and instead relying upon children, including actions in New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.

Beyond legal ramifications, depending on child translators can create a perception of unprofessionalism and a lack of inclusivity. Using untrained children sends a message that an organization does not have a thoughtful approach to working with a multicultural audience.

LanguageLine Can Help

LanguageLine offers professional interpretation that relieves children of the burden of being interpreters for adults. Our interpretation services are available on-demand via video or audio-only, or in person through our OnSite solution.

We invite you to contact us today for a free consultation on how our interpretation services might help your organization.