Welfare servants? Child language brokers in welfare institutions – Kristina Gustafsson, Eva Norström, Petra Höglund

How to handle communication with patients and service users who do not speak the majority language is an unresolved issue for most welfare state institutions in European countries. In this post we disseminate the results of our research “Language interpreting and brokering in Swedish public service institutions”, published in issue 71 of Revista de Llengua I Dret, Journal of Language and Law, which focus on the use of non-professional interpreting conducted by children and relatives in public service institutions.

A vital question is whether the use of non-professional interpreting is a problem or an option, and why. The question might be considered controversial since in Sweden the legally supported practice is to use professional interpreters. The Administrative Procedure Act (SSB, 2017: 900§ 13) stipulates: “An authority shall use an interpreter and ensure translation of documents if necessary for the individual to be able to take advantage of their rights, when the authority has contact with someone who does not have command of the Swedish language” (SSB, 2017: 900 § 13).

Other laws such as the Social Service Act (SSB, 2001: 453) and the Health Care Act (SSB, 1982: 763) state that as far as possible care and treatment shall be conducted in consultation with the patient or service user with respect for the equal value of all human beings and for the dignity of the individual. Taken together, these laws form an obligation to assign an interpreter when non-Swedish-speaking persons are involved. Professional interpreting is provided by interpreting agencies whose services are procured by public service institutions. The role and ethics of professional interpreters are stipulated in the document Good Interpreting Practices, which states that the interpreter shall:

1. interpret everything that is said in the room
2. interpret in the first person
3. remain neutral and impartial
4. apply professional confidentiality.

Besides these principles there are additional demands on competence; e.g. language skills, high standards of performance and integrity (Gustafsson, Norström & Fioretos, 2013; Lee & Buzo, 2009; Pöchhacker & Schlesinger, 2002; Hale, 2007). However, although Sweden has this system for offering professional interpreting, it is not sufficient and does not solve existing problems of language barriers in public service settings on its own.

In our research, we asked professionals working in social services and health care how they solve language barriers with non-Swedish-speaking service users and patients. A total of 311 respondents answered and although the use of professional interpreters was the most common choice among the answers, everybody answered that they sometimes used non-professional interpreting, mostly by relatives, and including by children. In an additional qualitative study based on five group interviews with professionals and two group interviews with persons with the experience of child language brokering, we further investigated experiences and consequences of using children as brokers instead of professional interpreters.

A significant result is that there are discrepancies between how public service staff describe their use of children for interpreting and how adults with experience of language brokering as children describe their situation. From the perspective of the staff, using children is defined as a necessary evil, something happening only in simple cases, emergency situations, unscheduled meetings, or when the service user or patient prefers a relative as broker or because there are no available interpreters. It is also perceived as an act of respect to take the wishes of the parents seriously when they prefer having their children interpret (Gustafsson, Norström & Höglund, 2019: 22). The experience among adults who have served as language brokers in their childhood is different. They describe it as a full-time job that takes place at home, at public service institutions and in almost any kind of everyday situation, at the grocery store, the library or other places. They perceived it as a huge responsibility that provided them with power and pride but also made them worried about making mistakes. One explanation for this discrepancy is that public service staff have few or singular meetings with the service users while the service users may meet with several different welfare institutions every week.

If we leave these ‘inside’ experiences, and look at it from the outside, from a societal perspective, one answer to the initial question is: no, it is not a problem but an option to use children and relatives as interpreters. The definition of non-professional interpreting might even be problematic and lead to negative and unhelpful blaming of professionals as well as of parents and their children. If we look closer at the latter, parents and their children, several researchers have concluded that almost every family with migration experiences has at some time assigned a child or another family member the role of language brokering. It is therefore normal and part of the integration process for the family. From another perspective, if we turn to the professionals, the answer is: yes, it is a problem since a language broker cannot be expected to have any of the qualifications of a professional interpreter. If public service staff use children or other non-professional interpreters, they can neither be sure about the quality of the translations, nor that ethical principles are followed, e.g. impartiality and professional confidentiality. Rather, they can be sure that the child acts as advocate for the family.

From the perspective of rights, what is lost when allowing a broker is not only control, but also legal and medical security in the form of increased danger of misdiagnoses and incorrect decisions. This in turn affects public service staff, the children and their families. When parents become dependent on their children, accustomed to never being able to express themselves fully and equally in meetings with public services, and on a regular basis are exposed to unnecessary risks, it is relevant to define the situation as one of structural discrimination (Gerrish et al., 2004).

In order to make the problem of non-professional interpreting tangible for professionals working in public service settings we suggest that it is important to understand the differences between professional and non-professional interpreting, e.g. child language brokering. One way is to use different concepts where interpreting refers to what a professional interpreter does and language brokering is what a non-professional interpreter does. Hence, our conclusion is:

“Using the two concepts makes it clearer that brokering is a normal part of the migration process and must be understood as one of the integrating family’s strategies in the new society. However, brokering does not belong in public service institutions. Current legislation in Sweden makes it clear that the service provider is obliged to call for a professional interpreter when the service user does not have command of the Swedish language. This is to ensure that service users and patients receive equal treatment and that their legal and medical rights are met, as well as to protect the rights of the public service officer (Gustafsson, Norström & Höglund, 2019: 24).”

Finally, the question of professional or non-professional interpreting in public service settings has become increasingly important in Sweden. A recent Government-appointed committee of inquiry on interpreting services (SOU 2018:83) proposes an addition to the Administrative Procedure Act (2017:900) namely, to prohibit the use of children as interpreters. There are suggestions that exceptions should be allowed for simple information that cannot wait, if the information and the situation is compatible with the best interests of the child, and also if there is a risk of death, serious illness or injury, or exceptional reasons. We have reason to be sceptical of such exceptions. Our research shows that this is how staff in public services legitimise the use of children. There is no documentation of whether the situation where a child was used was a matter of simple information or an emergency, nor whether there was no possibility of reaching a professional interpreter. It can never be in the interest of the child to interpret in cases such as emergency childbirth, psychosis, police intervention or any such experience that we have documented.

Kristina Gustafsson
Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work, Linnaeus University

Eva Norström
Ph. D. Independent Researcher, Höganäs, Sweden

Petra Höglund
Research Assistant, Department of Social Work, Linnaeus University


For more information about this research, we invite you to read the paper “Language interpreting and brokering in Swedish public service institutions: the use of children for multilingual communication”, published in issue 71 of Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law.


Reference list

Gerrish, Kate, Chau, Ruby, Sobowale, Abi, & Birks, Elizabeth. (2004). Bridging the language barrier: The use of interpreters in primary care nursing. Health and Social Care in the Community, 12(5), 407-413.

Gustafsson, Kristina, Norström, Eva, & Fioretos, Ingrid. (2013). The interpreter – a cultural broker? In Christina Schäffner, Krzysztof Kredens, & Ybonne Fowler (Eds.), Critical Link 6: publications. Interpreting in a Changing Landscape (pp. 187-202). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hale, Sandra B. (2007). Community Interpreting. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Lee, Jieun & Buzo, Adrian. (2009). Community Language Interpreting – A Workbook. Sidney: The Federation Press.

Orellana, Marjorie Faulstich. (2017). Dialoguing across diffrences. The past and future language brokering research. In Rachele Antonini, Letizia Cirillo, Linda Rossato, & Ira

Torresi (Eds.), Non-professional Interpreting and Translation. State of the art and future of an emerging field of research (pp. 65-80). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pöchhacker, Franz and Miriam Shelsinger. (2008). [2002] The Interpreting Studies Reader. Abingdon and New York: Routledge Language Readers

SOU 2018:83 Att förstå och bli förstådd – ett reformerat regelverk för tolkar i talade språk[To understand and to be understood: Reformed rules for interpreting in spoken languages]. Stockholm: Fritzes offentliga publikationer.

The Health Care Act, Swedish Statute Book, 1982(763) Stat. (1982).

The Social Services Act, Swedish Statute Book, 2001(453) Stat. (2001).

The Administrative Procedure Act, Swedish Statute Book, 2017(900) Stat. (2017).

Weisskirch, Robert S. (Ed.) (2017). Language brokering in immigrant families: Theories and contexts. New York and London: Routledge.

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