sign language brokering in deaf-hearing families

by Jemina Napier

Note: this blog is about the book Sign language brokering in deaf-hearing families (London: Palgrave), a monograph authored by Jemina Napier (2021). In this post a summary of the key themes from the book are presented.

Many people will remember the cute video that went viral in December 2013 of the 5-year old hearing girl Claire Koch who was signing Christmas songs at her school concert (see Figure 1 below). It generated a lot of discussion about whether it was appropriate that she was interpreting for her deaf parents.

Figure 1: Claire Koch signing Christmas songs at her school concert

With the push towards professionalisation of interpreting, communicating via an untrained, bilingual person has been discouraged. But Claire’s video shows it happens1. Everyday. Everywhere. This is often referred to as natural translation: a task that bilinguals naturally partake in throughout their lives.

(Side note: there was actually a professional interpreter at the concert, but Claire said she wanted to sign for her parents to include them, and her parents made it clear that they did not expect her to interpret for them.)

Child language brokering

The term child language brokering (CLB) is used to separate the intercultural mediation role performed by some bilingual children from professional interpreting, as the former often encompasses more than would be expected from interpreting from language A to language B. Research on CLB is a newly emerging field.

CLB has been found to occur in migrant and refugee families where parents are in an emergent stage of learning the language of the country that they have moved to, so the (mostly female) children do brokering in a variety of contexts including schools, banks, government offices, stores and restaurants, and doctors’ offices (see Antonini, et al, 2010; Weisskirch, 2017). Several researchers have looked at the cognitive and socio-emotional impacts on children of brokering into adulthood and have considered CLB to be a burden on children. Others have considered it an asset. Language brokers have reported having mixed feelings about their CLB experiences, and that their feelings can change over time.

Although we know that brokering does happen in deaf-hearing families, very little research to date has specifically explored CLB in deaf-hearing families – what I term sign language brokering.

Heritage signers

Hearing children with deaf parents are typically referred to as Children of Deaf Adults (Codas). I prefer the term heritage signers for children who have grown up using a sign language at home with deaf parents. Deaf people are also heritage signers, which is why I prefer this term, as I have included deaf and hearing heritage signers in my research, and the term Coda only refers to hearing people.

There have been some discussions of hearing heritage signers’ perspectives on their experience of growing up with deaf parents. This research is usually about hearing heritage signers’ bilingual-bicultural identity, which touches on their experiences of brokering (e.g. Preston, 1994). But I wanted to explore the experiences of sign language brokering (SLB) for both deaf and hearing heritage signers, as it is not only hearing children who do it. I also wanted to include the perspectives of deaf children and adults, including of deaf parents.

SLB project: Methods

For my book about SLB in deaf-hearing families where sign language is the home language, I conducted an international online survey in written English (with an overview of the survey and questions in International Sign – but respondents had to complete in English). Deaf and hearing heritage signers (n=240) from 16 different countries were recruited through network and snowball sampling using my own networks and also disseminating the survey through sign language interpreting and CODA membership organisations. I also did 11 follow-up one-to-one interviews with deaf and hearing heritage signers aged 13-55+ in Australia who had responded to the survey (conducted in English and Auslan); and focus group interviews with 17 young hearing heritage signers aged 5-15 and 10 of their deaf parents in the UK (conducted in English and BSL), who were recruited through the CODA UK & Ireland organisation. For the focus group interviews, I used vignettes presenting case studies of SLB for discussion, including the video from Claire Koch, and visual methods consisting of artwork with the children and photo elicitation with the parents. I analysed the data generated through the survey and interviews through different theoretical lenses, drawing on childhood studies, applied linguistics and sociolinguistics, interpreting studies and developmental psychology.

My findings cover three main themes: (1) Attitudes towards SLB as a gift, (2) SLB as a form of shame resilience, and (3) SLB as a form of cooperation and responsibility.

“I am who I am today because of my family”: International attitudes towards sign language brokering

Results showed that heritage signers engage in SLB from a young age and in a range of settings, thus confirming that like CLB, SLB is a mostly unseen activity in wider society, regardless of the availability of professional interpreters. There are parallels between CLB and SLB as a gendered activity, with the majority of brokers being female and brokering for their mothers, but the selection of the family language broker also seems to be dependent on the age, confidence and personality of the child. As one survey respondent commented:

“My parents and my Deaf family often say that I’m the chosen [broker], my brother, though he is fluent in spoken and sign language, he doesn’t have the ‘thing’ that I have to be broker.” (hearing, adult heritage signer)

Of all survey respondents, 32% (n=77) reported competence in at least three languages, so in addition to the spoken/written and signed languages of their own country, respondents stated they were also competent in at least one other language (either spoken/written or signed). Given that the survey was conducted in English, this may have biased this result as heritage signers who knew English in addition to other languages were more likely to respond. Only 16% (n=40) indicated that they could use a 4th language, and 7% (n=17) stated that they could use five or more languages. Eleven respondents (6 deaf, 5 hearing) stated that International Sign was part of their language profile. As it is increasingly recognised that deaf signers come from multilingual, multicultural backgrounds, and engage in multilingual, multimodal, and translingual practices that traverse spoken and signed languages, it is perhaps not surprising that this multilingual status may also be passed on to their children.

Heritage signers also have mixed feelings about their SLB experiences, and their feelings about brokering often change over time. Thus, perceptions of SLB are nuanced and multidimensional. Heritage signers feel that their SLB experiences have positively contributed to who they are today as adults and impacts positively on families. Many heritage signers continue to broker for their parents into adulthood, and 78% (166 of 214 who answered the question) stated that they work as professional sign language interpreters. Like migrant children, heritage signers’ bi/multilingualism and SLB is an asset, a form of giftedness that enabled them to develop knowledge and skills that they carry with them into their adult lives. For example, many heritage signer adult participants stated that because of their bilingualism and their brokering experience, it gave them self-confidence, interpersonal skills, empathy and world knowledge.

“My experience was just part of my life”: Language shaming and brokering

The interviews showed that there is a complex ‘shame web’ associated with SLB. Deaf parents report feelings of being stigmatised because they are deaf, and by association heritage signers experience courtesy stigma, or what Goffman suggests that people can experience as the negative impact resulting from association with a person who is marked by a stigma. Deaf parents and hearing and deaf heritage signers report feelings of shame as a consequence of the stigmatisation of deaf people, and particularly their use of sign language (‘language shaming’).

Adult heritage signers may have experienced and reacted to language shaming as children but have overcome the shame either as older children or as adults, developed ‘shame resilience’ and turned their experience of being bilingual positively to their advantage by embracing their brokering role. The younger heritage signers and deaf parents also reported experiences of language shaming, and the parents report strategies for developing shame resilience for themselves and their children. A form of shame resilience for all participants is to develop a sense of pride in using sign language and to embrace brokering. As one deaf parent participant reported:

“This has happened once with my daughter on a church trip, they put my daughter right at the front so that she could sign the songs. I couldn’t believe it, I had no idea, at the end when I asked her why she did it she said that she was proud and wanted me as her deaf mother to know and understand what was going on and then we could talk about it together. I was happy for her to do it as she decided to do it herself and I didn’t know that she was going to do it.” (Lilly, deaf mum *all names are pseudonyms)

“I can’t not help them”: Brokering as responsibility and cooperation

Children are often socialised into taking on responsibility from a young age (depending on the culture), and demonstrate a desire to help and cooperate from as young as 14 months. I found that the act of SLB typically emerges because heritage signers have a sense of distributed responsibility that comes from the desire to cooperate and be helpful to their deaf parents. SLB is just something that heritage signers do as part of family life and a way to show that they care:

“I think helping at the door that’s natural, it happens to me all the time. Somebody comes to the door, one of my kids will offer to help. If they’re chatting with their friends, they’ll offer to tell me what they’ve said. I think that’s normal.” (Madelyn, deaf mum)

However, the narratives illustrate tensions on both sides, including from heritage signers regarding when they offer and when they are asked to broker, and from deaf parents in wanting to allow their children to be helpful but feeling uncomfortable about accepting help:

“I feel it’s ok as it’s useful, and can be good for relationships, as long as they don’t overdo it. So, for parents to expect their children to interpret, no I don’t think so. But for the occasional, random thing, which is part of the relationship between parent and child, I think it’s ok as it can be a good learning experience for them as they grow up and feel motivated to interpret. Because they’re not under pressure [in those circumstances] it’s ok … And really it’s up to children if they want to, fine! It’s the same if they want to try skipping, fine! But to ask them, to demand things from them, no that’s not on. [But] there is a line, yes … it’s like when it’s an auto-response it’s ok. When they look up and can see that help is needed at that moment, then ok. And they shouldn’t offer to help too much, and parents shouldn’t ask them to do it all the time. It’s when it’s a natural response to a situation. (Kyle, deaf, adult heritage signer)

Heritage signers often ‘downplay’ SLB either because they say it is “not really interpreting” or because it only happens in low-stakes contexts like the fast-food restaurant drive-through or at the local shop (see Figure 2).

“Interpreting for my mum when we order food at the McDonald’s drive through”
(Rosa, 11, hearing heritage signer)

From both perspectives, heritage signers and deaf parents agree that there are clear boundaries around when, how and what kinds of brokering are appropriate in terms of the contexts where heritage signers broker and the responsibility they take on for brokering.

SLB as a multifaceted languaging practice

To conclude, we can see that uncovering the perspectives of deaf and hearing heritage signers and deaf parents regarding SLB practices contribute to understanding communicative practices more generally, including CLB and intercultural mediation (or interpreting). This study also contributes to our general understanding of language shaming experiences, cooperation and the desire to help when living in bilingual or multilingual families, and the nature of responsibility in families. The status of SLB is multifaceted, as there are tensions between recognising that it is a valid and valued practice alongside whether it is considered an imposition on children. There are also tensions related to assumptions about what deaf people can do communicatively and the fact that CLB is a largely invisible practice in wider society. So the role of SLB is an important relational languaging practice in deaf-hearing families, as it is regarded by deaf parents and heritage signers as something that is a natural, instinctive, cooperative responsibility offered to parents by their children. These findings mirror the experiences of CLB in migrant families. But much more research is needed to better understand SLB practice.


I would like to acknowledge the funding sources that supported this work: A Macquarie University Safety Net Grant (2012), a Heriot-Watt University School of Social Sciences Internal Research Grant (2013-2018) and 6-month sabbatical (2018) to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. Thanks to the support of key organisations who assisted in organising data collection: the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association, CODA International, the Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK, CODA UK and Ireland, and Deaf Parenting UK.

Professor Jemina Napier is Chair of Intercultural Communication and Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She is a hearing heritage signer from a multi-generational deaf family and grew up bilingually using British Sign Language and English. She now uses several sign languages. Jemina is an applied linguist who conducts linguistic, social and ethnographic explorations of direct and mediated sign language communication to inform interpreting studies, applied linguistics, and deaf studies theories. She’s on Twitter as @JeminaNapier

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