The toll on child translators, global gender traits and more

Deputy Editor Shaoni Bhattacharya attends the online Festival of Psychology.

When immigrant children act as translators for adult family members are they being ‘parentified’, or is this a family care practice? The issue of ‘child language brokering’ was the keynote talk by Professor Sarah Crafter at the inaugural Festival of Psychology this January, hosted online by The Open University in Wales and the British Psychological Society.

Children and young people often act as translators for adult family members and their communities in the UK, as they tend to pick up English faster than adults. They may do this in situations ranging from shopping, to social work, to dealing with dentists, doctors, lawyers and housing officers. But unlike actual translators, children may change or affect messages. And the psychological literature on the effects of language brokering on children is mixed, said Crafter, a professor of cultural-developmental psychology at The Open University.

While one school of thought says this brings children and parents closer and helps bonding, the other purports negative effects – that the role-reversal brings children more tension and stress, essentially parentifying them and robbing them of their childhoods.

Crafter and colleague Dr Humera Iqbal carried out a qualitative study with immigrant teenagers aged between 13 and 16 (see also their article for us, They found the children had to navigate a range of complex issues. They were usually acting as language brokers in situations where there was a large power differential; for example, translating for their parent with an authority figure, where there was an age differential and a difference in immigration status. This would often take place in very public ‘white spaces’ where the child would be highly visible. Some of the young people they interviewed had experienced racialised microaggressions and hostility. Children drew on a range of strategies to defuse difficult situations.

While the psychological thinking on child language-brokering is mixed, Professor Crafter said: ‘You could argue that it isn’t language-brokering per se that’s the problem but the social, cultural and political histories that lead children to be the ones to do this task.’ She said the 2010 austerity measures had resulted in major cuts to translation and interpretation services, adding that some argued the Brexit referendum had additionally resulted in a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

On a very different note, Dr Joshua Payne, chair of the BPS Welsh Branch, spoke about developing non-pharmacological interventions for Parkinson’s disease. There are 145,000 people living with this neurodegenerative illness in the UK. It is characterised by a loss of dopamine in the brain, and typically treated with long-term dopamine-therapy. However, substantial side effects mean that as patients’ doses are increased, their quality of life is severely affected, and the medicines eventually have to be stopped.

If disease progression and increases in dosage could be staved off, patients might have more time with a better quality of life. So Payne (a lecturer in cognitive psychology in Wrexham) and colleagues looked at using targeted non-pharmacological interventions to help Parkinson’s patients maintain their movement, and decrease their fatigue levels to ‘reduce the reliance on medication’. They conducted a series of small pilot studies using targeted cognitive-behavioural interventions. Their early evidence suggests this might be helpful in improving movement performance and fatigue in patients.

‘It’s certainly an area people are moving towards – this idea of functional targeting of cognitive training rather than the pseudoscience of brain training that proposes general benefits by playing with some tasks, that doesn’t tend to be that effective,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Manon Jones, senior lecturer in the School of Health and Behavioural Sciences at Bangor University, spoke about remote learning in primary-aged school children in the UK. She and colleagues looked at the impacts of using their Remote Instruction of Language and Literacy (RILL) programme, and ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ teaching, on 200 children online in England and Wales during the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Synchronous teaching is similar to being in a classroom with a teacher interacting with pupils in real-time. With asynchronous teaching, the pupil views a recorded lesson.

They found the RILL programme improved language and literacy overall. Both methods – synchronous and asynchronous achieved this, being equally effective for children’s reading accuracy and spelling. But the synchronous teaching was better for the children’s fluency in word learning and speech sounds. This could be because the children could see the teacher’s mouth as they were speaking, said Dr Jones. ‘Perhaps targeted oral language skills should be taught in a face-to-face environment,’ she added. The group recommended integrated learning even beyond lockdowns as this makes education accessible to all children.

The last talk took in more global dimensions: examining gender traits across the world. What does it mean to be a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’ in the 21st century, at a time when people’s consideration of gender and what that means might have become more nuanced?

A three-year project over 62 countries is unearthing some surprising results, as well as expected ones. Associate Professor Paul Hutchings at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David discussed findings from the ‘Towards Gender Harmony Project’. For example, the team published a 2020 paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology ( looking at men’s support for gender equality across 42 countries.

‘Basically the more equality within a society the less likely the males were within that society to support future collective action [towards gender equality],’ said Professor Hutchings. He leads the Social Psychology Research Team, which is carrying out the Welsh arm of the project.

Hutchings said reasons for this might either be that the men considered that equality had been achieved and there was nothing more to do, or they might see women’s further advancement as a threat if it continues.

In terms of gender traits, females were considered as more ‘communal’ than males in studies from the 1970s and 1990s. This seems to be the case still with females rating themselves as more communal than males do in many countries. This was regardless of how egalitarian the country was.

Results from the project in Wales also seemed to reveal a disconnect between what men and women considered to be a ‘real man’. Women saw a ‘real man’ as someone who was there for them and their families, and who shared responsibility for childcare and chores. ‘The men however, saw a “real man” as someone who went out with their male friends drinking, chatting up women and who played sports such as rugby,’ said Professor Hutchings.

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