"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Language Brokers

I am surrounded by them every day, Monday to Friday.  They are constantly calling me, emailing me, and knocking on my office door.  One of them even accosted me on campus last night while I was attending an event in the Student Commons to ask me about his cousin's visa situation.  And yet, I could never come up with a concise word or phrase to describe these dynamic individuals who are so prevalent in my life.  At last, Dr. Mazak has provided me with the perfect name:  language brokers!

As a professional in the fields of International Education and English as a Second Language, interacting with language brokers is an inevitable reality in my job.  In many ways, I could not do my job without them. As the Admissions Coordinator for the ESL program and a Designated School Office (DSO) for United States Immigration, it is imperative for me to be able to communicate with students both to obtain critical information and to keep them informed about policies and procedures.  VCU has students from over 100 nations, and it is not possible for office staff to communicate with every single person in his or her native language.  That is where the language brokers come in.  Some of them are academic advisers who work at the embassies of their respective countries, while others are professional agents, paid by the students to act on their behalf.  Still others are international students who work part-time in our office.  However, the vast majority are friends or relatives of the individuals, and many of them are by no means bilingual.  The situation is quite similar to the one that Mazak describes in her article.  Often times the language brokers only have a slightly greater understanding of the situation than those that they are assisting.  One time I actually had a whole group of language brokers (all students from our program), who came to the office with one friend who wanted to transfer to VCU.  All of the language brokers were in our beginning level class with very limited functionality in the English language, but as a group they were actually able to explain the full situation to me, helping each other when someone got stuck.

There are both pros and cons to working with language brokers.  On the negative side, the individuals that they are helping basically relinquish their agency.  Sometimes the language brokers, who are at least partially cultural insiders, make decisions on behalf of the student that do not necessarily reflect his or her wishes because they think they know better.  They also may not have access to all of the personal information needed to complete certain transactions.  This may put both parties in an awkward situation, depending on how well the language broker knows the student, and sometimes I end up getting wrong or confusing information as a result.  However, on the positive side, they provide a valuable cultural and linguistic bridge that may not otherwise be possible.

By the way, language brokers will be making an appearance in my and Carol's 1-2-3 project data.  And now I actually know what to call them!  (The phrases that I put together before were much too long and confusing.)  :-)  


  1. Wow, Rachel, this is a terrific extension of my understanding of language brokers, thank you! I can see how the language broker could position one as dependent and vulnerable. But, at least in Jacinto's case, it seems there is a balance and inter-dependency in which everyone wins. Do you think being in our highly independence-valorizing culture makes a larger system of bartering obsolete? In a way, wouldn't it be nice if we all could learn to inter-depend on each other--not just "in a pinch" but in all kinds of ongoing ways--without having to commodify and sell the services for a fee? Hannah Fingeret, in her famous study of women in NY literacy programs, showed how once the women had become "independent readers" they grew distant from their former friends and their bartering economy.
    But still, I fully appreciate the risks you are talking about. I'd love to meet some of these language brokers someday, maybe invite them to our class??? :)

  2. Rachel, thank you so much for giving us insight into this practice through your own workplace! Your office sounds like a rich learning environment.
    I have enjoyed your blogs every week and I hope you consider applying to the program. There is so much you can offer to the other students just through your own work experiences.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Muth. If you ever want to view language brokering in person, our office is the place to do it! I think that there are different levels of language brokerage (?). I have seen situations in which students have become totally dependent on language brokers and others in which they seem to band together and mutually support each other, especially from the Middle Eastern and South American cultures. I think that maybe my American bias leads me to have more negative feelings about it, because in our culture our individualism and independence is such a source of pride. I think there are a lot of things that we could learn from collectivist cultures about community and balance, and my students have really helped me to view life from a lot of different perspectives.

    Melissa, thank you for your comments! I actually did apply to the program just recently. :-) This has been an awesome class, and I have really enjoyed sharing with all of you guys.

  4. I wanted to come back to this, especially after your 1-2-3! It was VERY interesting to hear the responses you two received during your interviews, and it really gave me a new perspective on the definition of a language broker! Keep up the good work.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.