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.) :-)