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Reinterpreting interpretation


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November 24, 2011

Psychology student studies language brokering in immigrant families.

By Caitlyn Spencer

When Jaqueline Webb came to Canada from Brazil at 18, she wasn’t expecting to stay. “I came to study English, but then I met my husband, ended up getting married, and stayed here,” Webb, now 31, recalls.

Though she originally immigrated to Toronto, Webb later moved to Calgary, where she volunteered for a number of organizations and enrolled in psychology.

“For the past 5 years, I worked with special needs children, including many children of immigrant families. Often, the parents didn’t have much English, so one of their children would act as a language broker,” Webb explains. “It was fascinating, these seven- or eight-year-old kids having this essential influence.”

Language brokering, the phenomenon in which a child serves as translator for family members, was something Webb had also done for family and friends herself.

For her PURE research, Webb interviewed nine professionals who had dealt with language brokers. “There isn’t much literature covering their perspective,” she says. “It’s usually from the families’ perspectives.”

“For the first interview, I was really nervous,” Webb says. “But as we went on, it got easier. You can tell by the length of the interview.” Webb is now continuing her research for her Honours thesis, gathering data on immigrant parents who relied on their children to language broker for them in the past.

“In some situations, language brokering can be a positive experience, while in others – for instance, if a child’s grades are slipping and they are a language broker at parent-teacher interviews – it could be very negative,” Webb explains.

Webb credits her supervisor, Tom Strong, as an invaluable aid to her through the research process. Strong, an associate professor in psychology, insisted on a hands-on approach. “He wants his students to learn how to research,” Webb says. “He’ll throw something at me and say, ‘I want this done,’ and I’ll have no idea what it is, but we’ll polish it together after I try, and learn the process. It will make my future graduate work much easier.”

Besides winning a PURE grant, Webb also won a grant from the Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH) to continue her research throughout the school year. She will be presenting as part of a panel at the International Family Therapy Association’s 20th World Family Therapy Congress in Vancouver in March.

To find out how you can apply for PURE, click here.