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Sign language brokering in deaf-hearing families

Some children act as ‘language brokers’ between their parents and members as minority language users and majority language users within public institutions (Antonini, et al, 2017). Children interpret for their parents in a wide range of settings, regardless of the availability of professional interpreters, and young people have mixed feelings about their experiences, sometimes feeling empowered and at other times burdened (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003). These are also the experiences of children with deaf parents, who broker between their signing deaf parents and the hearing majority who use a spoken language, and thus it can be referred to as ‘sign language brokering’. These people are often referred to as Codas (Children of Deaf Adults) (Preston, 1994), People from Deaf Families (PDFs) or heritage signers (Napier, 2021).

This presentation will give an overview of a study conducted across two groups. The study involved the use of one-to-one semi-structured interviews with 11 deaf and hearing heritage signers in Australia aged 13 – 55+, and group interviews using visual methods and vignette methodology with 17 young hearing children aged 5-15 years old who have deaf families who use sign language at home, and separately with 11 deaf parents, whereby the heritage signers and parents discussed their experiences and perceptions of sign language brokering. This presentation will give some insight into the findings from each group. Two of the key themes that emerged from the discussions centred around language shaming and brokering as a form of shame resilience, and children’s desire to cooperate and to be helpful, while also perceiving clear boundaries about what was appropriate. The deaf parents noted a tension between allowing their children to help, wanting to ask for help, and wanting their children to just be children. The findings will be discussed in relation to theoretical and practical implications for children and family's communication and the training and recruitment of sign language interpreters.


Antonini, L. Cirillo, L. Rossato & I. Torresi (Eds.). (2017). Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the art and future of an emerging field of research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Napier, J. (in press). Sign language brokering: Intercultural communication in deaf communities. London: Palgrave.

Orellana, Marjorie, Dorner, Lisa, & Pulido, Lucila. 2003. "Accessing assets: Immigrant youth’s work as family translators or “para-phrasers”. Social Problems 50: 505-524.

Napier, J. (2021). Sign language brokering in deaf-hearing families. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Preston, Paul. (1994). Mother Father Deaf: Living Between Sound and Silence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


This presentation is part of the guest lecture series Brücken bauen statt Barrieren II. Sprach- und Kulturmittlung im sozialen, medizinischen und behördlichen Bereich (Building Bridges Instead of Barriers II. Language and Cultural Mediation in the Social, Medical and Official Spheres). The lecture series focuses on the professional, human and structural challenges of community interpreting within and outside the established market as well as the possibilities of their academic exploration. Further details on the lecture series and an overview of past lectures can be found here (info in German).

Professor Jemina Napier has been Chair of Intercultural Communication in the Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK since 2013, and is currently Director of Research for the School of Social Sciences. She is an interpreter, researcher, educator and practitioner and has practiced as a sign language interpreter since 1989, working between English and BSL, Auslan or International Sign.

Jemina’s areas of expertise are in sign languages, linguistic access, interpreting and translation, linguistic and cultural diversity, linguistic and social inclusion, mediated communication, intercultural communication and multilingualism. She conducts interdisciplinary linguistic, social and ethnographic explorations of direct and mediated communication in sign languages to inform interpreting studies, applied linguistics, and deaf studies.

Speech-to-text interpreting as well as interpreting from English into International Sign will be provided for this guest lecture.

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