Since Jesus and Elisa have learned some English, Cynthia mainly translates phone conversations for them.
“I can understand a little bit in person,” Elisa said, “but it’s hard through the phone.”
Cynthia, 16, is a student at Dobyns-Bennett High School and works for Pal’s Sudden Service in Kingsport. She said her parents need her to make certain phone calls they don’t think they will understand.
“My parents always have to wait until I get off school or work to make their phone calls,” Cynthia said. “The calls are credit cards or everything they call for every day.”
At the doctor
While Cynthia often helps her mom at the doctor’s office, she is not always available for the appointments. Cynthia’s brothers, Jesus, 13, and Christian, 10, help Elisa when Cynthia cannot come.
Twelve-year-old Osvaldo Morales of Kingsport, who serves as an interpreter for his mom, Juana (right), said he has helped people other than family members in a medical situation.
“I helped my mom’s friend at the hospital,” he said. “Something was wrong with her daughter so I went with them to help.”
Although having a child for an interpreter makes it possible to treat a non-English speaking patient, it can create difficulties for medical professionals. Dr. Judith Fischer, a physician with Women’s Specialty Care of Kingsport, said children translate for the parent occasionally in her office, and it slows down the examination process.
“You have to ask questions more thoroughly. It depends on the age of the child, if they can understand what I’m asking, and then their ability to translate it.” – Dr. Judith Fischer
Another challenge is the sensitivity of the medical situation. “Some things are embarrassing for parents to discuss in front of their children,” Fischer said.
Irma Garcia’s daughter Cecilia is 5 years old, and although she has started learning English, Garcia said she is too young to do much translating. When Cecilia needs to go to the doctor, though, Irma has her talk to the doctor herself.
“When I take her to the pediatrician, she asks all the questions,” Garcia said.
Translating at school
Alejandra Malfovon said she has trouble understanding the doctors, but also has difficulties at the schools her children attend. Her son, Salvador, is 12. She said sometimes she gets the feeling he might be mistranslating.
“When I meet with his teachers, Salvador says ‘It’s okay Mami,’ but their faces tell me different,” she said. “Or, ‘I’m sorry Mami, I don’t remember this part.’”
Tammie Davis, principal at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, said the school tries to avoid these situations if at all possible.
“If the family is Hispanic, we have a teacher that can act as an interpreter,” Davis said.
Learning at a young age
Most of the children start learning English when they start kindergarten. Cynthia, who came from Mexico with her family when she was 10 months old, had help from a Hispanic teacher’s aide in kindergarten.
Salvador and Osvaldo speak English even among their fellow Spanish-speakers. Alejandra Malfovon said her son Salvador is better at English than he is at Spanish because he watches cartoons and TV. His sister, 10-year-old Daisy, is good in both languages, Malfovon said.
“Daisy is fast. She speaks and understands both languages very quickly,” she said.
Learning English as an adult
While the children are learning English as they go along in school, they try to help their parents learn the language as well. Osvaldo’s parents, who work for La Carreta restaurants, come home and ask him what words they have heard mean.
“My mom always comes home from work and asks random words,” Cynthia Chavez said of her mom Elisa, who works on the assembly line at American Water Heaters in Johnson City.
Malfovon has tried taking English as a Second Language classes, but said she had to quit after she could not find a baby sitter.
“I can’t pay attention when I bring my babies,” she said. “I don’t think other people can either.”
While parents of bilingual children strive to become adequate in English, the children will continue to help them communicate when needed.
“I’ve been helping my parents ever since I can remember,” Cynthia Chavez said. “But I don’t really mind doing it.”
This originally appeared in El Nuevo Kingsport Times-News. Photo by Brianna Murphy