Cultural Psychology, CUSP, Research in the School

Children bridging cultural worlds

Professor Sarah Crafter from the School writes about her recently published article on children who have to interpret and translate for their parents and peers. 

A new article by Sarah Crafter and Humera Iqbal, The contact zone and dialogical positionalities in ‘non-normative’ childhoods: How children who language broker manage conflict, was drawn from data collected as part of a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project was titled ‘Child language brokering: Spaces of belonging and mediators of cultural knowledge‘. For those of you who are have spotted blog posts about my work before, you will know that child language brokers are children and young people who interpret and translate for their families, peers and others, thereby making an invaluable contribution to family life, local communities and institutions. The premise of our study was that when children language broker, they are undertaking more than just word-for-word interpretation, they are often the bridge or mediators of cultural worlds. In other words, child language brokers also enable the parties they are translating for, to understand differences in cultural knowledge, values, norms and institutional practices. 

Let me give you an example. In Kwon’s (2014) study with Korean families living in the US, she describes a situation where one of her participants had to draft a particularly challenging letter to their Landlord in order to get a leaky roof fixed. He wrote to the Landlord to say they were not going to pay the rent unless the problem was sorted out. Importantly, he researched local laws and rights for tenants, which his parents would not have been able to access because they could not speak the local language. Using his new cultural knowledge, he was able to sort the problem for his family.  

This raised a big question though, about what theoretical ideas might help to make sense of how cultural knowledge might be understood, used and negotiated during language brokering situations. To help us, we drew on the concept of the ‘contact zone’, which are the social spaces where cultures meet, are negotiated or perhaps, confrontational (Pratt, 1991). Perhaps not surprisingly, these social spaces also offer up quite a bit of potential for conflict to occur – and understanding how child language brokers handle such conflict was of particular interest to us. 

We decided to submit our paper to the journal Review of General Psychology, because this is a journal that foregrounds advancing theoretical  insights. This enabled us to think more deeply about how the concept of contact zones helped us to understanding child language broker’s responses to conflictual situations, and the different positions they took to manage those. Our empirical data was used to support and inform our theoretical ideas. 


This paper examines the processes by which different dialogical positionalities are taken in the contact zone (Hermans, 2001a, 2003; Pratt, 1991).  The contact zone provides a framework for the consideration of potential confrontations and uncertainties during intercultural contacts between migrant children, their family and another adult. The other adult is usually someone in a position of authority. For young people who language broker, managing the uncertainties and confrontations of conflictual situations highlighted three positionalities: (i) ‘conflict avoider’, (ii), ‘the neutral or passive broker’, (iii) the ‘active broker’. The contact zone was a sphere of experience that opened up possibilities for agentic action as well as constraints. The contact zone had the potential to foreground different aspects of their status such as ‘the child,’ ‘the immigrant’ or the second-language speaker. Equally, the young people took opportunities to utilise these statuses as part of their dialogical positionalities to get the best outcome for them and/or their families. We argue that further exploration of the contact zone within the framing of dialogical positionalities can enable better understanding of critical-cultural-development childhoods.  


Kwon, H. (2014). The hidden injury of class in Korean-American language brokers’ lives. Childhood, 21(1), 56-71.

Pratt, M. L. (1991). Arts of the contact zone. Profession, 33-40.

Open University readers can access the journal ‘Review of General Psychology’ in the OU library.

Read about Sarah Crafter’s work here

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