So you don’t speak their language? Don’t let that stop you!

In this week’s blog one of the SHIP Team’s PhD students, Annelysse Jorgenson reflects on her experience working with and interviewing participants internationally in a different language to hers, as part of her PhD study.


Annelysse Jorgenson

As you’d expect, conducting research interviews in a language you don’t speak comes with its challenges. As globalisation powers ahead however, people who can act as your interpreter, and software or services that can help with transcription and translation have never been more accessible. So why not consider the possibility of reaching participants you otherwise may not have based on language? Having recently interviewed participants in a language that I don’t speak, Portuguese, with the indispensable help from interpreters, here are a few lessons learned from my experience that may be slightly less obvious when thinking about the logistics of inter-language data collection.

Learning a few words can go a long way for both building rapport and following (kind of) what’s being said in the interview. If like me you are in the situation where you know none of the language, it is incredibly useful to learn key greetings, thank you and farewells. Your participants will greatly appreciate the effort, setting a good tone for the interview. It can also be helpful to learn “buzzwords”. No matter what language you speak, you are likely using “buzzwords” to talk about your topic area and conveniently, because these key words or phrases are shaped by the wider community within your area of study, most of them more or less directly translate to the same buzzwords in a different language. So why not use these and the fact they are used often to your advantage? By learning the translated buzzwords and listening for them, you can behaviourally engage more with the participant while they are speaking and prepare yourself for what content might have been in their answer. Obviously, you do need to wait for the interpreter’s translation for the full context before making any conclusions though!

Translation software such as Google Translate are your friend but can’t be considered as 100% accurate. You are likely going to need to communicate with your participants via email prior to and/or after data collection, and you might like to do this in their language. For these purposes, translation software does the job well enough, however there are many nuisances to every language which aren’t always captured by these types of software so don’t expect it to be perfect. Maybe consider prefacing your emails with a sentence to let the other person know you have used an auto-translator; if by chance the translation hasn’t come out the way you had intended. It’s also worth thinking about the privacy rules of the software you are using to ensure participant confidentiality and data protection is maintained. To be safe, I always made sure no identifiable participant data, including the date and time of when interviews were taking place, went through the translation software and inserted these into the email separately.

Get comfortable with not understanding what is being said. This final point wasn’t something I had personally considered at the time of my interviews but instead, is related to a question colleagues have asked me – “Wasn’t it weird not understanding the majority of what was being said?”. For me, I didn’t think twice about it but remember it is ok not to understand the other language, that’s what your interpreter is there for! It is important that you accept this fact so you aren’t distracted in the interview by any feelings of uneasiness you might have.

Collecting data with participants that speak a different language to you poses it’s own unique challenges, but the data, insight into another culture and overall experience are incredibly rewarding, and the networks it can help develop are well worth the additional logistics.

To find out more about the SHIP Team, head on to the GCU website, read the rest of our blogs and follow us on Twitter @SHIPGCU

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