Dialoguing about multilingual possibilities
Here is a sample (between Richard and Magdalena) of the kind of dialogue that the recent posting about ‘doing research bi-/multi-lingually’ has stimulated.
In response to the three prompts, Magdalena identifies her fluency in Spanish and English (Q1), the fact that she not only could she use both languages in her research (Q2) but in fact “used both languages to generate data [whereas] the reading, writing and analysis I have done in English” (Q3).
R. was intrigued by M’s Q3 answer and asked: ‘Given the fact that you have some data in Spanish why is all your analysis in English? Why not use Spanish to analyse Spanish data?’. In her explanatory reply, M. raised several points, each of which R. further responded to:
M1: When I have data in Spanish I usually translate and analyse in English, because my thesis will be in English, and so will all the papers I write.
R1: So, the rationale is a pragmatic one? But what are the implications of this decision? Exactly what happens when one analyses (using one language, e.g. English) data in a different language (Spanish)? Have you reflected on this? If so, with what outcome?
M2: Still, I don’t think using Spanish for the analysis would make any difference for me.
R2: Why not? It seems highly likely to me that some ideas (e.g. themes) are more readily available in one language than another, and vice versa. Intuitively it seems illogical – and also to create a disjuncture in between data and data analysis – to mix and match in this way. It also places a big transparency burden on your translation skills strategies etc – do you discuss this in your research writing?
M3: And the truth is sometimes I have bits of data in which there’s a mixture of Spanish and English, as the research participants are EFL teachers and tend to code-switch ..”.
R3: You also say “the truth is” – so it is more complex than it first appears! To whom (in your research texts and encounters) do you admit this and reveal all? Finally, what are the implications for you of working with such code-blended data? Have you reflected upon these? With what outcome?
Picking up on these questions in a holistic way, M. wrote: “I have reflected on this, yes, and I think it is something worth discussing in the thesis. My take is that it’s not really a disjuncture but a characteristic of this particular study. In the same way as these teachers naturally code switch when they talk, I trust my ability to ‘code switch’ during generation and analysis. I think doing the analysis in Spanish would actually be more of a burden than what I do now. If I had some analysis in Spanish and some in English, how would I integrate it? I know my translation may be seen as not being trustworthy enough, but the ‘half and half’ approach seems even less trustworthy to me.”
R. also responded more holistically than point by point. He noted that, for sure, each study will have its particular characteristics (and probably be the more interesting as a result). So, if both researcher and participants trend to code-switch, then it seems authentic to go with that pattern of communication. Further, the researcher’s code-switching ability, her translation skills, her bilingual resources as it were, are all great affordances in any research process potentially. The issue for him is simply that of being transparent about them, of not glossing over them, of spending a little time reflecting on them and scrutinising them. Trusting one’s bilingual competences is fine but it does create an interesting and complex process that may be worth shining a light on. So, really, for him, it was not a Q of whether such code-switching was more or less trustworthy than a way of using data analysis in two different languages, but rather an issue of being transparent about whichever approach was used and why and what this actually involved. Thus, it’s a transparency issue more than anything else.
M. also replied as follows: “About the themes being more readily available in one language, I’m not sure I get what you mean. Do you mean [that] some themes occur more often in Spanish, e.g. Affective themes for example? I’m not sure that’s true in this case. Remember these people are teachers of English who are using English (mostly) to communicate with me and each other during the programme. I remember JE asked me why I was asking them to use English for reflection for example but I didn’t ask them. In fact, I said they could choose and it would be nice to do it in Spanish (thinking of the affective side). However, none of them chose to communicate in Spanish. Sometimes I even email in Spanish and they reply in English ….”
In reply, R. explained that this notion of being readily available was taken from the whole linguistic relativity type literature in which, with lots of caveats, it is argued that some ideas (e.g. for particular kinds of snow) are very immediately available in languages used in contexts where such fine differentiations in snow type are important unlike say English which has to resort to paraphrase to create the differentiated meanings required. The point he was making was that some ideas (some themes etc) may be readily available in say English which are not so immediately available in say Spanish and vice versa. Naturally, when coding a researcher is likely to go with readily available items so an analysis undertaken in English might produce some different themes than one undertaken in Spanish and vice versa. He spoke of an ex-MA student who actually explored this by coding her data once in English and once in Japanese and then comparing the different nuances that resulted. So, the main point as before concerns transparency and a curiosity regarding the possible implications of doing it one way rather than another …
Magdalena brought things to a close as follows: “This has been a very useful exercise. I do agree with transparency being the key issue in such explorations. Also, I am familiar with the ideas you mention re availability of themes but I’m still not sure I see this being an issue in my research. Because these teachers and I use Spanish and English interchangeably to communicate, I see themes as being more relative to our professional contexts and relationships and not so much to the language itself… Do you see my point?”