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?”


  • Richard Fay

    Genevoix Nana (who is a doctoral researcher based at the Open University) and is connected with the Doing Research Multilingually line of activity, responds as follow to the posting above which presented the discussions between Magadalena and myself on this DRM theme:

    My attention is drawn by Magdalena’s view starting where she says “I have reflected on this, yes…” in response to Richard’s third question. In relation to this, I would say that analysing and reporting research in one language rather than another is all about the ‘linguistic mind frame’ of the researcher and his or her affiliated research institution. There have been moments, when writing up my research, where I imaged myself writing it in French and I would then, somehow, try to convince myself that I could not do it in that language. In my opinion, the problem of been able to report in one language rather than the other starts with the coining of the research topic in a particular language, the elaboration of research questions in that language and mainly reviewing the literature in that language. When all this is done, the researcher’s ‘linguistic mind’ is set for research to proceed in that particular language and this gives him/her the impression that it may be difficult for the same research to be conducted and mostly written in a different language. Also, there are other issues such as ‘academic competence or proficiency’ in a given language that one my not necessarily have in one’s mother tongue even though interviews may be conducted in the latter. Again, this brings us back to the issue of translation where some researchers even though they may have access to knwoledge in the source language will rather prefer the translated version in order to remain in the lingusitic world of their research. However, there have been some problems with quoting translated versions of works which may not always reflect the right meaning of the original or may even be a distorsion of the original meaning in the source language.

    In another posting (which I reproduce below for convenience) she outlines the multilingual aspects of her own research as follows:

    I will start by saying that I am proficient in English and French and have a working knowledge of Spanish. In the context of Cameroon, I speak about two other Cameroonian languages in addition to my mother tongue. I also speak Pidgin English which is a major lingua franca in cameroon, mostly in the two Anglophone regions of the country. I will not talk about the DRC for now even though DRC and DRM are interwoven. In my present research, which seeks to explore comparatively the legacy of the English and French education traditions in Cameroon’s education system, I carried out my fieldwork in Anglophone and Francophone classrooms. In the elicitation of pupils, teachers and education officials perspectives, I used English, French and Pidgin English. A number of issues came up during the interviews with children, mostly those in Anglophone Schools. Some could not use the school language (English) to express themselves and I had to resort to Pidgin English in order to interview them (this situation brought up some methodological issues of doing interviews with bilinguals related to language accommodation, interviewee/interviewer bias). Also, while doing fieldwork, my ‘equal’ knowledge of English and French played up my linguistic identity and again raised methodological concerns about researcher’s reflexivity in relation to insider’s knowledge and the objectivity of the research process. With translation, there are issues linked to ‘balanced’ knowledge of the source as well as the target language and of ‘balanced’ understanding of both cultures and of ‘accurate’ representation of contextual and cultural meaning. Here, DRC and DRM become interrelated. At the levels of supervision, reporting and publication, I think there are many more issues arising for those doing research multilingually. For instance, thesis’ length, the ability of supervisors to relate to the various worlds or contexts involved in the research or that of participants to read the final report published in a language that they may know and the language ideology in academic and publishing institutions about reporting in a given language.

    Those are some of the issues associated with doing research multilingually.

  • Richard Fay

    Echoing Achilleas’ last points, the key words I think are:

    –> curiosity / creativity (regarding these methodological possibilities and challenges);
    –> rigour / systematicity (in your thinking about them and actions relating to them); and
    –> transparency (in how you present these methodological aspects to all those involved in your research as well as in any/all research texts you produce (in whatever language(s)).

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Hi Neny!

    Sounds like an interesting situation 🙂 Like Richard said, it really needn’t be a headache, and there’s no singular ‘correct’ way of approaching this challenge. So what follows is not in any way prescriptive, but rather intended as scaffolding to help you formulate a coherent response that makes sense to you.

    I believe that the first question you need to be consider is whether it is really necessary to translate the data before analysing them. A case could be made for working with raw data in their original language, and conducting the analysis (coding, memo writing, interim reports etc.) in English or the language of the data, or your own native language, or any combination of the above.

    If you decide to translate the data, getting a second transcriber / translator is one strategy you could use, and would doubtless help you a lot by providing alternative interpretations to complement your own insights. However, you need to consider whether the additional cost and the delays involved in getting a second transcription are justified in terms of the increased trustworthiness of your research. There is also the question of data confidentiality to consider: It may prove easier to obtain consent and establish rapport with informants if they know that only you will have access to the information they share, and the involvement of additional research staff could unnecessarily complicate the process of obtaining ethics clearance.

    Some other strategies you might consider are sharing your translated transcripts with your informants, assuming they are bilingual. Or you might back-translate (parts of) the transcripts into the original language and ask participants to verify their accuracy. Or you could come up with an original method of your own. As long as your methods are applied with respect, intelligence, consistency and transparency it should be fine!

  • Richard Fay

    Hi Neny
    It’s a big and interesting issue. To start exploring it, check out the developing Bibliography in the more recent discussion thread (on the Durham seminar) in this category of discussions. My ‘take’ would be that it needn’t be a headache but rather a puzzle, and – like a jigsaw on a rainy day (as it is here) – you can take some pleasure in teasing out the puzzle into a solution. You can then transparently report this process and resulting solution to others (e.g. in your research texts, in your thesis) 🙂

    Also, I am wondering whether – as a prospective member of the LTE doctoral community, you’d like a page of your own to set out your research thinking in greater depth?

  • Hi, Richard, Magdalena and Achilleas!

    In reading your post and responses, I’m intrigued by the transcription issues in the data. Forgive the dumb question, but will providing a second transcriber help minimizing the problem of carrying the meanings in L1 more accurately to English? Or will it be more problematic?

    In the future, I’m going to get my data from Indonesia. Now this will be a great challenge in terms of transcribing since I will have to deal not only with Indonesian language, but also local languages (I put language in plural because I will collect the data in at least two different areas in Indonesia where the languages will be different). What a headache!

  • magdalenadestefani

    Thanks for that Achilleas. I’m now back in the blogging world, sorry it took so long 🙂

    As you say, there are some very interesting parallelisms between your work and mine. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that in Uruguay it’s taken for granted that professional discourses among EFL teachers will be in English, and I think there are many reasons why this may be going on. I was discussing your point about us being used to English metalanguage with Julian the other day, and I think that may definitely explain at least part of the issue.

    On the other hand, I don’t see status as having such an influence here, but I do think that there’s some link with professional identities. In my years of staffroom conversations, I have realised that teachers feel they are doing their job more efficiently if they use English all the time. I’ve always been a rebel in that sense, as I prefer Spanish when I’m with my colleagues – English seems to put a distance between us. However, I have come across many people, especially those in higher positions, who will openly refuse to use Spanish…

    This raises a lot of questions, don’t you think? Sounds like a nice topic for our next chapter 🙂


  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    That was a very interesting exchange, and one that has a lot of resonance to my own work with bilingual teachers. Thanks for sharing, Richard and Magdalena!

    I think that the key philosophical questions underlying the entire exchange are the relation between reality (‘our professional contexts and relationships’) and our mental representations, and the extent to which these mental representations are a product of the language we use. I must confess that my own intuitive reaction to all this is quite unsophisticated: a rose is a rose is a rose, at least when I am not doing research or theorising. I am also rather sceptical of the whole language relativity thesis – the idea that certain notions are better expressed in particular languages. I suppose that this is mostly due to my linguistics background: linguists generally refer to this idea as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or Sapir-Whorf fallacy, when they are feeling less charitable), and stress that languages are fundamentally equivalent in terms of their ability to convey meaning. I will, however, readily concede that this is an axiomatic belief which seems to have enjoyed immunity from scientific scrutiny.

    I was also intrigued by the fact that the teachers participating in Magdalena’s study were so keen to express themselves in a language other than their L1 (Spanish). I would be very interested to hear Magdalena’s views on why this may have happened. It is certainly similar to what seems to be happening in my own research, where it seems to be unquestioningly assumed that all the discourse between myself and participating teachers is to be carried out in English – as is much of the professional discourse among them. I suppose this could be interpreted as a result of their comparatively greater fluency with the English metalanguage, or it may be a question of comparative status between the languages, or it could also be related to the interplay between professional and personal identities, depending on one’s analytical perspective. Whatever the case, I think that there are intriguing (and possibly alarming?) implications there with regard to the way English relates to the local language ecology.

    Finally, I wonder about the usefulness of sustaining an English-Spanish dichotomy in the context of this research. What would be the implications for Magdalena’s analysis if we were to conceptualise a broader super-lingual code shared by Magdalena and her participants – a code that draws on Spanish and English linguistic resources, and uses said resources flexibly depending on the communicative / pragmatic context? Would Magdalena then be legitimised to use this code flexibly in order to analyse her data? I understand her reservations about this mixed-language approach to analysis, but I wonder whether these reservations are derived from the adhocery that seems to be implied in a ‘half-and-half’ approach. But would a more systematic approach with a firm theoretical grounding be more palatable? These are genuine rather than rhetorical questions, and I suspect that their value (if any) lies in the process of answering them rather than the answer itself…