Field Notes: Language (mis)communication (by Michaela Salmon)

A few weeks ago, Casey wrote about her transition into the field and beginning research in Hong Kong. Closer to home, in Montreal, I have also begun this somewhat frightening but nonetheless exhilarating phase of my research: data collection.

As a master’s student, this is my first experience of hands-on research. The idea of forming questions that I wanted to answer was nothing new, but the opportunity to actually answer these questions is totally new.

a hard-earned latte from Pikolo café (Ave du Parc)

When I initially began formulating my area of research for my thesis, I had only been a Montreal resident for a year. My French was limited to ordering lattes but still occasionally receiving espressos due to my apparent mangling of the language. Yet I was so interested in conducting Montreal-based research that I knew French was also going to inevitably play an important role. So I continued mulling over my options, developing my area of inquiry, and honing my research questions. The final result? A research project that aims to investigate language policy, ideology, and practice in Montreal, uncovering the mismatches between them, all through the perspective of Maghrébine, mostly French-speaking, women.

The idea of interviewing research participants in French – a language that I not only began to learn later in life, but also a language that I have never really had any formal training in – was, frankly, panic-inducing. Not just because I might not catch everything that was said, or might stumble over my phrasing, but also from a methodological perspective. I would class myself as an “intermediate” level speaker. Is conducting research in an intermediate-level language methodologically sound?

When I was composing a paper outlining my methodology, I tried to find out if anybody else had come across this conundrum, and what they had thought about it. I found one paper, from a health-related journal, that reviewed the methodological issues related to cross-language qualitative research. The discussion mostly revolved around the use of translators, and found that they were often methodologically problematic, lacking in transparency and running the risk of misrepresentation. Using a translator was something that I didn’t really want to do, nor do I have the funds to anyway. This did at least help me see some value in conducting interviews myself – at least if there was any misunderstanding, I would know about it!

Ultimately, as the little fish in the graduate school pond, my fellow master’s students and I mostly just have to work with whatever we have. So I bit the bullet. My first interview in French was about a month ago now, and the second is coming up very shortly. To answer the question, “Is it methodologically sound?”, I would say, yes. Thanks to digital recording and hours of painstaking transcription, I have been able to review any small phrases where I was unsure of the meaning. What’s more, my hesitance to speak (because I’m scared of messing up) made sure that I remained low profile throughout the interview, not butting in, not asking leading questions. I’ve since also conducted an interview with another participant in English, and listening back to that recording reveals how much of a difference this can make. I’m an active listener in both instances, but in English I definitely say much more, and the conversation is more guided. I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but I liked the way in which my French interview took a course based more on the participant’s train of thought, rather than mine.

Language is central to the topic of my research, but I’ve been surprised and intrigued by the role it is also playing in the mechanics of the research. Again and again, it’s bringing ideas of “second language speakers” and “fluency” into question.

I sometimes feel very alone in my little world of research. The PhD cohort bounce off each other, everyone is involved in some kind of research. But the vast majority of my master’s peers won’t write a thesis, so we don’t have the same kinds of schedules, stresses, or queries.

So I wonder what other kinds of issues the rest of you are grappling with? Has anybody had similar experiences with language and research? Or any other methodological quandaries? Feel free to join the conversation below!


3 thoughts on “Field Notes: Language (mis)communication (by Michaela Salmon)

  1. Michaela,

    I like your honesty about the stress caused by using your non-dominant language in your research. I think that it’s this kind of honest questioning – rather than a pre-determined level of fluency in a language – that will ensure that your methodology does what you set out for it to do.

    I also used one of my non-dominant languages (Mandarin) in my master’s research. Digital recording definitely makes a huge difference in leveling out how much you still have access to, even if you missed it the first time around. And I still feel like doing all that transcription (hours upon hours) amounted to one of the greatest Mandarin courses I’ve ever taken. My research was about participants’ uses of Mandarin discourse markers in their narrations of a story, which meant that every word mattered.

    I remember having to defend myself sometimes from the subtle comments and questions about how I was going to analyze the language use of all of these people, as a second-language user, myself. I felt somewhat cautious, but mostly optimistic about it. I think that for me, the important part was my confidence in my ability to analyze. As a master’s student in linguistics, it was not my job to listen to someone say something once and have some special insight into the various levels of meaning that could be attached (which is where someone whose dominant language is Mandarin might outperform me). My job was to analyze. And the whole point, for me, of analyzing Mandarin discourse markers was that most “native speakers” or “fluent speakers” or whatever, don’t know how they’re used or why. It’s a piece of what people say that is so buried in the subconscious and in the act of trying to communicate something, that most people don’t even know which ones they use or what they use them for. It requires analysis in order to say anything useful about it.

    And I’d say the same thing about your topic. Whatever the language of the interviews, the answers to your questions are not right there, on the surface, waiting for a more fluent speaker to point out to you. You need to think about it. You need to go back and read it again and again. You need to read what other people have theorized about stuff like this. It’s all of that other stuff, as far as I can tell, that makes the biggest difference.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kathleen, it’s so nice to hear that I’m not alone! You’re spot on – there is so much to be gained from re-listening, re-reading, re-analyzing. I’ve gained a lot of confidence since this post, so cheers!


  2. Michaela, This is such an interesting piece that you have written, and in itself could be the topic of a thesis. As i was reading, I also wondered what difference it made to your participants, knowing that you were their peer in terms of also having to negotiate the world in your additional language. Since you were talking with them about how they are doing this, I would imagine that this would create a greater balance of power between you and operate as a tool of empathy. I think this is a great thing for interviews! Very intriguing post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


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