Multilingual welcome sign (Guernésiais on top) at Guernsey tourist information

Researching multilingually: More than meets the eye?

When I started planning for the study that was eventually reported in my PhD thesis, I spent considerable time thinking about suitable participants, appropriate research methods, ways to analyse and synthesise data. Perhaps surprisingly, given that I was working in the qualitative tradition, and my data was (almost) all language, the linguistic intricacies of doing research in a English language school in Greece, and then reporting this research back in English didn’t occur to me at that point.

This series of posts on Researching Multilingually is a retrospective account of the challenges I faced as I conducted the study. It will consist of four posts (in addition to this introduction), which will focus on:

  1. The dilemmas associated with obtaining consent;
  2. Challenges involving data generation;
  3. Considerations that impacted data representation; and
  4. A cline of representational positions for reporting research.

The term Researching Multilingually, by the way, is derived from seminal work carried out by Richard Fay, Prue Holmes and Jane Andrews. Personally, I will not attempt to theorise (much!) from my experience; rather, it’s my intention to recount what my experience with bilingual data has been, and to argue that it’s a less straightforward process than might at first appear. I want to show that multilingual studies involve a constant stream of decisions, from obtaining consent all the way to reporting findings, and that while some of these decisions are explicitly acknowledged, others are opaque (perhaps even to the researchers themselves!) There is, then, a need to be more transparent about data representation techniques and more sensitive to their possible implications.

The purpose of this post is to begin to problematise some of the issues surrounding multilingual research, so I will not do much talking (writing?) here. Instead, I will limit myself to describing some quasi-authentic scenaria and invite you to reflect on some of the decisions faced by researchers in multilingual settings.

Scenario 1

A researcher wants to conduct a study in a school where most students belong to Greek families, some are of Albanian immigrant heritage (their parents might speak Greek, but usually cannot read Greek fluently), and two students have just arrived with their families from Bulgaria. What is the best way to elicit consent from their parents?

Scenario 2

A researcher wants to assign pseudonyms to their research participants, some of whom are Greek teachers and some are British and American. Should the pseudonyms reflect the participants’ national background, or would that compromise anonymity?

Scenario 3

When preparing a research report, a researcher has to synthesise data in Greek and English (as well as literature in languages other than English). What are the benefits of presenting both the original and a translation? If it is useful to do so, which language should be presented first? 

Over the next four weeks I will be looking into these, and similar questions. I will be blogging about Researching Multilingually once a week, on Mondays, so you may want to watch this space or follow the blog by clicking on the green ‘follow me’ button on the left. In the meanwhile, I am very keen to know what your reactions are to the questions raised above, so do join the conversation by adding a comment below!


Image Credit: Man vyi @ Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]

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