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Obtaining informed consent in a multilingual research setting

In the previous post of the Researching Multilingually series, I probed the complexities involved in working in a multilingual research environment. In this post I begin to engage with the practical problems of such research projects, by drawing on the experience from my PhD study, to illustrate the challenges associated with obtaining consent.

Three linguistic dilemmas

My PhD study was set in a language school in Greece, where English was taught to young learners, most of whom (though not all) had Greek cultural backgrounds. Although it would have been possible to explain the purpose of the study to the students in Greek (a language in which they were all fluent), the school had a rigid policy of using only English in the premises. On the other hand, it was, therefore, far from certain that an explanation in English would be completely understood by everyone.

As the students were underage, I also had to obtain consent from their parents. Per university policy, this had to be done in writing, and Greek seemed to be the default option. However, this decision was complicated by the fact that a substantial number of students of the learners were born to immigrant parents, mostly from Albania. Some of the parents belonged to the Greek-speaking minority in Albania, and most had acquired Greek, but it was unclear how well any of them could cope with the written form of the language or with the formal register I was using in my consent forms. Ideally, I would have liked to create consent forms in Albanian, despite the translation cost involved. However, given the somewhat insensitive attitudes present in parts of Greek society, I was apprehensive that many students would be reluctant to ask for a non-Greek document, and some Greek-speaking parents might even be offended by being addressed in Albanian.

The third group of participants I had to obtain consent from were the teachers. All the teachers in the language school were Greek, so Greek seemed like a sensible choice, but the language with which they tended to associate their professional identity was English. I therefore felt that if I addressed them in Greek, I might be perceived as patronising, or as questioning their professional competence.

These considerations are summarised in Table 1, below.

Participant group Greek English Albanian
Students + universally understood- against the school’s monolingual policy + pedagogically beneficial?- informed consent not guaranteed
Parents – marginalises
linguistic minorities- informed consent not universally guaranteed
+ respects linguistic minorities- translation cost

– singles out users of different languages (stigmatisation?)

Teachers +universally understood +respects professional identity

Table 1. Summary of linguistic considerations about eliciting consent

Developing a linguistic strategy

I can’t say that I eventually came up with a perfect solution to these dilemmas, but the strategy I used was highly pragmatic.

In the case of learners, I visited their classes and talked to them, using English appropriate to their linguistic learners. Then, building on my teaching background, I used elicitation techniques to confirm comprehension, and provide clarifications where necessary. I did not elicit consent orally at that stage, as I thought that students may be reluctant to refuse, but I included a consent section (in Greek and English) in the first page of the bilingual questionnaires that were distributed to the students (Figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1. Greek version of the consent sectionS_questionnaire_2_Page_03

Figure 2. English version of the consent section

The parents of underage learners were provided with a letter and an opt-out form written in Modern Greek, on the (somewhat arbitrary) assumption that most of them would be able to read in that language, and their children would be able to convey its gist to those who couldn’t.

My teacher participants, who were competent users of English, were provided with letters describing the research project and consent forms in English.

The rule of thumb was that English (the working language of the school where my research was embedded) would be treated as the default, from which I would deviate only to the extent necessary. I did this for two reasons: First, I wanted to comply with the school’s policy, which required maximising exposure to English on pedagogical grounds. I also felt that the use of English helped to increase transparency and accountability to the University, since neither my supervisors nor our review board would be able to engage with documentation in Modern Greek.

Unexpected complications

It is said that no research plan survives contact with the field. When I started eliciting consent, two unexpected complications came up.

Firstly, a number of teachers reported that the English in the information documents was ‘too good’, and that it made them realise ‘how bad their English was’. At the time, I dismissed the comment assuming it was a compliment. In retrospect, I have come to realise that they were trying to communicate that the sophisticated language in the documents was intimidating them. To be honest, I am still not sure whether Greek would have been a better option, or maybe a more informal register in English would have been a workable compromise.

The other complication related to the equivalence of translations between the documents I was using, and the ones I was submitting to my supervisors for approval. The Greek versions of the documents were written in a bureaucratic register that is often used in communication between schools and parents (e.g., ‘I consent to the participation of my child in this survey’). At the time, it was suggested to me that such formal language sounded too formal in English, and that a simpler register might be less off-putting. In response to this feedback, I piloting different versions of the document, and discovered that parents tended to perceive the ‘official’ version as being more ‘authoritative’ and ‘serious’. The experience helped me to realise that switching between languages often involved searching for functional equivalents, i.e., wording that has the same intended effect on the readers,  rather than direct translations. This was an issue that would recur frequently in the study.


This post looked into some of the considerations and complications of obtaining consent to research in a multilingual setting. The next posts in this series will discuss data generation, and problems and solutions for data representation. Stay tuned!

Image Credit: Roland Tanglao @ Flickr | CC BY 2.0

3 thoughts on “Obtaining informed consent in a multilingual research setting”

  1. Hi Achilleas, Thank you for this series of interesting and informative posts on Researching Multilingually. I would like to invite you to become a guest blogger for our website ( I am sure our readers will benefit from your rich insights in this area.

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