Practical and affective dimensions of foreign language fieldwork

This is the third in a series of reflections on language and research. It can be read on its own, or you can start with the introduction here.

The advantages of having a second language in fieldwork are huge, but are often considered too obvious to talk about. What I’m interested in are the gray areas: the shades of difficulty encountered, but seldom talked about, by fieldworkers who are non-native speakers. A reflexive approach to language moves beyond the question of fluency, and enters the domain of positions and power relations in multilingual research sites.

Undeniable benefits

It goes without saying that language helps to get the research done. Just under half my interviews were conducted in Russian, including several with key informants. Participant observation was roughly balanced between Russian and English. Yet sometimes I wonder if knowing Russian was entirely necessary. It would have been possible to arrange an interpreter for the interviews, and one was almost always present at dialogue meetings (as not all participants spoke both Russian and English). Certainly, I could have produced a thesis based on those interactions alone. So, while it’s easy to say that language = access, the benefits in this case are a little more nuanced.

A major practical advantage was the freedom and flexibility in arranging meetings (pro tip: fieldwork often involves rushing to things at the last minute). Another was being able to engage directly in one-to-one and group interactions, which helped build rapport and avoid losing information in translation. It meant that someone who usually spoke English could lapse into Russian to explain a particular concept, and more importantly, that Russian speakers were likely to approach me for further conversation at the end of a workshop or seminar. Where language really comes into play, however, is speaking with people in a wider, everyday setting. This offers significant opportunities to compare, contrast and contextualise the main research findings.

While this cuts down the risk of information getting lost in translation, it increases the chances of becoming lost in conversation. The etymology of this word is intriguing:

Conversation (n.) mid-14c., “living together, having dealings with others,” also “manner of conducting oneself in the world;” from Old French conversation, from Latin conversationem (nominative conversatio) “act of living with,” noun of action from past participle stem of conversari “to live with, keep company with,” literally “turn about with,” from Latin com “with, together” (see com-) + versare, frequentative of vertere “to turn,” from PIE root *wer- (2) “to turn, bend.”

This moves us from linguistic proficiency to what we might call sociocultural competence. Grammatical awareness is less important than being able to navigate your way through references, idioms, in-jokes, catchphrases, and memes – broadly speaking, popular culture. Demonstrating an interest in, familiarity with, and respect for the social context helps build credibility and relationships, and might one day earn you the accolade ‘nash chelovek’ (our person/one of us). However, it is a constant work in progress, and the space between inside and outside is often uncomfortable. Privileged access comes with responsibility: to render your findings intelligible to outsiders while remaining faithful to the original context.

Unanticipated challenges

Tanu and Dales argue that most ethnographers avoid admitting that they are anything less than fluent in their fieldwork language because they are afraid of losing authority as researchers. I can honestly say that rarely feel that I’m missing things in a face-to-face conversation, but it is certainly a struggle if someone speaks very fast or has an unusual accent or a speech impediment. Some accents in the Caucasus do take getting used to, but this can act as camouflage for the researcher’s own accent (which is useful if you are as self-conscious as I am about such things).

Having said that, I sometimes listen back to a recorded interview and notice a moment that I have no recollection of hearing previously. I don’t know if I understood at the time but failed to remember, or failed to understand but didn’t realise. It has never been anything of major significance, but it does make me wonder: what else might I have missed out on without being aware of it? This is a scary thought, but I would argue that it is more fruitful to approach this as a listening problem rather than a comprehension one.

Active listening is a technique interviewers use to show that they are focused on what the interviewee is saying. It is also used in mediation. Simply listening in this way requires a surprising amount of energy. Doing it in a foreign language can be even more draining, because it takes an extra effort to (1) actually understand, (2) maintain focus, (3) show that you understand, and (4) demonstrate an appropriate emotional response (sadly, cross-cultural emotional management is a topic we must leave for another day). These listening rules can also be applied in participant observation, especially in inter-group dialogue.

The implications of this have not yet been fully unpacked. One relates to perception: does a researcher who is doing her best to (literally) understand someone project a greater sense of empathy? Most of my Russian interviews involve a few minutes where things go completely off script, as interviewees ask me questions and try to figure out how well I understand them. Even so, I am never sure what conclusions they draw or why they choose to share the things they do. This relates to one of my favourite fieldwork paradoxes (and basically the main point of this post): language offers deeper and wider access to people and communities, but it shifts the power dynamic. This makes it harder to keep research ‘on track’.

Given my ambivalence towards methodological boundaries, I didn’t see it as a problem when conversations sailed off in the opposite direction to where I intended. In a way, these moments were liberating: I could shrug off structure and simply listen to what people wanted to say. On the other hand, hiding behind a wall of shyness reinforced some of my language-related anxieties. I hated making phone calls to set up interviews in Russian (I hate cold calling in English too, but this was worse), and I hated transcribing interviews, both because typing in Cyrillic takes ages, and because it meant listening back to my faltering accent and badly conjugated verbs. When dialogue meetings switched to Russian, I was often too exhausted to engage properly, and withdrew from ‘participant’ to ‘observer’ mode.

Methodological implications

Language clearly has an impact on fieldwork process and outcomes. It provides opportunities for wider access and deeper rapport, and typically allows the researcher to be more independent, spontaneous and engaged. At the same time, it amplifies the risks of cognitive and emotional exhaustion, causes ripples in the balance of research relations, and does not necessarily signal a linear path from research to activism. In multilingual settings, it can mean alternating between the roles of ‘actively engaged outsider’ and ‘passively engaged insider’ – the opposite of what many researchers might expect.

This dissonance is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; what it does is teach us to be cautious and reflexive about adopting a fixed position in the field, or clinging to too rigid a methodology. Where I think this leads us is towards a deeper understanding of both intercultural communication and transnational research relations. This subject is equal parts fascinating and complex – so I’ll be returning to it in a separate post in the near future. I’ll also pick up on the practicalities of interviewing English language learners, and communicating with the help of translation.


2 thoughts on “Practical and affective dimensions of foreign language fieldwork

  1. Pingback: Languages and social research: a four-part reflection | Gender, Peace and Protest

  2. This is a fascinating topic. Thanks for your very articulate thoughts. It reminds me of the dilemma of whether to use your Russian when teaching English in Russia: a handy shortcut or a “cheat’s” dilutant of a pure English classroom environment?

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