Academia has a language problem. It is the problem of conducting research with a population speaking a language different from the researcher's or the academy's dominant language and the impact the language difference could, should, and/or does have on the research produced. It is not an unvoiced or unrecognized problem. As Temple and Young (2004, p. 163) point out, the issues surrounding language difference in qualitative research has been widely debated by academics such as Stanley and Wise (1993), Atkinson (1990), Holstein and Gubrium (1995), Hammersley (1995), Ladd (2003), and Young (1997). Among the issues debated are the dominance of English for the representation of data analysis and interpretation, how and when to use translators, and researcher bias in interpreting data. There is also the periphery but no less salient issue of access. As one of my research interviewees commented regarding his nonprofit work:
I had great hopes to be in certain communities, and I was not welcome. No matter what. Even with all my credentials and all the help I could get. Some groups I was just unwelcome because of history. Many [Native Americans] in the U.S. want nothing to do with white people. Period. That’s clearly what they say. I don’t want to have with you because you’re white. Period. Bye.
Today's Lingua Franca and The Academy
A notable and well-respected nonprofit scholar with years of national and international research experience noted in our conversation on language and research that "English is the lingua Franca of our world," indicating English has become the universal language among speakers. The Harvard Business Review shares his opinion stating, "English is now the global language of business" (Neeley, 2012, p. 1) used to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse operations and ventures. The HBR article goes on to state that 1.75 billion people (that's 1 in 4 of us) speak English with functional proficiency (Neeley, 2012). For business, failure to communicate means loss of money...big money...so the solution is to adopt English as a planned business strategy. Neeley (2012) refers to this globalization of the English language as "Englishnization" indicating a stalwart corporate stance that pushes the English language into the vocal chords of humanity. If you ask me, this all really does seem a tad too much like colonialism and the creation of great empires, though we will leave that discussion for another time.
For research, however, the academy tends to hold the firm opinion that to do concentrated research in a location outside the researcher's own, the researcher should hold adequate proficiency in the language of that location. The notable and respected scholar quoted in the previous paragraph definitely holds the opinion. Still, it must be recognized knowledge of language does not eliminate issues of representation of data analysis and interpretation, or rule out issues surrounding the use of translators, or research bias in interpreting data, despite best attempts. A researcher may indeed originate from the community s/he is investigating, but the researcher is still placing her/his lens onto the data obtained and makes decisions about translation that ultimately reinforces the invisibility the source language in lieu of the language of the academy, which is most likely English (Temple and Young, 2004), and must negotiate conflicting interests between those of the academy and those of his/her community. As in business, language in academia is a power play that does not necessarily deflect domineering, colonialistic language mandates (see Spivak, 1992).
Embracing Language Messiness in Research
I spent the last two years investigating the presence of a particular type of nonprofit leader, the native/indigenous transnational nonprofit leader. He (and, at this point, the leaders identified are an all-male unit of analysis) is a skilled leader from a country outside of Europe or North America who crosses borders frequently to secure resources supporting his nonprofit mission benefitting his country of origin. My case study participants were native to Guatemala.* I wanted to know how these leaders' transnational positionality, that is, their understanding of reality based on their frequent contact and travel between North America and Guatemala, informed the actions they took on behalf of their nonprofit organizations. Though native Spanish speakers, these leaders have an excellent, though sometimes imperfect, command of the English language. Research took place in North America and Guatemala and I, as the researcher, ping-ponged between English and Spanish usage. It must be noted I only have a beginner knowledge of Spanish. Yet, ignoring the opinion of the academy that language must be mastered before viable research can take place, I undertook my field work because, quite honestly, I believe an inability to approach others speaking a different language because it is personally uncomfortable has no place in the academy, that holding a common language neither breaks down barriers nor necessarily promotes communication, and that struggling together to find meaning has the potential to promote greater collaboration between the researcher and researched producing deeper understandings.
First, it might be beneficial to have some knowledge about the field of inquiry. In terms of researching the international nonprofit sector, international organizational branding revolves around being "global" in scope. Being "global" tends to connote efficiency in project execution, reliability, cross-cultural comprehension, and, more topically, time taken in the execution of projects across languages. Yet, all too many of the big international nonprofit organizations are from North America or Europe leading me and other researchers to wonder what is being lost in translation between the (ill-termed) global North and the global South? I, like others, have asked what happens when organizational stakeholders in the country of destination are relegated to observers or nonparticipants, or are discounted despite their expertise and qualifications, by the northern-based international organizations? What new ideas are never spoken and critical process information not communicated, particularly if English is, indeed, today's lingua franca? Thus, I sought out a population who as a product of globalized ease of communication and travel disrupted the dominant thought brought through the well-researched northern-based international nonprofit organizations. In order to address the language debate, I developed a feminist research project.
Feminist research embraces the theory of situated knowledge, that each individual constructs information based on his/her social reality. In feminist theory, one can approach situated knowledge within social reality through the concept of intersectionality. That is, one approaches a research design knowing as humans we develop our understanding of reality and the differences within that reality, i.e., our positionality, based on the multiple identities we hold (e.g., wife, leader, sister, professor, American, etc.) and our lived experiences (Alcoff, 1988). Approaching my research in this manner focused on the context upon which the leaders form their understandings to run their nonprofits of which language plays a large role in developing that context. In addition, I embraced researcher bias as a true and active phenomenon mitigated through reflexive practice and bringing the leaders on as participants to the research, rather than subjects, thus inviting them to be informants to the research process. I used a paid translator when necessary incorporating lengthy debriefs with the translator to uncover possible discrepancies or non-verbalized intent. I completed all transcription of interviews with the two exceptions, which came about due to time constraints. My methodological diligence produced interesting linguistic findings.
Linguistic Context Matters
The international nonprofit sector, being dominated by northern-based organizations, has developed a rather common vocabulary. Among topics of interest within this sector are accountability, advocacy, effectiveness, and professionalization. Each of these terms are contested and negotiated in scholarship as nonprofit organizations vary in mission, purpose, and business model, and operate under varied governmental regulations. Despite assorted definitions, the vocabulary largely remains standard. So what happens when the researcher discovers the vocabulary does not translate?
The Guatemalan translational nonprofit leaders participating in my study admit to coming to nonprofit work as a process of continued learning. Their organizations are small-scale, ground-level operations though they move materials and create networks between North America and Guatemala. They largely operate outside the professionalized nonprofit sector. Their organizational models are relational and collaborative in nature with one leader openly critical of the international nonprofit sector and its practices deliberately seeking solutions that do not mirror international operational and project processes. Both leaders seek out information, decide what will and will not work, taking action for their organizations accordingly. Both leaders are familiar with the standard nonprofit vocabulary, they may even occasionally use the words, but their transnational positionality has created nuanced understandings for the terms allowing them to adequately control information so they may present a unified message about their organizations in North America and Guatemala.
One of the starkest examples of nuanced understandings relates to accountability. At first, I did not understand why the Guatemalan participants had difficulty defining the word as part of the interview questions, whether the interview was undertaken in English or Spanish. After all, the leaders did not demonstrate trouble defining the word and the translator also did not raise any concerns. It was only when I was listening to the recorded interviews and journaling in a reflexive manner about the interview process and my interactions with the research participants, leaders, and translator that I questioned the answers I was receiving realizing a difficulty. I checked my suspicions with the leaders and the translator who confirmed my unease. See, I learned there is no Spanish word for accountability. The leaders stated their organizations were accountable because their organizations do what they say they are going to do and people can see this. One of the organizations added they are also accountable because 100 percent of the funds they raise go towards the project. Other Guatemalan interviewees held similar understandings of accountability. Accountability for these native/indigenous transnational organizations means the ability of others to see what the organization is doing. This seeing, however, does not necessarily mean transparency as the leaders do not have formal reporting processes but, rather, rely on pictures, narratives, and/or stories. So, accountability appears to relate to taking the responsibility to accomplish the project at an appropriate scale to benefit Guatemalans, though not necessarily accomplishing or showing formal accounting of the action proposed. This type of accountability is different from professionalized, northern-based, required reporting definitions of accountability.
Still, I am not satisfied with the understanding I uncovered, and here I relay the great failing I had in dealing with a different language than my own. With data collection completed and analysis underway, I had a sudden realization: I was asking the wrong question about accountability! I had been asking for a definition of accountability, a word unknown in Spanish. The closest translation I was able to formulate was asking how the interviewee knew the organization was doing what it said it was doing. Now, I knew and the interviewees knew about Guatemala's corruption problem. I was collecting data at a time when Guatemala had indicted several of its top government members on corruption charges and held a presidential election based on a anti-corruption platform. Thus, the question I should have asked is what does no corruption look like within a nonprofit organization. I believe if I had stopped, reflected, thought through, and asked the corruption question, I would have acquired a deeper understanding of accountability in a Guatemalan sense. Unfortunately, this realization came to me too late though I admitted this revelation in my findings. It was a lesson well learned and one I will take forward.
The moral of the story is context matters, and it is the diligence of the researcher, fluent or not in the language, that can uncover the context to acquire substantiated findings.
Advertising has caught on to the value of context in language use. Carroll and Luna (2011) in the Journal of Advertising wrote that ads using only minority language have higher feedback evaluations as the ads influence thoughts they have about home, family, friends, and homeland. This is because a native language is easier to process. However, Carroll and Luna (2011) also found that the language most often used to discuss the content matter, whether in the minority language or English, makes the information in the ad easier to process. The academy can learn something from advertising. The Carroll and Luna findings suggest language norms are just as important as language knowledge and researchers must understand community language use. Since this can be nearly impossible without long, sustained interaction with the population studied, whether the researcher knows the language or not, the best research practice is one that anticipates the value of situational knowledge and designs a research plan that diligently investigates the research question from a situated standpoint. Language may indeed be an issue, but diligence in research design has the ability to mitigate its obstacles.
Final Reflections on Language and Research
I believe the findings of my research are sound. I made certain participants had access to the draft of my dissertation and invited feedback. I also had one of the leaders at my dissertation defense and invited him to provide commentary/rebuttal to my findings. I continued situational diligence to the very end and it proved successful. I am grateful to my participants for sticking with me through the long research and dissertation process. After all, they volunteered their time to me because they felt my research was worthwhile, not because they would receive any benefit.
I believe the same results could be achieved by other researchers. A researcher's job is to raise and investigate questions about our world. I do not believe a researcher needs to be fluent in a language to do good research. Pragmatically, requiring fluency in English can severely limit research agendas and participant recruitment. This does not mean I do not value language or do not find value in learning languages. The opposite is true. I, myself, have a commitment to move past beginner competency in Spanish even while I have been trying to learn the language since 2005 (I have a language block that I am determined to overcome). However, I believe a researcher only needs to take the responsibility for diligence in research design that addresses language obstacles. With this brief conclusion, I encourage researchers to step outside their comfort zones. Go! Research to the ends of the earth!
10 Tips for Communicating Outside English
1. Be respectful, be interested, be humble
2. Pay attention to the nonverbal
3. Begin formally (the person deserves respect)
4. Talk to more than one person
5. Do not use double negatives (they do not translate)
6. Avoid sports language (sports are different throughout the world, so are sports metaphors)
7. Ask for help!
8. Keep your language simple (please, please, please, avoid big words and jargon)
9. It's okay to ask the speaker to slow down
10. Slow down and use conscious speech (please, do not talk louder; it doesn't help)
(Adapted from Foster, D. (2016), Breaking Language Barriers, Toastmaster, April 2016, 27.)
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Atkinson, P. (1990). The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Construction of Reality. London, UK: Routledge.
Carroll, R., & Luna, D. (2011). The other meaning of fluency. Journal of Advertising, 40(3), 73-84.
Hammersley, M. (1995). The politics of social research. London, UK: Sage Publications.
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Young, I. M. (1997). Intersecting voices: Dilemmas of gender, political philosophy and policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.