How can I set up interviews with multilingual speakers and colleagues so that the default language they use is most likely to be English? Is there anything I can say or do to make this happen? Alternatively, how do I deal with the frustration of not understanding what is going on, when everyone is speaking a language I don't speak?
posted by lollusc to Human Relations (19 answers total)
I am doing some linguistic fieldwork in East Timor together with a colleague. The colleague and I are native Engish speakers. My colleague also speaks fluent Indonesian. I speak a little Tetun.
The speaker we are working with, besides his native language, is most comfortable in Indonesian and Tetun. He speaks good English, but is slightly less comfortable with it - he sometimes forgets a word, and speaks a little more hesitantly, but his English grammar and pronunciation are great.
We had the first session this morning, and I found it very frustrating because my colleague keeps speaking in Indonesian, which means the speaker also switches to Indonesian, and they have long conversations which I can't follow at all. This means I either have to ask my colleague to explain everything to me again, which slows us down a lot, and she seems to get annoyed, or I miss out on a lot of the information that we are collecting.
I can't rely on her to explain things later, as I discovered last week when we worked with a different speaker who only speaks Indonesian (and his native language). I still have no idea what went on in any of those sessions, because my colleague didn't like me interrupting with questions, and she was too tired at the end of the sessions to give me a run-down on what just happened. Now we have a week's worth of recordings that I won't be able to work with at all, because I have no English translations, and there is too much for her to face translating it now, whereas it would have been do-able if we had done it as we went along. Anyway, I really want to avoid the same thing happening here.
I tried a few different things this morning: I tried explicitly saying, "Hey, can we switch back to English?" And she would say, "He's more comfortable in Indonesian" and he'd say "English is okay", and then they'd continue to speak Indonesian. I tried taking the lead by asking him questions in English, which he answered in English, but obviously I can't STOP my colleague from asking her own questions in Indonesian, and then I never know if I am duplicating things she already just asked.
I also offered to try doing the whole thing in Tetun, if the student really wasn't comfortable with English. But that is not great for my colleague, whose Tetun is more minimal than mine, and also she says (and is right) that it would slow us down too much and we would miss a lot of the nuances of what he is saying.
We will be working with this speaker for three weeks, and also with a couple of others who we haven't met yet, but who also speak Indonesian, Tetun and English, and I worry that if we set a precedent of mainly using Indonesian now, it will be too unnatural to change later.
How can I convince my colleague to use English? Alternatively, what else can I do/say in the sessions to make English the default language? She agrees with me in principle that we should use English for my sake, but then keeps switching back to Indonesian. I suspect it might be partly something she doesn't notice she does, because she sometimes turns to me in the middle of these conversations and says something in Indonesian to ME, and doesn't realise she is doing it. (And when I ask her what she is saying, she often just repeats the Indonesian).
If you don't think there's anything more I can do to control the language used in these sessions, what can I do/tell myself to control my own feelings about it? (Which are a mixture of frustration at my colleague, frustration at myself for not learning Indonesian, anger at my colleague for not listening to my requests, and shame/anger at myself for doing something that I don't like when other people do it: coming to a foreign country and then insisting everyone accommodate them by speaking English)?
Finally, yes, I realise I probably should have learned Indonesian for this trip, but I asked my colleague, who has been here before, if I should, and she said no, Tetun would be more useful.