How to get multilingual speakers to stick to a language I understand?
July 12, 2012 10:20 PM   Subscribe

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?

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.
posted by lollusc to Human Relations (19 answers total)
If your colleague is unwilling or unable to switch to English, could you get everyone's permission to record the session, and then ask to sit down with her and go over the Indonesian bits later? This has two advantages: (a) it might be tedious enough for her that it's now worth her while to do more of it in English; and (b) it might further emphasise to her that you really are missing out on a lot, and it matters a lot to you that you not. If they take you up on that offer then the downside for you is that you don't know what's going on at the time, but at least you'll be able to catch up later and still be mostly in the loop. It's not ideal, but assuming you've already tried just asking the colleague, it's something that might work.
posted by forza at 10:38 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to take a bit more charge of the conversation, I think: start out the sessions talking in English, you should be the one beginning the questions or whatever you are asking of your informants. If the session starts in English, there is more likelihood of it continuing in English. You also need to ask for translations as you go, regularly. This will slow things down, as you said, and bother your colleague but either she will eventually switch to English just because it is less annoying to translate (is her first language Indonesian?) or at least you'll be able to use the data you have, even if there is less of it than there would be if it didn't all need to be repeated again in Indonesian and in English. It probably is automatic on her part, though this doesn't make it less annoying.

Relatedly, since this is the second time that this has been a problem, you should probably not trust this colleague about what languages won't be necessary in the future.
posted by jeather at 10:48 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Any chance you could bring in an Indonesian/English interpreter to help facilitate? It sounds like that role currently lies with your colleague, but that she is too exhausted from her primary responsibilities or otherwise unwilling or unable to do it. Perhaps if another person had that specific role? (I understand there may not be resources to implement this idea, and of course I don't know how that would change the dynamics of your interviews.)
posted by trip and a half at 10:51 PM on July 12, 2012

Now we have a week's worth of recordings that I won't be able to work with at all

What do you mean you won't be able to work with them "at all"?

They've been recorded, haven't they? You can still get them translated and work with them. You're exaggerating.

On the one hand I think it's great your colleague is not going into this assuming English is the default language. English might be "ok", but if your speaker is more comfortable in Indonesian, I think it's great she's reaching out to him like that. On the other hand I've been that person sitting at a table where everyone is speaking a different language for several hours - it stinks.

I would say do two things:

1) When I have to do interviews with multiple people, we each get a set of questions to ask them - this prevents people from asking the same exact questions. You should feel free to ask follow-ups that stem from your question, but if it encroaches on someone else's question, you pass it to them.

2) If she continues to speak in Indonesian, tape her whenever she begins to speak in Indonesian and ask her to transcribe it. That should be part of her responsibility, as she is the only one that knows the language. She should have the previous day's transcription done within, say, two days of the original interview. I would say you would need this in a timely manner because the information may affect other interviews. This may cut down on how much she "accidentally" slips into Indonesian and may limit it to instances when it's important to use a different language. If you do go this route you should be prepared to pick up a slightly bigger share of other work (I dunno, scheduling interviews or whatever) as the transcriptions should definitely count towards work she's doing.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:13 PM on July 12, 2012

This is ridiculous! Your colleague is cutting you out and creating a potentially damaging situation for the fieldwork by placing the speaker in a very uncomfortable social situation -- one that probably works under different norms and politeness strategies that you or I are yet aware of. The speaker could very well be confused about the power dynamic between you two and is likely getting mixed messages about what's appropriate. You need to nip this in the bud fast or you will be effectively sitting on the same side as the speaker, with no data to show for it.

You two are supposed to be a team. There's a reason for that in linguistic fieldwork. She can't work alone and that's what she's effectively doing. What's going on here? Is there some other perhaps personal reason why she's going about things this way, to the point of intentionally excluding you and creating a lot of extra work for herself? It looks bad and needs to be addressed.

I would suggest to the colleague that you will only be participating in sessions where English is spoken and that goes for the field recorder too. Do NOT work this out in front of your speaker. The conversations you're having in front of your speaker and all the disagreement/confusion/code-switching that is going on there is unprofessional and you're most certainly messing with the data you're supposed to be collecting.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:16 PM on July 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Are you both doing linguistics PhDs? Are you both supposed to have eventual equal access to the data? Is there any advantage to conducting the interviews in the interviewees "best" language, or is your colleague just playing power games? What would be the purpose of you sitting in on interviews in a language you don't understand? Are you going to be working with any Tetun speakers?

My hunch is that you either need to sit down with your colleague (perhaps supported by advice from a supervisor) and insist that she stop wasting your time and work in English, or excuse yourself from this set of interviews and get the recordings translated later.
posted by roofus at 11:16 PM on July 12, 2012

I like the idea of hiring an interpreter. I am going to suggest it to my colleague and see whether the extra financial hit to our project budget would be worth it to her. If not, that might be an incentive for her to speak more English. And if so, it could really help.

I also like Jeather's suggestion of taking more charge. I think I fell into a dynamic of not doing so last week because I couldn't (since the guy spoke NO English) and now I have to make an effort to lead more.

To answer some of the questions/issues brought up by others:

My colleague's first language is English, not Indonesian.

We are not PhD students - we are postdocs. This is for a new pilot project we are setting up together. We do not have a "supervisor" in any real sense. We do need to have equal access to the data if we are going to do this work together.

For those who are suggesting we could plan questions out in advance, that's not possible. The questions arise as we go: we ask the speaker to give us a sentence, e.g. to describe a picture, in his first language (the one we are researching), and then if there are things about the sentence that puzzle us, we ask questions, e.g. "what does X mean?" "Could you say it with the first two words in a different order?" "Why is it that you use X here, but you used Y in a similar sentence last time?"

Also, we ARE recording the sessions, but it's not really possible to listen back to them and have my colleague translate in the evenings. We are doing around 6 hours a day of interviewing with the recorder on, and then there's a further two to three hours of processing and analysis that has to be done each night anyway. For her to go back through and translate the Indonesian in the conversations would take more than 6 hours more. She did promise to translate the Indonesian glosses she was getting for individual words later, but that's the bit where she never managed to get around to it, until we had around 1000 sentences collected, and now she doesn't have time.

Finally: They've been recorded, haven't they? You can still get them translated and work with them. You're exaggerating.

No, I'm not, thanks. The thing is, my colleague and I are supposed to be working on this material together. If I knew at the end of each sentence what the English translation was, I could be forming hypotheses about the language as we go, and helping inform the research. As it is, my colleague is doing this, and then at the end of the day she turns to me and says stuff like, "So it's an ergative language and we found a whole bunch of aspect markers today and there are four sets of pronouns." That's a RESULT, which is nice to know about, but something that I had no input into. As it is, she has a fully formed idea of the grammar of the language we worked on last week - certainly all the basic stuff like word order patterns and verb agreement and so on - while I don't even know how to say "I see the man". When it comes to publishing something based on this, it will all be her analysis, and I'm finding it hard to see how I will even be able to get my name on the paper. Even if I get things translated now (or later) and start working on it, most of the basic things I will finally figure out are things she already knows, so it's not much of a contribution from me.
posted by lollusc at 2:43 AM on July 13, 2012

I like the idea of hiring an interpreter. I am going to suggest it to my colleague and see whether the extra financial hit to our project budget would be worth it to her. If not, that might be an incentive for her to speak more English. And if so, it could really help.

Why does it matter if it is "worth it to her"? The key here is that it appears that having a translator is absolutely necessary to you. Without that, you aren't going to get your work done.

And it would have the advantage of letting everyone speak the language they are most comfortable in, without anyone being left out. It also takes your colleague out of the part-time translating role, which is super tiring and interrupts the flow of conversation (and, as you have noticed, allows her to, intentionally or unintentionally, keep you out of the research loop).

So I'd suggest that part of taking control of the process here is to stand up for what you need, which right now appears to be a full-time, competent translator.
posted by Forktine at 5:00 AM on July 13, 2012

You need to hire someone to translate your earlier tapes, too, if your colleague is "too busy" to do it. (This is work she gave herself, not unpredictable stuff that came up, so it does sound weird and possibly suspicious, like she is trying to cut you out, or like she doesn't trust her analysis and doesn't want you to point things out.) Obviously I don't know how the funding is, but if there is any way to use shared funds for this, you should insist on it.
posted by jeather at 6:32 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why does it matter if it is "worth it to her"?

Well, what I meant was that I plan to ask her whether she would prefer to continue to use Indonesian in the sessions, and share the cost of an interpreter, or to switch to using English full time. In other words, whether using Indonesian like this is valuable enough to her that she is willing to pay cold hard cash for the privilege. I suspect it will not be, especially since we don't have enough research funding to cover it, so it will come out of our own pockets.

(I also suspect she might suggest that I should cover the cost of the interpreter myself, but I think it is reasonable to share the cost, because (a) she explicitly told me I wouldn't need Indonesian and (b) she, not the speaker, is the one insisting on using it.)
posted by lollusc at 7:26 AM on July 13, 2012

Fair or not, as the non-speaker of Indonesian, I think you need to do what you have to to get these tapes and sessions translated into English. You need to look out for your career. I wouldn't expect her to chip in for a translator since it's not something she needs, although it would be nice if she did.
posted by 6550 at 9:28 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

ugh...the only way to deal with passive agressive is to nip it in the bud. and, at this point, you need to shut it down HARD.
1) take over scheduling...tell her the interview starts 1/2 hour-1 hour later than it actually does. start in english.
2) if she ever, and i mean EVER, switches to indonesian in an interview, shut her down IMMEDIATELY. be rude. treat her like your SERVANT (because that's how she's treating you). "sorry, we're conducting these interviews in english" "but, I..." "if that's a problem for you, I'm sure we can find someone else who can handle this" (as if she works for this in front of the interviewee...make it as UNCOMFORTABLE for her as possible (yes, it might fubar your data for that day. who cares. the way you describe it, the data is ALL fubared for you anyway)
3) find out NOW about taking over funding/ changing partners...this obviously isn't working for you and her obvious intention has been to cut you out and have all the glory for herself while using your good name to get the project off the ground (for her)...she's taking advantage of you.
4) worse case: do not hire a translator...hire an interviewer to replace her until she can complete ALL of the translations that she already told you she would provide...make it clear that this is her last chance before being replaced completely.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:35 AM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

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.

Well she was right, it's more useful for her. I speak two languages fluently and can function at a very high level in both. Nevertheless I am much more comfortable in one of the languages. And I will go to great lengths to use the language I prefer if at all possible. My only benefit from using my preferred language is being more comfortable. Of course that really means a lot of things like having to think less about what I want to say and having to pay less attention when I am listening or reading etc.

What I am trying to say is that you're not going to shift the dynamics of these conversations if two of the three of you are more comfortable in Indonesian...just work out how to minimise your losses by employing some of the strategies suggested above.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:33 PM on July 13, 2012

if two of the three of you are more comfortable in Indonesian
Well that's the thing, my colleague is NOT more comfortable in Indonesian than in English. English is her native language. She has been learning Indonesian for a couple of years, and lived in an Indonesian-speaking environment for a few months a year or two ago. I think she is enjoying the opportunity to brush it up, but that's unfair at my expense.

Update: I sat down and talked to her about it this morning before our second session with this guy. She agrees she would rather stick to English than hire an interpreter (not just because of the cost, but because of what it would do to the dynamics of the conversation). Then our speaker arrived and today I cornered him for about 10 minutes before we officially started and spoke English with him, then my colleague joined us, greeted him in Indonesian, and it was off. From there on in, he didn't even answer direct English questions from me in English, but turned to my colleague and gave her the answer in Indonesian. So it looks like the dynamics have kind of been set in place a bit from yesterday's session.

HOWEVER, I stopped my colleague after every single sentence she said in Indonesian and asked her to translate, and she did so 9 times out of 10. (The other 1 time she would go on with the conversation for a while, ignoring my interruption, but then summarise it the next time I asked.) So I think I'm just going to continue to be aggressive about asking for translations all the time. And I will look into getting an interpreter, but asking around the hotel, it seems that anyone with any real interpreting experience is busy right now working for the UN people and journalists who are observing the elections here, and so I'll have to try to get a student or other untrained interpreter instead. I know from experience that being fluent in two languages is not enough to be able to be a good interpreter, so this might not work out.
posted by lollusc at 11:04 PM on July 13, 2012

Can I ask what type of data are you trying to collect and what language you are actually studying here? I've been thinking about your question a lot lately and I think the answer to that question has some bearing on how you approach things and what type of relationship you and your colleague need to aim for with your speaker.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:49 AM on July 14, 2012

Iamkimiam - I memailed you. I don't want to put too much more identifying info up here. If anyone else feels they could help more if I gave them more detail, please memail me.
posted by lollusc at 8:05 AM on July 14, 2012

Update, in case anyone checks back:

We have now used interpreters on two days (two different interpreters - not professional interpreters, unfortunately for the reasons noted above). Unfortunately, that only worked for the first hour, but gradually slipped into a dynamic where the speaker would then use his preferred language with the interpreter (NOT Indonesian), and the interpreter would interpret this into Indonesian to my colleague. So again I got left out of the loop. The problem is that everyone is so multilingual here. So anyway, when this happened with the second interpreter too, and I found I was still having to interrupt every sentence or two and ask for an English translation explicitly, I figured I might just as well do that with my colleague than with an intermediary.

And today we were working with a speaker who explicitly said he does not like to use Indonesian, but my colleague persisted in speaking it anyway. He answered direct Indonesian questions in English for the first hour or so, and then eventually got worn down and switched to Indonesian. So my colleague is not really doing this for the sake of the speakers - it's something in between trying to retain sole control of the data, and enjoying practising her Indonesian at others' expense. It's exacerbated by some personal issues, too, which I have some sympathy for.

So I'm just trying to salvage what I can here, and vowing never to work with this person again.
posted by lollusc at 7:54 AM on July 23, 2012

god! srsly? F this B! ok, the VERY NEXT TIME she uses indonesian, end the interview.

I'm assuming you're both bringing resourses to the table here, no? (grant money up to the 10s of thousands, time, travel expenses, etc.)

after you end the interview and escort the subject out, i'd get about 5 inches from her face and say calmly, clearly and very very quietly: "look, we're both bringing X resources to the table here. As such, I am ENTITLED to half of this data. When you conduct these interviews in a language that YOU TOLD ME that I wouldn't need, you are committing FRAUD, you are STEALING from me, and if you do it again, ever, even once, I AM GOING TO SUE YOU FOR ALL OF MY EXPENSES, THE TOTAL AMOUNT OF MY RESEARCH GRANT THAT YOU ARE CURRENTLY STEALING FROM ME, AND DAMAGES" (you absolutely 100% have a case here, AND: AND:(!) her 'personal issues' are not. your. problem.).

then, smash to smithereens the most expensive item of hers that you can reach (phone, recording eqptmnt, whatever) and just walk away...

sound extreme? probably...but at this point, you reeeally have nothing to lose...and that makes you dangerous. she needs to realize that.

under no circumstances let her conduct any interviews without you or speak ONE WORD of indonesian in them again. And if she does? sue her. buy a house.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:13 AM on July 23, 2012

also, phone...smash the phone, because her plan is to discredit you to all of your colleagues at the soonest possible opportunity... you realize that, right? that's how this kind of (sadly, FAR too common) sociopath operates: steal, and then immediately reverse blame. And I would contact whoever's in charge of this trip or it's financing, or whatever institution that you're working through and inform them TODAY (do not wait) of what's going on, and call a lawyer.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:20 AM on July 23, 2012

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