I graduated as a PhD student from the Open University and with a Chinese background my research focus was on Internet-mediated intercultural foreign language education in China’s higher education institutions. I had a supervision team of three academics, two British and one French, which provided a good intercultural/multicultural context for guiding my research from design to practice. It became bilingual when I conducted field work in China for data collection, contacting Chinese participants who spoke both Chinese and English, as well as international teachers who are also bilingual. In addition, I feel that the affective domain of intercultural competence enacted through supervision (face-to-face, online, paperwork) of my work throughout the years has made my research time a very enjoyable experience. This aspect of my research experience provided me a good stimulus for looking into multilingual/intercultural issues not only in conducting research, but also in my personal/professional development as a novice researcher.
More recently, as a research assistant working on an EU-funded Benchmarking Chinese Language project, together with French, German, and Italian colleagues, I have been participating in activities within a multilingual context (mainly online) in which intercultural communication takes place almost everyday and this multicultural collaboration offers abundant food for thought with regard to my intercultural/professional competence development.
In the course of my PhD research work, reading literature and communicating with respondents/participants bilingually sometimes became a complex issue because there were occasions on which the same concepts/terminologies were interpreted and/or acted on differently due to socio-cultural context/convention. For example, Chinese foreign language policies and documents often borrow labels (such as intercultural communicative competence, learner autonomy, network, etc.) from western literature but were produced differently either in quality or shape and size. Such challenges also resided in interviews when these concepts were concerned. Another bilingual practice was to translate Chinese language documents into English equivalent for the sake of thesis writing up and presentation (got all proofread) while it was less concerned in analysis.
In addition to the problematic negotiation of entry into local communities for investigation, choosing a working language raised concerns about practical complexities rather than methodological ones (at least in my case). Interviewees (mainly students) sometimes liked to challenge themselves to use English rather than Chinese in answering questions but might find that they were unable to continue and had to switch back to Chinese. Some teachers preferred to use Chinese as they wanted to deliver their meaning clearly but often resorted to English in expressing their ideas. Observation notes were made mainly in English so as to facilitate a consistent way of thinking and data entry, although it was unavoidable that mental translation was engaged.
In my current research post, one of the complex issues regarding multilingualism is choosing which language to use for discussion. English and Chinese are the working languages although none of the members is a ‘native’ English speaker. It is interesting that arguments are often made in Chinese first then switching to English, or the other way round, but English seems the more dominant language in use. Another important issue is developing intercultural professional competence which seeks to mediate between differences, disagreements, event disputes in professional ways from a management and admin perspective. The recent leadership change in the project showed very vividly how important it is to become proficient in intercultural mediation within a complex multilingual environment.