My interest in ‘researching multilingually’ has emerged from my experiences as an ethnographer in Nepal and more recently, from working as a supervisor and researching academic literacy practices with international doctoral students at UEA. I lived in Nepal for several years and this was my first experience of working (in teacher education and various NGO roles) in a second language (Nepali). Although it was often frustrating not to be able to discuss my ideas in sufficient depth and complexity, I learned to develop new ways of communicating and teaching – which later led to my research interests in participatory approaches, particularly the visual methods of Participatory Rural Appraisal, known as PRA.
When I returned to Nepal to conduct ethnographic research for a D Phil on the links between women’s literacy and development in two rural communities (see Robinson-Pant, 2001), I was aware that my language decisions as a researcher were not simply influencing who could communicate with me, but were also connected with differing identities and cultural values. In particular, English was associated with foreign aid agencies (I was linked to Save the Children US literacy programme) and many of the concepts being introduced through development programmes (e.g. ‘gender’) could not be or were not translated into Nepali. An important dimension of my research was to find out how people felt about ‘development’, analysing how the different languages used and being introduced into this area set up new power hierarchies within communities. As a researcher, I was collecting data in Nepali, English and Newari (a completely different language from Nepali, spoken particularly amongst women in one of the areas where I worked, which others translated into Nepali for me). Whether I chose to speak English or Nepali very much influenced the kinds of conversations and interviews I had with people – even the same person would tell me a different story in Nepali as compared to English.
For the past eleven years, I have been based in Norwich at the University of East Anglia and my first role as co-ordinator of PhD research methods seminars took me straight into the issues of conducting research across cultures and languages. In our weekly seminars we were a very diverse cultural group – not just in terms of countries of origin, but also institutional cultures, including government officials, university academics, educational NGO activists and teachers. Through our seminar interactions, I began to realise that writing in English was not just a ‘language issue’, but involved questions and dilemmas about identity and cultural values. For instance, several Saudi students said that they found it ‘Western’ and ‘self-centred’ to write in the first person and to put themselves at the centre of the thesis (as required by their supervisors) and that they felt disempowered, not being able to create the multi-layered text (drawing on metaphors) which they could compose in Arabic. I ended up writing about the experiences that we shared in these seminars (see Robinson-Pant 2005) and this led to my current research interest in academic literacies and intercultural communication. I have since conducted several research projects with international doctoral students which contributed materials and approaches for supervisor induction and professional development courses at UEA (see Magyar & Robinson-Pant 2010 & 2011).
Finally, as editor of a comparative education journal, Compare, I have become interested in the geopolitics of academic publishing, and the dominance of UK/US/Australian-based (‘centre-based’) English language journals. This is really about different Englishes as well as different languages, and wider issues around the construction of knowledge. As editor, I was continually asking myself for whom and what purpose are we publishing this journal? Many academics have to publish their work in high status English language journals for promotion purposes – even if based in academic communities where English is not the dominant language. The effect of such researchers publishing in English for an international audience can be that local audiences are prevented from learning from research conducted in their own communities. In some European countries, professional translators are now employed to ‘polish’ or even translate whole articles for submission to ‘centre’ journals, creating dilemmas for the editor about how to take into account this extra dimension of text mediation, translation and construction. How should the editor and reviewer read (and evaluate) a journal article that has been translated by a third party?
I am looking forward to discussing some of these questions – particularly around multilingual literacy practices – with the ‘researching multilingually’ group.
References and other relevant publications:
Lillis, T., Magyar, A. and A. Robinson-Pant (2010) ‘An international journal’s attempts to address inequalities in academic publishing: developing a writing for publication programme’, Compare: a journal of comparative and international education, Vol. 40/6, pp 781 – 800
Magyar, A. & A. Robinson-Pant (2010) ‘International research students: reflections on supervision’ (DVD and manual for doctoral supervisors)
Magyar, A. and A. Robinson-Pant (2011), ‘Internationalising doctoral research: developing theoretical perspectives on practice’, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp 663-677
Robinson-Pant, A. (2001) ‘Why eat green cucumber at the time of dying?’ Exploring the link between women’s literacy and development in Nepal, UNESCO Institute for Education, Hamburg, awarded UNESCO Award for International Literacy Research
Robinson-Pant, A. (2005) Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Educational Research, Open University Press, awarded BMW Group Award for Intercultural Learning (Theory Category)
Robinson-Pant, A. (2009) ‘Changing Academies: exploring international PhD students’ perspectives on ‘host’ and ‘home’ universities’, Higher Education Research and Development, Vol.28, No.4, 417-429
Robinson-Pant A. (2010) ‘Internationalisation of higher education: challenges for the doctoral supervisor’ in Thomson, P. and M. Walker (eds) The Routledge Doctoral Supervisor’s Companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences, Routledge, London
Robinson-Pant, A. and B. Street (2012) ‘Students’ and tutors’ understanding of ‘new’ academic literacy practices’, in Castello, M. and C. Donahue (2012) (Eds) University writing: selves and texts in academic societies, in G. Rijlaarsdam (series ed.) Volume Series in Writing, London: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.