Much of my recent career has involved supervising doctoral research students from a range of linguistic backgrounds. They have all carried out critical qualitative studies, mostly of aspects of professional life in English language education. They have taken on some very tricky areas, such as the cultural politics of native-speakerism, and the identities of students which go against common cultural stereotypes. In almost all cases we have worked together to find ways to uncover hidden and unexpected meanings which go against established discourses. This has meant putting aside traditional notions of objectivist research because the researchers have found themselves implicated in the attitudes, prejudices and discourses that they have found.
Against this background, when I was presented with the notion of researching multilingually, my first thought was not about how these students navigate the task of translating the views of their subjects into English. To me, their research is always ‘multilingual’ because of the number of different discourses which need to be untangled and negotiated. I think these discourses can be thought of as small languages, and can have just as much complexity in their differences as large language – especially as these differences may not always be immediately apparent. This is in terms of the topic of study and also in the way in which the researchers themselves need to acquire different (small) languages – of being a researcher and of being a professional at least, which take from different parts of one’s identity. Mastering and working with these different (small) languages of course require building on experience from life; and living and working with more than one (big) language will certainly add to one’s repertoire of such experience.
Another issue is the very ‘foreign’ (small) language of academic writing – foreign perhaps to absolutely everyone. A major, and refreshing irony, which has always been apparent to me, is that the researchers with English as a second or third language seem to find the subtleties and complexities of qualitative English academic writing no more difficult than those who have English as their first language. Indeed, it is often the latter who find this so extremely difficult. This may be because the researchers who have English as their first language find the academic language just too close to home to engage with through helpful distance.
By the way, I recently saw the award-winning Iranian film, The Separation
It took me back uncomfortably and excitingly to my very early adulthood, living and working in Iran. It was there that I learnt to be a husband, father and son-in-law – and how to drive. And once I was involved in a car accident in a far-off provincial town. I actually hit a woman and had to go to the hospital, the court, the police and so on, and to some extent even getting involved in the politics of her family. My Farsi was good, but what was better was my knowledge of how to behave through observation of complex cultural practice, which always preceded the language. The stakes were high. My ethnography was crucial.
I have therefore proposed the following abstract:
To look at this issue with the freshness it deserves it is important to move away from two established viewpoints – a modernist view of research in which data is considered independent of the researcher, and a modernist view of language and culture in which the former maps precisely onto the latter. A more postmodern, and critical cosmopolitan viewpoint enables a series of propositions which complicate issues of research and language and raise the healthy possibility that things may not be what they seem.
- In all circumstances, even where all parties share the same big ‘L’ language, there is a problematic yet enriching translation between the inevitably different discourse and world-views of the researcher and participants. Even where the data is verbatim, when the researcher writes the discussion, the data becomes integrated into this discussion, does not stand independently, and is therefore mediated by the discourse of the researcher. Sharing the same big ‘L’ language does not release the researcher from being implicated in this way.
- Big ‘L’ languages can themselves transmute across different cultural realities. Cultural realities can be expressed equally well in ‘foreign’ big ‘L’ languages. Cultural differences between social groups who share big ‘L’ languages can be as great as differences between big ‘L’ language groups.
- All researchers, in all circumstances, should strive to be multilingual in the sense that they must find methodologies to carry meanings across linguistic, discoursal and cultural boundaries. Working within the same big ‘L’ languages may lead to complacency in this respect.
- Everyone has the potential, depending on circumstances, to carry and innovate with meaning and practice across unfamiliar cultural boundaries. To presume that participants and researchers cannot do this would be patronising and essentialist.
In the presentation, these propositions will be considered in the light of conversations with researchers and participants who have been involved in multi- and single- big ‘L’ language projects.
Holliday, A. R. (2011). Intercultural communication and ideology. London: Sage.
Holliday, A. R. (2007). Doing and writing qualitative research (2nd ed.). London: Sage.