Language is a topic that is particularly close to my heart right now. Last August I relocated with my family to the south of France for a year. We wanted to experience life in another country.
I also wanted to improve my French which was best described as “preschool-esque.” My husband is French-Canadian, so French is an important part of his heritage. We wanted our kids to be immersed in the language and I hoped to get my own French to a more functional level.
Being here and struggling to communicate has been very good at helping me understand the experience of many of our international research participants. Dimensional Research clients are technology companies that frequently have global operations and most of our projects include international participants. Since English is the global language of technology, technology professionals typically speak at least some English, albeit with a wide range of ability.
My French is still not very good, but I’m finding that there are certain people here that I can easily communicate with because they create an environment that makes it possible. Any researcher can have a more successful conversation with a participant that is not a native speaker by using these same techniques.
1) Speak slowly and clearly. This is a must for any research conversation, but is particularly important with a non-native speaker. One of my challenges when listening to French is picking out the individual words within the sentence. If someone talks too quickly or runs the words together, I miss words that I know perfectly well and so lose the overall question. It’s much easier to talk with people who distinctly separate each word.
2) Use simple words. When learning a second language, it’s easy to master words like “good” and “nice,” but “majestic” or “phenomenal” don’t come up very often. The simpler the language, the more likely it will be understood.
3) Avoid jokes. Humor and wit are among the most difficult things to grasp in a second language. Unless it’s really, really, REALLY simple it’s just confusing. Even worse, having someone laugh during a conversation I don’t understand makes me wonder if they’re laughing at me, which is discouraging for the overall conversation.
4) Repeat first – then reword. A lot of times I don’t get what someone says to me the first time, especially if it’s a new topic. But if they repeat the words in exactly the same way, I have a second chance to pick up what they’re saying. I know this is not a natural thing to do. Instinct says to use more or different words since that helps when talking to an native speaker. But a non-native speaker just has more words they have to filter through, which makes it harder. Of course, if repeating doesn’t work, then reword, sticking to simple language.
5) Give participants time to think. It requires a lot of brain-cycles to carry on a conversation when you’re not fluent in the language. Everyone knows that feeling when they have to search for a word that just isn’t there. When I talk French it ALWAYS feel like that. Translating real-time is difficult and can take time. Simply pausing for a little bit will give the participant time to think and come up with the best way to express themselves.
6) Enable participants help each other. In a focus group environment, put it on the table. Say that you know it is challenging to speak a second language, and that everybody in the room should help out everyone else to facilitate communication. If you give people permission to struggle a bit, then the group can pitch in to help an individual express their thought.
Of course, there are times when the only real solution to research with non-English speakers is a translator, but sometimes a bit of patience is all you need for spectacular research results.