Tips on how to conduct international research

Just finished a few days of focal contextual inquiry down in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Here are a few tips for handling primary research in foreign countries.

1. Speak slowly. So many people here want to engage in English and forego the translator. That means you need to be clear in your questions and deliver them slowly.

2. Don’t try to fill the pauses with questions. This is true for all research, but especially true for those research participants whose first langage isn’t English. Give them an opportunity to gather their thoughts and continue their answer before jumping in with the next question. I found those follow-up comments where I didn’t interject a question to be research gold.

3. When using a translator, speak to the participant and not the translator. Never address questions to the translator. They are there to facilitate the language, not as a focal point for the discussion. Look at the interview participant and ask them the question. “Tell me about a time where you had difficulty …” is good, “Ask him to tell me about a time where he had difficulty …” is bad.

4. If you are conducting an interview without a translator and someone is stuck for the right word in English, tell them they can express themselves in their native language instead. Typically, when someone has done that, I could pick up on a word in their native language and say what I thought it meant in English and they would then know how to express themselves in English and re-answer the question. Obviously, this technique works better for languages that share words or characteristics to English. However, even if you couldn’t understand a word someone said in their answer and you are audio-recording the interview, you can ask someone who knows the language later to directly translate. It breaks the flow of conversation, but it’s better than nothing.

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