Breaking the silence (again): on language learning and levels of fluency in ethnographic research

By Dr Robert Gibb and Dr Julien Danero Iglesias

Abstract

Ethnographic research is often multilingual, requiring the researcher to work in two or more different languages, if necessary with the assistance of an interpreter. Given this, surprisingly few ethnographers have attempted to discuss in detail how their own knowledge of different languages and their decisions to use interpreters and/or translators during fieldwork have affected the research they have conducted. Drawing on material from our own research, as well as from published accounts by other ethnographers, we aim in this article to dispel some of the ‘silence’ or ‘mystique’ surrounding such matters. More specifically, we argue for the importance of documenting and analysing not only the process of language learning in ethnographic research but also the ways in which levels of fluency in a second or additional language can affect the research process, including the writing of ethnographic fieldnotes and forms of self and other identification. We suggest that a heightened awareness of these issues can help researchers make more informed choices when carrying out and writing up ethnographic research using different languages.

Read the full article in the Wiley Online Library.

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