I am a PhD candidate in the School of Education at Durham University, where I am carrying out research into intercultural and multilingual communication in asylum law advice contexts. In my doctoral research, I am having to confront challenges of how to deal with languages and cultural contexts arising in my data that I am not at all familiar with. In so doing I am coming up against the full range of complexities that researching multilingually presents for the researcher.
I grew up a monolingual English speaker within a middle class British family, but have held an interest in other languages and cultures from a young age, leading me to study Latin and two European languages (French and German) to an advanced level at school, then Japanese as an undergraduate, and a range of other languages at a more basic level since then. I consider myself a struggling multilingual, with fluency only in my mother tongue, but partial and continuously fluctuating competence in a range of other languages and cultures stemming from my language studies and having lived or sojourned in a variety of countries and cultures since leaving university. For me, researching multilingually is all about working with this partial competence, making best use of the resources at my disposal whilst always remaining aware of the limitations this brings for my research.
As an undergraduate I ‘researched’ at a basic level in French, reading and writing about texts by Franco-Maghrebian authors. Even then I recall feeling unable to fully comprehend some of the North African cultural and linguistic references I came across, and which I needed help (from dictionaries, my tutor, or cultural insiders) to decode. Reflecting now, this illustrated to me that languages and cultures are dynamic, continually changing as ‘outside’ influences become appropriated and incorporated, and that we can (in fact, rather reassuringly) never hope to achieve complete mastery of any language or culture. I also at this time studied Roland Barthes, whose observation in S/Z (1970) that every reader brings his or her own experiences up to that point to the interpretation of a text, making each and every reading unique, rang true and has stayed with me since. This was the beginning of my understanding that whilst language and culture can be understood as shared constructions, with the meanings they carry negotiated and shared amongst a group of people, we are also each unique and individual, bringing our own personalized interpretations to events and situations. When researching multilingually, as in other areas of life, we cannot and must not assume that we fully understand another’s position, no matter how much we may share with them linguistically and culturally.
After leaving university I trained and worked as a lawyer, negotiating contracts on behalf of clients and advising on the meaning and interpretation of written laws and contract terms. Every lawyer is keenly aware of the power of words, the importance of precision in the use of language, and the need to properly understand the context surrounding any situation on which they are advising. Lawyers are expert users of language, and rigorous ethical training and a strict professional code surround the practice of law, intended to ensure that moral responsibility goes hand in hand with the use of the sophisticated linguistic powers that lawyers are trained to develop. I became interested in how lawyers manage when, working in intercultural and multilingual contexts, the challenges of the job are multiplied, including sometimes shifting power dynamics in the lawyer-client relationship.
As a Masters student in intercultural communication, I carried out research on the intercultural learning of Australian law students during a service learning experience in East Asia. Although the research was carried out in English, I worked with participants and other stakeholders from a range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and this first marginal experience of researching multilingually in an empirical sense brought home to me the importance of clear and unambiguous communication when engaging in research processes involving second language speakers.
At present, living and working within my home culture and language, I am unable to foster and develop my own multilingual repertoire to the extent that I would like. Yet because of my learning experiences, I am aware in a more general way of the frustrations and challenges, but also the richness, of living across languages and cultures. This awareness has affordances for the research I am currently doing, which has involved engaging with, and seeking to better understand the perspectives of, asylum seekers and refugees from a wide range of countries living here in the UK. Also, my identities as a French speaker, an elementary level Arabic language learner, and as a volunteer teacher of English, have all helped to build positive connections with research participants in ways that I could not have foreseen before starting the research. I have found that the sharing of experiences of languaging and living in other cultures can establish common ground and create bonds which prove to be important in the research process.
A key challenge for me has been the unpredictability of the linguistic and cultural identities which I will come across in my research – people needing legal advice on asylum or refugee law related matters can come from anywhere in the world, having travelled through many other places. Nothing can be assumed. Planning and executing my research in a reflexive and responsive manner, drawing on my own partial competences but also seeking help where needed from others, has been crucial. The experience of researching multilingually is for me one of continual reflection and reflexivity. I hope that by continually bringing awareness of the limitations and the affordances of drawing on different languages, and on linguistic and cultural informants, in my research to my planning, execution, and writing up, I will be able to accomplish more than I would have done by working monolingually.