Working with bilingual community researchers: issues from a research project
School of Social Work University of Central Lancashire Preston, England
In this paper I discuss some methodological issues in working with a Polish "community researcher" in an ESRC funded project on language and identity. I argue that researchers need to consider more than issues of technical language proficiency when selecting bilingual researchers.
Research across a diverse range of communities has established that divisions within communities influence who community researchers are able to interview and how the interviews are carried out. When more than one language is involved many researchers across a range of disciplines have shown that language is used to represent and to construct identities. Different languages may have different connotations, for example, in relation to the use of emotion. Translations need to be the subject of scrutiny in research and these issues have been discussed within narrative and biographical research by Temple, Riessman, Blommaert, and others. However, when analysing the effects of writing about research participants in a language they did not use, researchers also need to take on board research which suggests that changing language may involve a change is how people perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Changing the language used to represent people therefore has epistemological and methodological considerations around representing others. The research discussed here suggests that participants recognised the important of language for helping to shape who they were. They also used spoken language to recognise divisions within and between communities by analysing the ways in which people used language, including for example, accent, lexicon and the use of diminutives in speech. The importance of language for self and other identification suggests that the selection of bilingual community researchers who are at the heart of this process needs to focus on more than "proficiency" as narrowly defined grammatically "correct" language to include sensitive issues around language use and proficiency in identifying and addressing language differences and their consequences for research.
I discuss one approach used in the research to show how the research team began to address issues of representation to illustrate my points.