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Researching multilingually in linguistic ethnographic research

7 December 2018

By Judith Reynolds, Cardiff University (with thanks to Piotr Wegorowski for his valuable input)

I was pleased to facilitate the third session of this year’s LEDS on 5 December, which focused on the topic of researching multilingually in linguistic ethnographic research.  “Researching multilingually” is concerned with how researchers draw on their own, and others’ multilingual resources in research, and in the reporting and representation of research, where multiple languages are at play.  It can be defined as:

  • The process and practice of using, or accounting for the use of, more than one language in the research process, e.g. from the initial design of the project, to engaging with different literatures, to developing the methodology and considering all possible ethical issues, to generating and analysing the data, to issues of representation and reflexivity when writing up and publishing. (Holmes, Fay, Andrews and Attia, 2016)

In the session, I first introduced the concept of researching multilingually as an emerging dimension of the research methods literature, before sharing some aspects of the linguistic dimensions of my own doctoral research into lawyer-client communication in asylum and immigration legal advice with the group as a case study. We then had an engaged discussion about some of the affordances of the researching multilingually concept for linguistic ethnographic researchers, as well as some of the ways in which it can be interpreted and drawn upon from within the applied linguistics research paradigm. In this blog I briefly outline some of the main points we discussed.

Firstly, we explored what researching multilingually means.  To research multilingually is, in essence, to be deliberately reflective, reflexive, and critical about the role of language(s) in multilingual research projects and processes.  Holmes, Fay, Andrews and Attia (2013; 2016) recommend that a three-step process is followed, involving (1) realization by the researcher that their project has one or more multilingual dimensions; (2) consideration, in the form of purposeful exploration by the researcher through reflexivity and consulting relevant literature, of the possibilities and the complexities inherent in the multilinguality of the project; and (3) informed and purposeful decision-making regarding the different aspects of language use in the research project, accompanied by transparency in reporting and writing up. Reflection and reflexivity is key, and these steps could in fact be viewed (much like ethical considerations in research) as continuing, developing considerations to be borne in mind throughout the life of the project.

As one possible heuristic for exploring researching multilingually, Holmes, Fay, Andrews and Attia (2013; 2016) encourage researchers to consider both the spatial, and the relational, dimensions of their research.  Spatial dimensions might include the topic or research phenomenon; the research site and context; the linguistic resources in play; and the spaces of representation and reporting (academic publications, policy forums, etc.) that the research is destined for. Relational dimensions involve consideration of how languages and linguistic ideologies manifest in the researcher’s relationships with others involved in the research (e.g. supervisors, research team colleagues, participants, mediators, translators, interpreters, transcribers, publishers, funders, research findings audiences, and institutional ethics review committees), as well as in the forms which research outputs take.  There is overlap between these two dimensions, of course.

A key dimension of my own research, a linguistic ethnographic project within an advice service offering legal advice to asylum seekers and refugees, was the linguistic diversity and unpredictability of the research site and context.  In the session, I talked about my approach to this, which mixed intentionality, in the form of deliberate planning and preparation, with reflexivity and adaptation as the project progressed and evolved. For example, I took steps to plan for the informed consent process with non-English speaking clients, researching in advance the main languages the clients I was likely to encounter might use, and having participant information forms professionally translated into those languages and then proof-read by others familiar with the research context. It was also important not to rely on assumptions that clients would be literate in the standard language varieties used in the written forms, or at all, and to plan for a process of obtaining oral consent with the support of interpreters where needed. All of this was detailed in my application for ethical approval, mindful as I was of the fact that university ethical review processes vary in their level of recognition of multilingualism in research (Perry, 2011).  In the execution of my research, the Arabic version of the information form was heavily used but other languages not at all; and oral explanations and discussions, mediated where needed by interpreters who had agreed in advance to assist with this, were key features of the actual process that I followed.

Discussing how researching multilingually fits into linguistic ethnographic practice, as a group we then contemplated how for linguistic ethnographers, many aspects of researching multilingually practice will come quite naturally. Ethnographic practice is, of course, grounded in reflexivity, and ethnographers are well used to considering their own positioning in their research and in relation to others they engage with. Ethnographers are also accustomed to familiarising themselves (at least to some extent; see Gibb and Danero Iglesias, 2017 for critical discussion) with the language and culture of the research site and then ‘translating’ this for others, as Agar (2008) explains through his conceptualisation of ethnography as second languaculture learning and translation.

Linguistic ethnographers are particularly sensitised to the role of language in the research site, including the ways in which even the use of a particular language variety signals, or indexes, aspects of identity or group affiliation and thus impacts on researcher positioning.   Perhaps the usefulness of the researching multilingually approach for LE research lies in encouraging researchers to be more intentional, and more comprehensive, in thinking about language not just in relation to the data and research site, but also in relation to themselves and their own research practice.  Turning the lens inward onto the impact of languages and language ideologies on research as a process, researchers’ positionings in the academy, and the ways in which research outputs are moulded and presented, are just some of the critical avenues which researchers are already engaged in exploring (Creese, 2015; Lillis and Curry, 2013; Martin, Stuart-Smith and Dhesi, 1998; Perry, 2011).

As a group, we also discussed how researching multilingually can be interpreted in the light of applied linguistic research on translanguaging and superdiversity (e.g. the Translation and Translanguaging ‘TLANG’ project).  One aspect of this is ensuring that the emergent researching multilingually framework is not seen through the ‘monolingual norm’ lens, which views languages as discrete, separate, whole systems that are intentionally switched into or out of.  People often draw on a variety of resources within their multilingual linguistic repertoires in a flexible manner, yet there is a potential danger that researching multilingually could be interpreted by researchers, institutions, funders, or others as requiring accommodation to one or more fixed language varieties (for example by translating consent forms into a standard language variety, as I did), thus further institutionalizing the monolingual norm. Rock (2017) problematizes this monolingual norm and advocates a more ‘informed’ approach to language within institutional sites, one that recognises and values translanguaging practices.  Much researching multilingually scholarship advances similar arguments (see, e.g., Ganassin and Holmes, 2013; Andrews, Fay and White, 2018; Gramling, 2016), foregrounding the challenge of how multilingual researchers can and should critically engage with monolingual norms encountered within the academy.

Our session was very fruitful, and I would like to thank those who attended for their insightful comments and discussion.   I am looking forward to further LEDS sessions next term.


Selected Bibliography

Core readings on researching multilingually as a concept:

Holmes, P., Fay, R., Andrews, J., and Attia, M. (2013). Researching Multilingually: New Theoretical and Methodological Directions. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 23(3), 285-299.

Holmes, P., Fay, R., Andrews, J., & Attia, M. (2016). How to research multilingually: Possibilities and complexities. In H. Zhu (Ed.), Research Methods in Intercultural Communication (pp. 88-102). London: Wiley.

The websites of the two underlying research projects can be consulted for more background and additional bibliographies: large grant under the “Translating cultures” theme, 2014-17) network grant, 2011-12)

TLANG project’s website is available here:

Additional readings:

Agar, M. (2008). A linguistics for ethnography. Why not second languaculture learning and translation? Journal of Intercultural Communication, (16). Retrieved from

Andrews, J., Fay, R., & White, R. (2018). From linguistic preparation to developing a translingual orientation – possible implications of plurilingualism for researcher education. In J. Choi & S. Ollerhead (Eds.), Plurilingualism in teaching and learning(pp. 220–233). London: Routledge.

Creese, A. (2015). Case study one: Reflexivity, voice and representation in linguistic ethnography. In Linguistic ethnography: Collecting, analysing and presenting data (pp. 61–88). London, Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE.

Ganassin, S., & Holmes, P. (2013). Multilingual research practices in community research: The case of migrant/refugee women in North East England. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 23(3), 342–356.

Gibb, R., & Danero Iglesias, J. (2017). Breaking the silence (again): on language learning and levels of fluency in ethnographic research. Sociological Review, 65(1), 134–149.

Gramling, D. (2016). The invention of monolingualism. New York, London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Lillis, T., & Curry, M. J. (2013). Academic writing in a global context: The politics and practices of publishing in English. London: Routledge.

Martin, D., Stuart-Smith, J., & Dhesi, K. K. (1998). Insiders and Outsiders: Translating in a Bilingual Research Project. In S. Hunston (Ed.), Language at Work (pp. 109–122). Clevedon: BAAL in association with Multilingual Matters.

Perry, K. H. (2011). Ethics, vulnerability and speakers of other languages: How university IRBs (do not) speak to research involving refugee participants. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(10), 899–912.

Rock, F. (2017). Shifting ground: exploring the backdrop to translating and interpreting. The Translator, 23(2), 217–236.