Don’t let language stop you! The advantages of doing qualitative research in a foreign language

The prospect of following post-graduate studies abroad is attractive. Many universities offer doctoral positions to international students and collaborations between universities are common. Post-graduates with international experience increase their employability since they are highly valued, especially when coming from a prestigious university. Besides, to follow doctoral studies abroad comes with the opportunity to expand our professional network and experience life in another culture.

Usually, language is not a barrier to pursue a PhD abroad. Various post-graduate programs have English as its official language. However, when the doctoral project includes interviews and analysis of qualitative data in the language of the country, and not in English, this can be perceived as a problem and deter some international students from applying to these positions.

It may sound counter-intuitive at first, but I’m here to tell you that it can be a great advantage to do qualitative research in a language that is not your native language. Provided that you have achieved at least an intermediate-level of proficiency in the language in question, I would encourage you to take the challenge. I’ll explain why, using my own experience.

I speak fluent English and at the time when I started my PhD studies at Karolinska Institute, I spoke only intermediate-level Swedish. However, I took the challenge of conducting interviews to suicide-bereaved siblings in Swedish in order to collect and analyze these data qualitatively. When meeting and interviewing the participants in the study, I immediately noticed that language would not be a problem. All the opposite. Here I explain why:


  • Active listening. Since I was not fluent in Swedish, my strategy was to fully concentrate in what the participants said to make sure I understood their narrative. This made me sometimes paraphrase what the participants just said or to ask further questions to make sure that I had understood. My active listening may have even shown in my body language. Paying 100% attention is always appreciated and the minimum requirement in a good interviewer.


  • Let the participants do all the talking. My supervisors and I chose to use narrative interviews. I posed some very general questions and let the participants tell their stories at length. We noticed that it was an appropriate form of interviewing in health sciences since experiences of health or disease usually have a time “before”, “during” and “after” the particular event. In this way, letting the participants tell their stories following a timeline facilitated the interviews for them and for me as the interviewer.


  • Don’t take colloquialisms for granted. Not understanding colloquialisms is a great way to deepen the interviews. For example, during one interview, a woman who had lost a brother to suicide told me how she felt during the months after the funeral. She said that she felt “hudlös” (translated to English as “without skin”). I had never heard that expression before and my immediate reaction was to ask her “What do you mean by “hudlös”? She gave me the most in-depth description of how vulnerable such a loss made her feel and how difficult it was for her to socialize again. If Swedish had been my native language, I may have taken this expression for understood and I would have lost this amazing and raw description of the participant’s feelings.


  • “Hidden” patterns in the analysis of data. After receiving the transcripts from each interview, I proceeded with the analysis. After the 5thor 6thinterview, I noticed that participants often used the Swedish pronoun “man” (translated to English as the impersonal pronoun “one” like in “one doesn’t have the strength”). At first, I thought it was a common way of speaking in Sweden. After consulting with a supervisor, he told me to check at what moment the participants used this impersonal pronoun instead of “I”. It was very interesting when I noticed that participants used “one” when the conversation was getting too sensitive. This information served immensely in the course of future interviews and in the analysis.


After this experience, I would warmly encourage doctoral students and their supervisors to take the challenge and do qualitative research in a foreign language. Don’t let the lack of proficiency deter you from conducting qualitative research. As long as you have an intermediate-level, are thorough in the analysis and show a respectful and professional approach, this experience can be very enriching and provide good-quality data. Besides, most research participants appreciate the opportunity to be heard and are likely to overlook your foreign accent. Research participants in health sciences are mostly happy that their difficulties are being taken into consideration with the goal to improve their health outcomes.

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