Blog entry by Astrid Dinneen

Anyone in the world

Sarah Coles shares the fourth instalment of a journal-style account of her reading for the literature review and methodology chapters of her PhD thesis. 


12th October 2018

Continuing with my reading, this time I write again about interviewing, as it seems there is no end to the number of articles devoted to this particular subject.  I read one about interviewing dementia care-givers, a cheery little number.  Whilst you might not immediately think there’d be many parallels, I found there was much to gain from it, mainly to do with thinking about respondent vulnerabilities, ethical considerations and how to get the most out of an interview situation when you are really expecting people to talk about some highly personal stuff to a someone they barely know.  A lot of this boils down to knowing your interview schedule really well (that’s the list you prepare in advance of the key things you want to cover in the interview).  It was found to be off-putting if the researcher had to refer to a list as this seemed to depersonalise the interview experience for respondents, causing them to stop giving full, descriptive accounts of their experiences – so clearly it had an impact that was entirely at odds with the researcher’s aims and as such is a useful tip I shall be taking on board.  Also, and in a similar vein to guidance we are periodically given relating to dealing with safeguarding concerns and disclosures, it is advised that one avoids asking leading questions and instead asks people to describe their situations.  O’Connell Davidson and Layder (1994) suggest that in qualitative approaches to interviewing, the researcher should be prepared to respond flexibly to whatever the respondent may say and should maintain a strong focus on listening and encouraging talk rather than on ensuring all the questions they have prepared are covered.  Their book, ‘Methods, Sex and Madness’, is an entertaining caper through issues of gender identity, sexuality and witchcraft, all linked to research methods.  I find it a refreshing change from the way research methods are discussed in more traditional academic writing, and it certainly raises some important points to ponder in relation to my own research.  These points are reiterated by a guy called Seidman writing in 2013, who advises that in-depth, qualitative interviewing should have as its goal to encourage respondents to reconstruct and express their experiences and to describe their making of meaning, not to test hypotheses, gather answers to a set of pre-determined questions or corroborate opinions.  Seidman goes on to expend some wordage decrying the use of the word ‘probe’ in favour of ‘explore’, which is the point at which I had to go and make a cup of tea.  The last advice I need to take from this week’s reading is to listen more and talk less.  This I will endeavour to practise at work, and I have asked colleagues at EMTAS to let me know how I get on.  I am fairly certain I will find it particularly challenging, and I can already hear those of you who know me well chuckling quietly as they are very well aware that I can talk for England and many other countries besides, given the opportunity.

 
 
2nd November 2018
 
Undaunted by the lack of feedback on my academic ramblings, I shall persist as I am sure at least two of you will be properly interested in this week’s topic, which is the concept of ‘semi-lingualism’. 
 
This pejorative term has been used to describe an individual whose first language has not developed fully in that they are not considered to be ‘proficient’ users of that language.  When introduced to another language, such an individual would not be able to reach ‘proficiency’ in that language either, lacking the linguistic framework yielded by proficiency in the first language on which to hang the new language.  Or so the theory goes.  This being the case, rather than becoming a ‘balanced bilingual’ (more on that nebulous notion in a future edition) with comparable ‘proficiency’ (ditto) in both languages, such an individual would never attain proficiency in either.  Scary stuff indeed.
 
Several inherent difficulties push their way to the fore here.  The first is that there is no universally accepted definition of ‘proficiency’ in either a first language or a subsequent one.  In the US, there have been attempts to measure first language proficiency and MacSwan (2005) discusses the use of various ‘native language’ assessment tools in the US to determine the proficiency of speakers of Spanish as a first language in particular.  For MacSwan, there are issues with construct validity with these tests.  How, he questions, can such a test assess a child brought up in a monolingual, Spanish-speaking household as a “non- or limited speaker of Spanish” given that the child has no attendant learning difficulties and given what we know about language development 0-5 years?  A review of the types of questions asked in these tests and the test rubric itself demonstrates a strong bias towards answers given in full sentences.  For instance:
 

Item

Required student response

Prompt

  1. ¿Qué está hacienda el niño?

[What is the boy doing?]

El (niño) está leyendo/estudiando.

[The boy is reading/studying.]

Picture of boy looking at book

 

In the above example, most people would give the response “Leyendo” or “Estudionado” (“reading/studying”) rather than responding using a full sentence – and they would be rewarded with a score of zero for this.  MacSwan suggests that to give an answer to that particular question using one word reveals “detailed covert knowledge of linguistic structure”, which sounds terribly learned.  To what MacSwan says I will therefore add my own two penn’orth and call it an example of “linguistic economy” – a new concept I have just invented to describe beautifully succinct language use in which no syllable is superfluous yet the full meaning is evident.  Add to these observations the fact that we only learn about the ‘need’ to answer in full sentence in school, where these US tests are used prior to a child being admitted to full-time education, and a picture begins to emerge of Spanish-speaking children in various states in the US being found linguistically wanting and in consequence penalised and denigrated for having poorly developed first language skills before they have even got off the starting blocks.  Furthermore, it is widely held that children exhibit from an early age complex knowledge of such language-related things as word order, word structure, pronunciation and appropriate use of language in particular situations, whatever their first language may be.  Most children achieve this by the age of five, in fact, bar perhaps just the latter stipulation which brings to mind those priceless examples drawn from one’s observations of one’s own child’s completely inappropriate use of language in various public fora.  Do please send in your own examples of these as mine, which took place at Marwell Zoo just outside the zebra enclosure, is unrepeatable in this context.  Back to the matter in hand and for MacSwan, then, it is not the child’s first language proficiency that is being measured with the test question above; it is the child’s ability to suspend his pragmatic linguistic knowledge in favour of compliance with an arbitrary requirement to couch an answer in a complete sentence - in itself an unrealistic requirement, given the child has yet to start school.  Hence definitions of ‘language proficiency’ and the ways in which this might be measured are open to debate and, in consequence, so too is the concept of ‘semi-lingualism’ for which I for one am thankful.


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[ Modified: Monday, 30 September 2019, 12:10 PM ]
 

  
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