“Do you Speak Their Language?” – On Possibilities for Ethnography Beyond Spoken Words

by Iva Grubiša

– Well, do you speak any of their languages? – a colleague asked me after I very briefly described my research idea during our Double Transit workshop lunch break.

– Hm, no, I do not – I answered, immediately feeling a bit perplexed. Have I really thought this one through, I asked myself, and before I could answer my own doubts, the colleague, one who herself has learned the language of her interlocutors and now speaks it very fluently, “struck” again: “But how are you going to do it then? If you want to dig into the meanings of home, language is key “.

Her comment was completely benevolent, of course, but it was a legitimate question and concern. Indeed, the aim of my research is to analyze and rethink the concepts, imaginaries, and experiences of home and home-making processes among refugees and asylum seekers in Zagreb. So, if I am interested in what do homes mean and represent in the context of refugeehood, how are they being imagined, constructed, lost, transformed, and experienced, then could I, and should I, do it without speaking the language of at least one part of my interlocutors?

The interview is one of the key methodological tools in ethnology and cultural anthropology. In fact, interviewing together with participant observation and analysis of documentary, archival, and scholarly data is considered to represent the core of ethnography (Culhane 2017:9). Most often, we conduct in-depth, semi-structured, or non-structured interviews in which we give the participants enough space to express their attitudes, emotions, memories, and experiences with asking open questions or just navigating through the conversations towards our research interests. In that way, we enable the participants to tell us what they find important and worth speaking about. It is a widespread method, one of the classical anthropological tools we reach out for when starting our research. Sure enough, conducting interviews will play an important role in my research as well.

However, what is to be done when in-depth interviews are not really an option due to the language barrier? What if the people we want to conduct research with do not speak the same language as we or cannot express themselves accurately enough in it, nor share with us deep emotions, memories, depictions of their life paths, and imaginations of their future, even if they are really willing to share all that with us? Indeed, how could I research into, understand and interpret the lives of other people, in this case, people whose life circumstances are very different and radically less favorable than my own, if they cannot (at least not in a language that I understand) describe in words at least a fraction of what they feel and live?
I suggest, by reaching out for “a different kind of ethnography” (Elliot and Culhane 2017), not only to bridge the lack of words, but in order to let in other ways of comprehension, knowledge, understanding, and analyzing; ways that will include an array of our senses, and go beyond spoken words. After all, as Soyini Madison put it, “ethnography is as much, or more, about bodily attention – performing in and against a circumscribed space – as it is about what is told to you in an interview.” (cited from Culhane 2017:11). Such a phenomenological approach to fieldwork enables moving away from excessive reliance on what is spoken, which can help when the language barrier is especially tangible, such as when researching among migrant populations. To use Kjell Hansen’s words, “life, of course, is made up of so much more than words and rational decisions, and our experience of the world is not primarily narrative, but rather sensory. Just talking about hunger, pain, happiness, or love is not the same thing as experiencing them. It might, therefore, be worthwhile to try to develop methods for reaching those first-hand experiences rather than relying on hearing stories about them” (Hansen 2003:160). This, of course, is not a new discussion in cultural anthropology, nor am I in any way a pioneer in a different kind of ethnography; after all, I have yet to begin with my fieldwork and see where it will lead me. However, when thinking of methodologies we use or could use, I believe it is still a discussion worth having.

CULHANE, Dara. 2017. “Imagining: An Introduction”. In A Different Kind of Ethnography. Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies, Denielle Elliott and Dara Culhane, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1–21.
ELLIOTT, Denielle, and Dara CULHANE, ur. 2017. A Different Kind of Ethnography. Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies.Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
HANSEN, Kjell. 2003. “The Sensory Experience of Doing Fieldwork in an ‘Other’ Place “. In Being There: New Perspectives on Phenomenology and the Analysis of Culture, ur. Jonas Frykman and Nils Gilje. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 149−167.