International Problems

This week’s post is going to be about my beat. Not in some ‘links to greater journalistic ideas’ way but in a very specific, deals with a problem that is tied to the idea of trying to write an international beat. For the record, I’m not saying that you will only ever come across this problem if you write an international beat – everyday journalists probably encounter it as well, however, writing this beat means that I bump up against this with nearly every story.

What is this elusive problem that I’m rambling on about? It’s the issue of Language Barriers that I constantly get to battle against.

Covering all things international at Allegheny College – as I like to think my duty as an international reporter is – means that more often than not I’m interviewing international students themselves. Not always, as I try to spread my wings across the multiple facets of international life here, but so far it seems to have been more often than not…and for many of them, English is not their first language. Out of the 76 international students on campus at the moment, only five of them speak English as their first language.

Now I hope this does not surprise many – or any of you (however my personal experiences have shown me that not all Americans know this) but I am one of those five. Yes, although I may have an accent that makes you think I’m saying I’m better when I’m really asking for butter, my mother-tongue is in fact English. So the major language barrier isn’t a personal one; aside from the odd expression or common colloquialism here and there. Sometimes misunderstandings can arise from the fact someone can’t understand my accent, not from his inability to understand English. Most people learn either American or British English, so often a New Zealand accent can be really hard to understand. I suppose that’s an issue specific to myself but it’s a barrier nonetheless.

Whether it’s because of my accent, or a deficiency in their English ability, one of the biggest challenges I face is people not understanding my question the first time round. Sometimes this means rephrasing a question three or four times in order to be understood. Although this may not seem like a big deal and just a nuisance that I should just deal with, there is actually a deeper problem to it. As a journalist, you want to ask the right questions in order to get the right information that you want. And how people respond to a question can vary greatly depending on what word choices you make. Now if someone doesn’t understand my beautifully thought-out question the first time around, often by the third or fourth question what I’m asking can have changed dramatically. Am I usually getting the same basic information? yes. But it is the extra details or the answers hidden beneath the surface that can often end up getting lost.

Then there is the second half of the problem. Even when they are able to understand the question (be it on the first, third or fourth time), are they then able to answer it? Again, usually the answer for any basic information is yes. I don’t think I’ve had anyone who hasn’t been able to give me any kind of response – even if it wasn’t what I was looking for. Although they may be able to understand the question and then respond, I often feel like this is at the expense of eloquent wording and sometimes even general meaning. Had I been able to ask them in their first language and if they were able to respond, I’m sure that I would have pages full of beautiful quotes, color and details to really give my story body. But again, I feel like somewhere in the translation of what someone wants to say and how they then do that in English, the strength or direction of their point can get lost.

From a selfish perspective this can make it really hard to get good full quotes. Sometimes I can be left with half sentences and thoughts that have been strung together in a grammatically incorrect sentence. So then do I use these but not directly quote them? I feel like a whole story with no direct quotes loses some of its power.

More often than not I am able to get all the information I need, including a couple usable full quotes. I feel like I should put a disclaimer here to say that the English proficiency of most of the international students is actually very good. It is only when you really start paying attention to language and how different word choice and word order affects what someone is really saying, that I find I can sometimes have an issue. Sometimes language barriers can make it fun. Other times they can be extremely frustrating. More often than not they are never so bad that I can’t get what I need.