Are Native Language Researchers Necessary for Accurate International Insight?

Expanding the field of work as either a market research department or agency will always bring new challenges as well as new rewards. Branching out into online international market research is no different. In fact, it brings possibly one of the most sizable insight challenges, that of accurate language understanding.

And let me be clear, understanding is not the same as translation. Google can translate. But as with all automation, it cannot empathise to the extent of a human, at least not yet… It can’t know that the word, ‘quality’ means ‘new’ in Korea but ‘long-lasting’ in America, that the phrase, ‘The carrots are cooked!’ in Germany does not mean it’s dinner time (it means the situation can’t be changed) or that the term, ‘freshwater turtle’ is actually a serious insult in Chinese.

Google can translate but it cannot know that ‘quality’ means ‘new’ in Korea but ‘long-lasting’ in America. that ‘the carrots being cooked’ in Germany does not mean it’s dinner time or that a ‘freshwater turtle’ is a Chinese insult

Translation software cannot fully interpret informal dialogue for accurate insight or accurate market research design, at the least it needs human supervision. But the burning question here is, do you need a native language researcher to translate or can a second language researcher cut the emphathic mustard?

Native Language Speakers vs. Second Language Speakers

Before we begin, let’s clarify the difference between a native language speaker and a second language speaker. A native speaker is a person who has spoken a language from earliest childhood — the first language learned within the family unit. A second language speaker is someone who learned a language after his or her native language; they should be at least fluent to be classified as a second speaker of that language.

The Benefits of Native Language Researchers

For the most part a native language market researcher will have the best command of the language in question, particularly in relation to colloquialisms and native culture which can affect meaning so dramatically. In terms of the research process benefits of this command include:

International Research Methodology
A native language researcher will be able to advise if the research methodogy proposed is suitable for the market, or if you have room for improvement. For instance, there are some countries where is not advisable to have a one-to-one video interview with a male moderator and a female participant for religious reasons. Here it would be necessary to invite a chaperone to the video interview, change the moderator to a woman or switch to a text-based interview format for anonyminity.

International Research Design
As well as cross country linguistic differences there are a lot of regionalisms even in the same country. A native language researcher will appreciate these and be able to use the right ones in the question design if and where neccessary. Not only will participants be able to understand exactly what is being asked of them and answer accurately, familiarity such as this means comfortablity and heightened engagement.

(Live) International Research Moderation
Any live online research will suffer without a researcher who can respond with fluidity. Delay disrupts the natural thought processes of the participant and can distort the research outcomes. The moderator must be able to understand the international participant/s and respond at speed which a native language researcher could naturally do.

Online research which incorporates a live international video stream or interview brings with it the additional problem of phoentics. A researcher can watch a video upload or streamed recording repeatedly in order to fully digest what is being said even in the thickest of dialects. A live video interview however requires a moderator who understands immediately which again, a native researcher will do.

Whilst this speed is not so crucial to the success of reflective international online research, in today’s dynamic business world it’s generally beneficial.

International Research Interpretation
With an inherent understanding of native language nuances, sayings and sarcasms a native language researcher can ensure that feedback outcomes are interpreted effectively. They also know why the culture behaves in certain ways, i.e. open, abrupt, relaxed, etc. which will assist throughout the entire research process — from objectives to incentives.

With an inherent understanding of native language nuances. sayings and sarcasms a native language market researcher can ensure that international customer feedback is interpreted effectively

Are Native Language Researchers Necessary for Accurate International Insight?

Whilst true linguistic understanding is key to accurate international insight so too, is market research expertise. There is no point in having a native language market researcher in your corner if they are not actually a good market researcher, i.e. if they’re not sure how to interpret the results, what questions to ask or how to avoid bias. Every benefit of native language market researchers outlined above will dissappear if the research element is poor.

As a second language speaker of English I can safely say that insight success here depends on the experience of the person. A second language speaker of the country in question who has cultural knowledge, experience in conversing with natives as well as the fundamental market research skill is far more valuable than a native speaker with little market research skill.

What we must remember is the ultimate goal, to present actionable insight back to our client (internal or external) in their native language! Which is often different to that of the participant. This means of course that all of the wonderful insight which has been accurately interpreted by the native language researcher of the country in question still has to be translated into another language in order to be actionable… So somewhere along the line a solid second language speaker is always required.

International Researcher Recruitment / Partnership Options

Taking all factors into consideration, and assuming that market research skill has been established, there are three options here:

  1. One native participant language researcher + One native client language researcher who is also a second language participant researcherThis will fulfil all requirements and is ideal where your international research requirements are intermitent, i.e. you can contract a trusted native participant language researcher as and when required.
  2. One native participant language researcher who is also a second language client researcherPreferable where your international market research requirements are ongoing.
  3. One native client language researcher who is also a second language participant researcherSuccess here is wholeheartedly reliant on the second language speaking experience and abilites of the researcher. Check for previous immersion in the second language environment.

In Conclusion…

In any given language, there are more native speakers who know the formal written language well, than non-natives who know both it and the more colloquial registers. This level of understanding is important for accurate international insight but market research skill is paramount and it is not impossible for a second language speaker to have the necessary native understanding.

The key to success is to ask the person you are considering for any international market research role the right questions in relation to it — it’s better to struggle to find a good partner than to deliver inaccurate insight to a client.

The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.



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