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First language research delivers results

26 June 20140 comments

First language researchUsing bilingual assistants when researching culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities can dramatically improve research outcomes, a new study has found.

The use of first language research assistants can deliver a deeper understanding of participants’ experiences, essential cultural knowledge and important contextual information or perspective, the report said.

It can also make research more valid by gaining access to people who may not typically participate in research, the researchers said.

The study, titled The first language advantage: working with bilingual research assistants’, was conducted by migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES.

Researchers Stella Mulder and Monica O’Dwyer considered the use of bilingual research assistants in a longitudinal study conducted by AMES Research and Policy Unit between 2008 and 2012 on the employment experiences and aspirations of newly arrived migrants.

The analysis found the practice delivered both quantitative and qualitative advantages and more valid results.

“We found that employing people who share the language and cultural backgrounds of research participants gave us access to people who may not typically participate in research,” Ms Mulder said.

“Beyond language, bilingual research assistants bring cultural knowledge and a familiarity with a cultural community which can be very helpful in understanding the experiences of research participants,” she said.

“Bilingual research assistants have a capacity to contextualise issues from a cultural point of view and this can have an important influence on the research,” Ms Mulder said.

“For example, we wanted to get a better understanding of the employment experiences of migrants and refugees who had recently arrived in Australia.

“Most people we wanted to talk to had low levels of English.  We employed bilingual research assistants from our own staff group to interview people in their first language and convey their views to us in English.  The role of the research assistants was essential to helping us understand the work situations of this group of people,” Ms Mulder said.

AMES has been conducting research with migrants who have low levels of English since 2008. AMES staff speak around 55 languages and more than 60 staff members speaking 42 languages have put their names on a new AMES Bilingual Assistant Registry.

The researchers also said the views and experiences of recent migrants with low levels of English were commonly underrepresented in research. They said gathering information from this group was important to AMES’ work in supporting the settlement of migrants in Australia.

“In the original longitudinal study, we were interested in understanding the employment experiences of a group of people who arrived in Australia with low levels of English,” the researchers said.

“The research assistants working on the project were themselves migrants and spoke the languages we needed to communicate with participants.

“In addition to this they came from similar cultural backgrounds to the participants. As AMES staff they brought a thorough understanding of the diverse settlement and employment experiences of migrants,” they said

“These attributes enabled the research assistants to develop very good rapport with the participants and as a consequence we were able to gain valuable information about the varied employment situations of this group of recently arrived migrants,” the researchers said.

They said the study’s findings would inform service delivery as well as advocacy programs in relation to employment but the principles established could have wider applications.

“Most of the time in our research we need to talk to people who have low levels of English.  In this project we were interested in people’s experiences of work.  At other times we have interviewed people about their expectations of life in Australia, their experiences of settling here and their hopes for the future.  In our research we often rely on bilingual research assistants to help us understand the views of our clients,” Ms Mulder said.

“What our research shows is that when researching CALD communities there are decided advantages in using people who can speak the language and who understand the culture of a community,” she said.