It’s day 2 at the ISE 2018 Congress and time is already flying by. It feels like just yesterday I was a mere undergraduate student learning about collaborative ethnography on campus, and here I am working on a research team in Brazil. The transition from research assistant to field research has been difficult, but I’ve learned a lot. One lesson I’ve learned after only 72 hours in Brazil is the importance of language. I have no experience with Portuguese, and I naively did not expect this to be an obstacle in the field. Even the smallest questions like, “where is auditorium A?” become a confusing slur of words and a jumble of hand motions. It’s almost impossible to be self-sufficient with this language barrier, so the collaborative nature of our team is particularly important for me.
Body language and context will suffice for basic questions, but things become more complicated during events. Since the schedule is in English, I have a general sense of each event before attending, but I am unable to get a comprehensive understanding of the content. I have felt intimidated walking into these events that I won’t understand. I am exhausted from trying to pull out the few words and phrases that I recognize and construct a possible narrative based on the event theme. Despite the challenges of a language barrier, I have been able to gain something from each event. Instead of writing down every single word (which I would do in an English-speaking event) I am able to look around the room and see how people respond to each speaker. I can also devote more time to spatial awareness, taking in the environment of each event space. My contextualizing skills are getting some great exercise as well. I’ve been reminded of the uneasy feeling of dependency and confusion that many non-English speakers may feel in the US, and I feel privileged to live in a place where most people speak the language that I’m most familiar with. There are also the multiple Indigenous languages to keep in mind, but I’ll tackle one at a time.
Luckily we have 2 Portuguese speakers (Laura and Emily) to guide us through the language barrier and ensure that we are not ordering the wrong thing at restaurants.
In the field...
Follow our team as we cover international environmental policy making meetings.
Dr. Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University
Dr. Laura Zanotti, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University
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