As a researcher who often works using the classic tools of the trade in the form of interviews, participative observation or focus groups, the ability to speak both Welsh and English has been a useful additional skill, one that has been valued when I’ve been involved in social and health research here at the CIA.

The Welsh Context

There are still well over half a million Welsh speakers in Wales and beyond, and a large proportion of them are older, though with a growing number of younger speakers also. Undoubtedly, we’re living in a period of language shift, arguably one that has been going on for the last 150 years, and while the critical network of Welsh language speakers becomes weaker in some parts of rural Wales, including our hinterland here at Swansea University, Welsh is becoming more urbanised in others. Either way, on St David’s Day it’s worth celebrating the fact that in the words of singer and language campaigner Dafydd Iwan, ‘da ni yma o hyd’ (‘we’re still here’).

Let’s not forget also that for us in Wales, the struggle for Welsh language rights, in my view, is probably one of the greatest achievements of the 1960s and 1970s, and often isn’t recognised enough as part of a broader movement towards civil rights of all kinds in the post-war, post-colonial period, often mired in the sometimes petulant battles of the British left or the free-marketeering indifference of the post-1979 British right. Certainly, my parents’ generation fought for my right to a bilingual comprehensive education, and sometimes it’s sad to see that there are still skirmishes on a local level in Wales around this issue, often an easy pot to stir for lazy headlines or letters to the Western Mail. That said, we can’t ignore the fact that language rights are deeply political, as we can see today in Northern Ireland, or once more in Catalunya – and they always will be.

Conducting bilingual research

However, in this post I’d like to highlight some of the joy of research conducted bilingually as I’ve experienced it over the years, and point in the direction of some of the key issues which I feel can make paying attention to language a particularly rich experience, as part of research practice. There’s still a type of micro-politics involved in this, not least when as social scientists we’re often interested in talking about important domains of experience such as family, local community or health, all of which can be seen through various linguistic, political and theoretical ‘lenses’. So as a bilingual (which here broadly means having a high degree of fluency in two languages) with all the attendant interest that this seems to be generating now in terms of ageing studies, my research practice has been shaped in the following ways:

Firstly, the ability to speak two languages, and at times unconsciously to switch between dialects, has led to interview encounters where I believe building a rapport between interviewer and interviewee has been greatly strengthened. I believe strongly that many such interviews would have turned out differently if only possible using the one language, affecting both the richness and subtlety of the data. In a previous life, and having taught English abroad for a few years, I was lucky enough to complete a postgrad with modules in sociolinguistics and dialectology.  Two concepts which interested me were how the language we use is often a key act of identity, enmeshed in how we see and interact with the world, and that we often shift language according to our audience. I would argue that in some respects, both these linguistic features are amplified in a bilingual language situation, but perhaps uniquely so in terms of phenomena such as code-switching or the sociocultural experience when there’s more than one language involved – and let’s be clear, being bilingual ISN’T the same as being ‘two monolinguals rolled into one’. Being alive to the possibilities of our use of language is part and parcel of qualitative researcher identity also, as we step into other people’s social worlds; the way we approach those around us, what words come out of our mouths, and the way they’re said, can matter.

At a basic grammatical level in Welsh, for example, what ‘register’ we use can count greatly in our day-to-day interactions. In common with many other languages, we might switch our pronouns to signify generational difference, so much as in French an older person or someone unfamiliar might be addressed using ‘vous’ instead of ‘tu’, in Welsh we would use the pronoun form chi’ instead of ‘ti’; depending on the interview situation, these might be seen as either signs of (expected) respect, or in some instances, a distancing device which the interviewee might tell you isn’t needed.  This in itself might give you clues as to how the interviewee see themselves, or indeed how the interviewee sees you. For example, as a North Walian in his mid-forties I wouldn’t dream of calling my father the informal ‘ti’, even though we’re very close; however, I would not expect my eight year-old Cardiffian son to use ‘chi’. Both would feel strange, but it also shows how language attitudes change and shift over time. However, it’s been my experience that having the flexibility and sensitivity to choose the linguistic register in an interview situation can make a great difference in terms of how you’re perceived and the level of trust generated in the encounter.

On top of such grammatical cues in an interview, shifts in pronunciation and dialect might happen, often on a subtle level, in which the people talking are usually trying to put each other at ease (or not). This is true of all linguistic encounters, of course, because most people will have more than one language repertoire according to the audience they’re addressing. This is usually unproblematic and fun to observe if we’re at an academic conference for example, but in one of the most celebrated studies in sociolinguistics in Belfast in the seventies, it was demonstrated that a slight shift in vowel sounds clearly indicated which community you came from and whose territory you were on, which might have had more unpleasant consequences.


Apart from these issues which are basically around ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status, often taking their cues from language, of particular interest to me in bilingual situations is the issue of code-switching between languages. When and why we might switch between languages can sometimes signal the way in which certain domains are more closely associated with one language, and it could be argued, the relative status of these domains in terms of broader power structures, on a psycho- or sociolinguistic level. Typically, the domains of home and family, or expressing emotions that are difficult, will be expressed though the more dominant or mother tongue (or L1 to use the academic jargon), and other domains will reflect the significance of the societal dominance of a given language.

It’s amazing how many older first language Welsh speakers I’ve interviewed over the years would automatically switch to English whenever asked about anything which might involve numbers: they would have been a generation where most of their schooling would have been through English, and maths would have automatically been taught through that language. I can also recall a particular interview a few years ago in North West Wales with someone affected by depression. It was difficult to imagine, given the subject matter, that they would have been comfortable expressing their views in any other language than Welsh, but they would switch to using English when referring to particular coping mechanisms, perhaps associated with ideas of ‘resilience’ using expressions such as ‘get over it’ or ‘rise above it’, while they described the ‘it’ in more detail in Welsh; such code-switching and what it might mean is under-researched in a Welsh context as far as I know. In addition, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that language ‘choice’, even in the smallest of encounters, can sometimes be symbolic of deeper historical power struggles and inequalities, and that language is often ignored, for ideological reasons perhaps, when we consider other social ‘scientific’ variables such as class, gender, age or race.

Valuing multilingualism

There should, perhaps, be more of a push for a research agenda around the macro-political issues about delivering culturally competent care for older people here in Wales, including speakers of other languages apart from Welsh and English; this is an issue which has come up more than once in my own research around dementia supportive communities, where there is inadequate provision around social care provision and more so through the medium of Welsh; we are only now beginning to understand the uniqueness of multilingualism with regards to brain health. As a bilingual society, and having won that status, we have great opportunity to contribute to these issues globally, since most of the world speaks more than one language.

However, on a micro level, it’s been my experience that paying attention to the role of language as part of our reflective practice as researchers, as we shift our research identities from situation to situation, can be incredibly valuable in terms of analysing any particular fieldwork we’re involved with. When it comes to language, I’d urge my fellow researchers to take heed of St David’s words, and pay attention to the ‘little things’.

Aelwyn Williams is a PhD Researcher at the Centre for Innovative Ageing, exploring the development of dementia supportive communities in Wales.