Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Truth about Bilingual Interpretation: Guest Post by Steve Yalowitz

You know those research studies that make you want to immediately change your practice in some way? I recently read The BERI report on bilingual labels in museums and was blown away by its findings. BERI was an NSF-funded three-year collaborative project co-led by Cecilia Garibay (Garibay Group), Steve Yalowitz (Audience Viewpoints Consulting), Nan Renner (Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, Art of Science Learning) and Carlos Plaza (Babel No More). This guest post was written by Steve Yalowitz, a Principal at Audience Viewpoints Consulting, who has a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology and has evaluated and researched informal learning experiences in museums and other visitor institutions for over 20 years.

Bilingualism in the U.S. is a controversial topic, and the same is true in museums. If someone asked you whether museums should or need to have text in more than one language, what would you say? You probably have an opinion, or you could probably come up with an opinion without too much effort. Maybe you are in a country that mandates multiple languages, or at an institution already committed to bi- or multi-lingual interpretation. However, based on my conversations and experiences with many museum professionals, my guess is that many of you are aware of the issue, may think it’s worth discussing, but have limited knowledge about the core issues surrounding bilingual interpretation.

I was co-author of a recently completed research study [PDF] funded by the National Science Foundation, the Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI), which strove to better understand bilingual labels from the visitor perspective. This qualitative, exploratory study involved tracking and interviewing 32 Spanish-speaking intergenerational groups in fully bilingual exhibits at four different science centers/museums. We observed and audio recorded the groups, and conducted in-depth interviews in Spanish after they went through the exhibit, with a focus on what the bilingual experience was like for the group.

The BERI study really expanded our thinking about bilingual interpretation, even though we’d been studying the topic for years. One of the main affordances of bilingual interpretation, of course, is that it provides access to content. The BERI study shows that access to content—the most obvious benefit of bilingual labels—is just the tip of the iceberg. Bilingual interpretation expands the way visitors experience and perceive museums, shifting their emotional connection to the institutions.

Here are three affordances that may not be as top-of-mind when we think about bilingual interpretation:
  1. Code-switching – We found lots of evidence of effortless switching back-and-forth between English and Spanish. We saw kids and adults switch from English to Spanish not only mid-conversation but mid-sentence, both in the exhibition and in the interviews afterwards. Museum professionals often incorrectly assume that if we provide Spanish text for Spanish speakers, they stay in “Spanish mode.” The power of bilingual text is that it’s bilingual – it provides access in two languages, and code switching lets you understand and express yourself from two different perspectives, with two sets of vocabulary. It was a huge affordance for bilingual groups, especially when some members were not able to understand English, or even if they were Spanish dominant or fully bilingual. 
  2. Facilitation – We researched intergenerational groups, so it’s not surprising that many of the adults saw their role as facilitator as essential to their own and the group’s success in the exhibition. We confirmed what other label studies have previously found: that adults were more likely to read labels than kids. However, this study found that in bilingual groups adults were more likely to read in Spanish, while the kids were more likely to read in English. With Spanish labels available, adults were able to facilitate, guiding the conversations and interactions, showing their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews where to focus and how to interact. Adults who were previously dependent on their children could now take the lead as confident facilitators. An added benefit of bilingual labels, even for those who could read in English, was that they didn’t feel slower or that they were holding up the group.
  3. Emotional reaction – This study found that the presence of bilingual interpretation had a profound emotional effect on the groups. Groups said they enjoyed the visit more, felt more valued by the institution, and many said having bilingual interpretation changed how they felt about the institution. In our field, if we focus on the emotional aspect of the experience, it’s typically around the content and what we’re hoping people feel when engaging with our exhibits. While some of the reactions were around engagement with content (as would be expected), many of them were really about feeling confident and comfortable–key factors for a satisfying and worthwhile visit. 
When asking whether bilingual interpretation is worth it, we’re often looking at it through the wrong lens. It shouldn’t be about whether it’s worth it for us as an institutional investment, but whether it’s worth it from the visitor perspective. Does it improve the visitor experience in a way that adds value to the visit, providing affordances that don’t exist in monolingual experiences? The answer, from the BERI study findings, is a resounding yes.

BERI was a three-year collaborative effort I worked on with Cecilia Garibay, Nan Renner and Carlos Plaza. When we received the award, we felt a great sense of opportunity and responsibility, since this was the first NSF-funded research study about bilingual families and their experiences in fully bilingual exhibitions. You can download the research report and find out about the research model, methods, analysis and implications for the field.

 We saw this study not as the answer to the field’s questions about bilingual interpretation, but as the start of a conversation around better understanding how it works. In doing so, we found out that it is a much more complicated and rich experience than even we thought. After a recent presentation about the findings, a museum professional told us that the study’s findings helped change how they think about bilingual interpretation. My hope is that some of you out there will continue this important work, and help change how I think about bilingual interpretation.
blog comments powered by Disqus