When people find out that I live in Germany, am not fluent in German, but develop and conduct visitor studies for German museums, a common question is: How?
How do I understand why visitors are coming, what they’re doing, how they’re engaging, and what they want when I don’t always understand what visitors are saying?
A difference in language is a challenge but it isn’t insurmountable. After three years working in Germany, here is what I’ve learned is necessary to prevent language from being a barrier to communication.
Before a Project
Sell Your Skills
My lack of German fluency is already one strike against me, so everything else I offer has to be strong. When I’m meeting with potential clients, I emphasize my training, experience, and previous happy (German) customers.
Be Upfront About Your Language Limitations
Before I begin working with an individual or organization, I’m honest about what I’m able to do and produce in German. This allows everyone involved to evaluate what I can bring to a project and determine whether or not it will be enough to meet their specific goals. Most of the time, with a little imagination and a lot of planning, I’m able to find workaround solutions to any potential language issues.
Have a Language Plan
Along with being clear about my language abilities, I also come with a plan for how I will handle those shortcomings. What will I do to make my lack of fluency as much of a non-issue as possible? Depending on the project, this can involve anything from a crash course for me to learn project-specific vocabulary, training staff for specific tasks I can’t do myself, or bringing in outside German collaborators.
Learn What Different People’s Language Needs Will Be
In previous projects, I’ve been fortunate that many of my colleagues have been able to work with me in English. But not every staff member and volunteer can, nor should they be expected to. Before I begin working, I make sure I know who I’ll be working with and what their language “comfort zone” is, be it English, German, or even “Denglish.” I make it very clear that I’m happy to work with people in whatever language they need. There are always still a few misunderstandings, but we work through them together.
During a Project
Determine Where You Need Language and Where You Don’t
A lot of the questions museums ask me to answer don’t require speaking to visitors (at least not in the first iterations). While I don’t design research projects to minimize how much I need to use German, I do take advantage of non-interview techniques, such as visitor mapping and unobtrusive observation, whenever they’re appropriate.
Prepare Your Handout and Memorize Your Spiel
The amount of direct observations I conduct means there’s always a chance I’ll be spotted by a visitor. In order to explain what I’m doing, I create a simple, one-page overview of each project in German. This can be displayed in the lobby or at the entrance to an exhibit, given to visitors when they buy their tickets, or handed out on a case by case basis if visitors ask questions or complain about me. I also make sure I’m comfortable giving a simple explanation what I’m doing, and why, in German if any visitors question me directly.
Be the Man Behind the Curtain
For most studies, non-interview techniques will only take you so far. When the research requires talking with visitors, I often need to step back and let a native speaker take over. But that doesn’t mean I remove myself from the project. Rather, I work behind the scenes, planning the details of the study, developing the tools the evaluators will need, training staff and volunteers to conduct surveys and interviews, and analyzing the resulting data.
Find Language Collaborators
On occasion, I’m able to work with museum staff and volunteers directly to help me translate and create content, but constraints of time, money, and staffing mean that I usually have to look outside an organization for assistance. So I find language collaborators, native speakers who (ideally) have a background in museums or the specific subject matter of the research. We work together to make sure that the subsequent English and German versions of whatever we produce are as accurate as they can be.
After a Project
Create Multiple Language Resources
Whenever possible, I prepare the final results, reports, and recommendations in English and German. If a report is too long to realistically create multiple language versions, I develop the primary documents in English and include concise summaries of the most important information in German as introductions to each English section and also as a shorter separate document.
Hold Multiple Language Follow-Up Meetings
When presenting results to staff, volunteers, and board members, I’ll offer to hold briefing sessions in both German and English. I make it clear that the English session will be more involved and I’ll be able to go into more explanation and detail, and that the German session will be more basic in the information I can share and questions I can answer. People are encouraged to attend whichever session they feel most comfortable with and we work through the information while being patient with everyone’s abilities in their non-native language.
Do any of you work in a non-fluent language on a regular (or irregular) basis? What are the things you’ve found to be most problematic, and how have you gone about solving them?