Tips on Interviewing Second Language students

Interviewing Second Language Students

In relation to interviews that involve participants whose first language is not English (i.e. immigrants, refugees or ESL post-secondary students), it is important to be aware of cultural differences, language barriers and ensure that your interview questions are clear and easy to understand. When a language barrier exists between qualitative researchers and their interviewees, the research can come with unique challenges (Temple & Young, 2004). Despite the emphasis on cross-cultural communication, researchers have paid little attention to the effects of the language of the interview or cultural backgrounds of interviewees and the interviewer (Polio & Friedman, 2017).

I have had the opportunity to interview and transcribe interviews from a study on second language writing and culture and a study on online feedback and post-secondary ESL student’s perceptions and experiences. I will take what I learned from conducting these interviews and transcribing these interviews to my own research study, from the literature and discussions with peers.

I have included a few points below from my insights:

  1. Listening
    • Listening is key in any interview, but I really had to listen closely to understand some of the students due to their accents and use of words.
  1. Building Trust and Relationships

For the study I was working on, I did two rounds of interviews with the students. The follow up interviews took place a month after the first one.

      • I did not know the students, but I did find that during the second round of interviews, they seemed to be more open and trust me more.
      • I was flexible with scheduling interview times to accommodate participant’s schedules which may have helped build our relationship.
      • In my own study, I am aware that it will take a lot of time and flexibility to gain access and build relationships and trust.
  1. Ensuring that language is clear and easy to understand
    • As with any interviews, it is important to make the language clear and easy to understand. It is even more important for second language learners.
      • I had to rephrase some questions in a couple of ways before the meaning was clear as some of the participants did not understand the terminology.
    • I will remember this with my own study as I am looking at a construct that is not easy to understand (intercultural competence).
  1. Using a translator or interviewing in the participant’s second language?
    • Using an interpreter can be beneficial as participants can speak in their first language and may able to speak in more depth about the topic and their perspective
    • However, if one uses an interpreter, the researcher must be aware of the “interpreter version” of the interview.
    • In this study, I interviewed students in their second language (English) which may have limited their ability to express themselves freely and clearly.
  1. Body Language
    • Taking account of participant’s body language is critical.
    • It is valuable for researchers in the field, to consider the interview’s non-linguistic aspects, e.g. the interviewees’ body language, gestures and other sources of ‘unsaid’ data, as they represent an interesting source of research information (Talmy, 2010).
    • Researchers need to be aware of other forms of communication norms within interviews, including non-verbal communication, which may differ between cultures. (Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, 2011)
  1. Taking notes
    • Even though I was recording the interviews (with the permission of the participants), I found it was beneficial to take notes.


        1. Patience and time
    • Transcribing takes a lot of patience, concentration and time. Take breaks and go back to it, but it often better to finish one transcription at once.
    • I always do one round and then go back to do a second listen right after I listen to the fist so that it is fresh in my mind.
    • I often pick up phrases or words after I listen to the transcription the second time.
  1. Online tool used for transcribing are: 
    1. O transcribe


Talmy, S. (2010). Qualitative Interviews in Applied Linguistics: From Research Instrument to Social Practice. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 128-148. doi:10.1017/S0267190510000085

Polio, C. & Friedman, A. (2017). Understanding, Evaluating, and Conducting Second Language Writing Research. Taylor and Francis, Roudege.

Samovar, L., Porter, R., & McDaniel, E. (2011). Intercultural communication: A reader. Cengage Learning

Temple, B. & Young, A. (2004). Qualitative research and translation dilemmas. Qualitative Research. 4 (2). 161-176.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s