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Do’s and Don’ts When Interviewing in a Second Language

May 17, 2022

OIG is fortunate enough to have several bilingual attorney investigators who can conduct investigations involving individuals who don’t speak English as their first language. They have learned valuable lessons along the way to avoid miscommunications or misunderstandings. 

Do: Prepare

The investigator should take the time to translate all admonitions and introductions into the second language prior to the interview. This will usually be more reliable than trying to translate during the interview. If possible, they should have a peer review the admonitions and solicit feedback. Additionally, they should spend time crafting their interview questions into the second language. Even if they are confident in the second language, there may be certain key words they will want to have prepared ahead of time.

Do: Check-ins

Many languages, including Spanish, have various dialects. This means that certain words an investigator uses may have a different meaning or no meaning at all for the interviewee. Therefore, it is important for investigators to ask follow-up questions to make sure the interviewee understood them. Also, body language can help investigators identify when the interviewee is confused. Sometimes an interviewee will be too timid to correct an investigator or ask a question, so it is important for the investigator to take initiative. This is especially important when asking questions about a key issue. For example: the English word “straw” might be translated differently in various countries in Central and Latin America. In Mexico they say “popote,” while in Peru they say “cañita” or “sorbete.” Not clarifying dialects or confirming definitions of keywords could result in an inaccurate representation of events.

Don’t: Neglect your notes

Sometimes the investigator will be unable to record the interview. When this happens, they must rely on their notes. Investigators may struggle to take good notes in a second language and therefore it will be important for them to ask the interviewee to slow down and repeat anything they missed. Better to be safe than sorry! One easy way for them to do this is by reading back their notes to the interviewee to make sure information has been captured correctly. Usually, an interviewee will not mind a slower pace if the investigator explains the importance of correctly capturing their thoughts. While this is something investigators often do during English interviews, it can be even more important when interviewing in a second language.

Don’t: Assume the reader knows

Sometimes interviewees will bring up events, people, or words with cultural significance. Even if the investigator understands the reference, the same should not be assumed for the client or others who may review the findings. Investigators should take the time to add a footnote with information from a reliable source. Additionally, if the investigator does not know what the interviewee is referring to, they should ask during the interview and/or research it on their own time.

Seeking clarity is an important part of any investigation. Taking these extra outlined precautions when interviewing nonnative English speakers can help to ensure all participants’ voices are heard and accurately included in the findings.


By Maria Walker