I am fortunate to be involved in another literacy-based research project, aside from my own PhD. As part of this I have recently conducted telephone interviews with individuals in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Mercifully for me, participants conversed in English as – to my shame – my foreign language skills do not extend beyond saying ‘hello‘ (invariably in the wrong language) and asking, in German, how to get to the railway station (‘Wie komme ich am besten zum bahnhof, bitte?’) – after which I would, no doubt, smile and nod uncomprehendingly at the response. Here, then, are some quick, personal reflections, based purely on this brief but valuable experience.
- Interviews may provide an unexpected cultural, political or historical context to research. Although the questions themselves did not specifically seek this, it became obvious that participants were revealing interesting things about the countries’ attitudes to early literacy that would not necessarily come across in written literature or promotional materials. Known facts, therefore, gained greater significance when considered in context.
- It is difficult to pursue a line of questioning that an interviewee is not enthusiastic about, or do not perceive themselves to have a secure knowledge of. This can swerve the interview away from the originally agenda. (My lack of ruthlessness here would clearly exempt me from employment at News of the World.)
- Participants react differently to being sent questions in advance. Some people may use them to meticulously transcribe extensive answers to all questions. Others will not have had time to look at them until you call. And although the former approach may, on the surface, seem to be the preferable scenario for an interviewer, this can actually result in less opportunity for interaction and follow-up questions than the latter. Whilst there is clearly value in preparation, there is also something to be said for spontaneity. Both approaches present advantages and disadvantages.
- People do not always know what you think they might know!
- Telephone interviews do not, obviously, allow you to see facial expressions or body language. You only have tone of voice to help you gauge attitude, beyond what is being said.
- People will give their time generously – for no evident or immediate personal gain. They enjoy talking about a topic that is important to them, and one that they have invested considerable time in – particularly if you show interest too.
- The ability that some people have to converse in a language that is not their first is particularly impressive and somewhat humbling.
- You will have no idea why you didn’t ask certain questions during the interview that seem obvious when you listen back to the recordings.
- Listening back to your own voice on recordings is not a pleasant experience. You will cringe at your overuse of the word ‘excellent’ and a tone akin to a particularly patronising children’s television presenter from the 1980s.