Research involving cross-cultural and cross-linguistic comparisons often requires cooperation with one or more research groups abroad. Carrying out research within an international framework poses many predictable—as well as unforeseeable—challenges. Differences in research cultures of various communities are not usually taught as part of regular courses on research methods in graduate or doctoral training.
For my dissertation project, I explored vowel acquisition in Hungarian-speaking children. I was eager to move back to my native Hungary to gather data and cooperate with a speech research group at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Later, the project expanded into a more international enterprise; with colleagues at the Institute of Phonetic Sciences in Amsterdam, we started working on a project that compares and contrasts vowel production in children from various language commmunities. Different research settings gave me the opportunity to gain knowledge of and familiarity with a variety of research traditions within each culture.
Hungary: Research Culture in Transition
At the time of my visit in 2002, Hungary was in transition from older, less-well-defined research guidelines towards laws and regulations that are in full agreement with the guidelines of the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004. While Hungary had well-defined rules for how to conduct research in medical settings, guidelines and traditions for conducting non-invasive research in non-medical settings appeared to be somewhat more flexible and in development.
I needed to consider issues relevant for many researchers working in international settings:
- In addition to a human subject approval from my U.S. university, which provided the funding, approval was required from the foreign institution. This process may be time-consuming even with non-invasive research.
- Preparing the research lab for testing young children requires familiarity with the safety guidelines of the host university.
- Making the lab child-friendly requires knowledge of the local culture (e.g., what types of puppets are appealing and familiar to children and caregivers?).
- We worked with university police to arrange for security and emergency planning.
- Recruitment procedures needed to be re-shaped to comply with cultural expectations. To increase participation, I arranged interviews on national television and radio stations. These interviews cost us nothing, because we recorded interviews about child speech and language developmental issues while also publicizing the research effort. Similarly, regional newspapers included information about the research at no charge.
- For speech-language research, a very careful screening of participants was required because of the many different dialects spoken. Generating a participant group in which families speak the same (standard) dialect of Hungarian was a challenge.
- Turning away potential participants who were not suitable for the study required culture-specific, non-
- We needed to establish a referral system for potential participants who were excluded from the research due to health reasons. We identified health professionals in the community to provide treatment.
- Some participants, especially those from wealthier families, attempted to refuse compensation (offered in the form of food coupons). It was a major challenge to explain the rules of research and have these participants accept the idea of required compensation for research participation.
The Netherlands: The Value of Traditions
I continued my exploration of vowel acquisition working in cooperation with a speech research group at the Institute of Phonetic Sciences in Amsterdam. For several years, we have been working on mapping vowel acquisition patterns in children acquiring various languages. My periodic visits to the institute during the last four years are starting to make me more of a cultural insider than outsider. Still, I continue to learn new aspects of doing research in a different research community.
My Dutch colleagues have been very welcoming. Being a part of this research group has taught me about flexibility and cooperation:
- Procedures for obtaining human subjects’ approval are most familiar to researchers in medical settings. Non-medical colleges may have less familiarity with such procedures, so getting approval can take time.
- According to a long-standing cultural tradition in Dutch research institutes, members gather in the library at 10:30 a.m. each day for a 20- to 30-minute discussion. Through these informal conversations, members who are experts in different fields (e.g., speech science, computer science, electrical engineering, linguistics) are continuously updated on progress and can discuss their projects with their institute colleagues.
- As in Hungary, we needed to carefully consider dialect when generating a homogenous participant population. Dutch has many regional dialects, so selecting participants requires native expertise in language and speech differences.
Conducting research within the framework of international cooperative projects can be a challenging endeavor. Dealing with different expectations that stem from diverse research cultures may cause delays in getting results. Continuous re-adjustments in how researchers cooperate need to be made in accordance with changes in culture.
Progress in science requires intercultural cooperation. Most often, the results justify the increased effort. I have found these international research project experiences to be most enriching and rewarding.