When we see that kind of language, “someone is going to jail” 

ETHER Blog Post – March 2021

When we see that kind of language, “someone is going to jail” by Joke Dewilde and Ingrid Rodrick Beiler

We knew we were doing something wrong when our potential participants reacted to our consent form as if it were a summons from secret police. We eventually realized that we were dealing not only with differences of language and educational background but of biography and memory.

Biographical Difference and Memories of Governance

Our current context of research consists of three classes for migrant learners considered to have little formal schooling, at an adult education centre in Norway. Here, we interpret difference to refer to biographical difference, especially in terms of memories of governance and communication. Several learners have lived in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq or Syria, where they have had negative experiences, including bad memories of encounters with the government. We have noted that their linguistic repertoires intersect with these memories in complex ways. Learners from Syria may speak Kurdish Kurmanji at home, but use Arabic for reading and writing purposes, in part because they were denied the opportunity to develop Kurdish literacy. Arabic can both represent a resource for communicating with other learners and index memories of political repression. Sometimes these learners also understand Kurdish Sorani, especially if they have lived in border areas where this has been used. These kinds of biographies do not mesh easily with what is expected from researchers who are required to follow the Norwegian research ethics regime.  We set out some of these ‘differences’ below.

Engaging with Difference within a Literacy-Based Ethics Regime

Research in Norway is subject to one of the strictest regulatory regimes in Europe. Since the implementation of General Data Protection Regulation, the national regulatory body for research ethics has required using an extended template for project information and participant consent. Given differences of language and literacy among our potential participants, we were mindful of the need to adapt and go beyond macroethical procedures (Kubanyiova, 2008). However, even after simplification, written translation, and oral explanation in learners’ most proficient languages, a surprisingly large number refused to participate.

To better understand the reasons for the learners’ scepticism, we deferred more to the judgment of others—teachers, translators and research assistants—than we have done in previous research. The following excerpt from an interview with Zahra, a multilingual teacher at the school, points to troubling associations with formal letters for some learners:

Zahra: yes it was those forms like consent forms, I think that was very difficult for the learners, the translation was a bit, bit too difficult for them to understand, so I thought that maybe that could be a little simpler, in a way, don’t write so much about everything, everything you do, it would have been a little easier just to write a little, how we will protect you, how we will protect the (xxxx), so that was a little too much for them

Joke:   right, we’ll do that, we will raise that, because we’re required to use those specific forms, but uh, it is, I completely agree with you that it became too difficult and that, we didn’t manage to communicate well enough to the learners what it was really about […]

Zahra: and then there are many of them who are traumatized, they have, many of them have internal traumas, so when they hear those kinds of words, then the anxiety comes, then it’s best to use very simple language, because in homeland, like in Iraq when we use that kind of language that’s in the form in Arabic, the only thing we have heard of is when there was a letter from the police or from- from- when someone is going to jail, so then that- that is what was, was a bit difficult for them

Joke:   are you thinking that, for another time, we should just have had the forms in Norwegian and had for example a person like you explain in the mother tongue and that they then sign in Norwegian?

Zahra: yes, I think so, I think it would make it a bit easier

In a similar vein, some learners specifically did not want us to take field notes while observing, as this evoked memories of police taking notes for surveillance or during interrogation. This surprised us, as we expected learners to find field notes to be less invasive than recording (Heath et al., 2010). Furthermore, the teachers reported that many learners were concerned that we came from the university to check on their teachers because they were not doing their job well. The teachers had to reassure them that this was a collaborative research project that they had welcomed.

Increasingly, we looked at the consent process not just in terms of satisfying a requirement, but also considering it as data of how differences encounter one another, producing unpredictable outcomes. It required us to ask how we as researchers could better understand participants. Reflexivity and monitoring the process of research took us into researching ‘engagement with difference’ and discovering what kind of difference we have to negotiate and what effort this takes, in terms of both time and meaning making.

Applying Previous Lessons Flexibly

In this project, we have had to apply lessons from our previous research projects flexibly, as experiences in our current field of research have seemed to call for some different microethical decisions (Kubanyiova, 2008) than in the past. These previous research contexts have, on the surface, been similar to our current context in terms of involving education for linguistically diverse groups of immigrant students in Norway. However, our current context has surprised us with elements of difference that we did not predict based on mere programmatic factors such as the age of the students (adults as opposed to teenagers) and levels of previous formal education. These unanticipated elements of difference have encouraged us to see difference as something we negotiate anew with any new group of participants, rather than as something we learn to bridge once and for all.


Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in qualitative research: Analysing social interaction in everyday life. SAGE.

Kubanyiova, M. (2008). Rethinking research ethics in contemporary applied linguistics: The tension between macroethical and microethical perspectives in situated research. Modern Language Journal, 92(4), 503–518. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2008.00784.x