"Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow."
‒Oliver Wendell Holmes
How does one discuss issues such as sexual violence, HIV, and contraception with young women in a responsible way? What language is most appropriate to use when attempting to make others feel comfortable sharing their personal lives and sexual history? Most importantly, how does one navigate these topics and create safe spaces for young women without all of the tools of his or her first language?
Despite the fact that I have worked with young women and medical professionals in the Dominican Republic exploring sensitive issues for the past two months, I continue to wrestle with these questions. Asking young women about contraception, sexual violence, and sexuality can be a challenge regardless of a language barrier. Given that my study, which examines the sexual health of young women, remains a taboo in my community, it is especially difficult to effectively engage adolescent women and the larger community in honest conversations about their experiences. My need to occasionally ask timid informants to repeat themselves and my awkward phrasing in Spanish complicate these already loaded interactions, leaving me feeling unproductive and invasive. At first, each time I tried to engage a community member in conversation about my research topic, I worried that she would be put off by both my language incompetency and the nature of my investigation. I also did not want to alienate young women who could not identify with my positionality as an American woman or an English speaker. I found myself questioning the validity of my findings, worried that I had not translated something properly in my interviews or that my heavy accent made it impossible for my informants to understand me. For the first several weeks in my community, I strugggled with these questions as I tried desperately to improve my language competency.
While I still wrestle with these questions and occasionally experience misunderstandings working with community members in my research, the increased sense of comfort I feel with Spanish and my community as a whole has improved my confidence, and ability to conduct valid research. I have developed tactics to ensure that I maintain these achievements. For example, I always make sure to come to my community with a list of questions and key ideas written in Spanish to guide my daily conversations and emphasize certain points with people I interview. I have also become much more comfortable rephrasing my questions or explanations. With this, I have found that if I appear confident and competent, then others will work more enthusiastically with me to attain mutual understanding and more natural conversation. I also realize that there are myriad ways to demonstrate sincerity and engagement if I falter in my speaking ability. A large component of this is demonstrating humility and admitting when I am confused or unable to adequately express something. This humility has also allowed me to grow closer to participants who appear more comfortable discussing their true opinions and experiences when I admit my vulnerabilities and inadequacies.
The nature of my research requires that I attain and maintain trust with young women in my community. Despite my initial reservations, I have found that I am able to cultivate relationships and pursue my research. Just as I ask individuals in my community to open themselves up and discuss topics that they may be uncomfortable with, I must also be willing to develop alternative and unique ways of communicating my intentions and demonstrating engagement.