Language assumptions for global respondents

Language assumptions for global respondents

One thing that has struck me over the years is there now seems to be a greater assumption that global respondents can handle surveys in English. Whilst a level of understanding is certainly present, there are also quite a few pitfalls regarding comprehension and the following questions certainly need to be considered:

How reliable are the respondents understanding of the survey in English?

This is a tricky one. Often audiences such as IT professionals and HCPs are seen as the go-to for an English survey. Many of the topics often transcend across different cultures/languages and due to the technical/specificity of the subject matter, it is taken that many will have few problems managing the material. 

How general can we be, and will one size fit all?

Well, that’s a fine margin and largely dependent on the subject matter, but it’s certainly worth asking if respondents are 100% on board with the material presented to them. Just because something is presented in English, it doesn’t mean that it translates well for a non-native speaker or is indeed how a subject would be referred to in their first language.

What problems could occur with the data output?

Research shows that when respondents are presented with English-language questionnaires they are somewhat less extreme in their responses than when approached in their native language. This can lead to underestimating ‘cross-country differences’ (Harzing, 2006) especially if both native and non-native English speakers are included in an international survey.

I read an article recently stating that 20% of respondents in the US don’t speak English at home, furthermore, 9% don’t speak English very well. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise in a multicultural society like the US, but in turn, to extend the same survey to geographies where English is not the native language is probably something that is never really addressed. Thus, it is paramount that survey designers understand accordingly, to ensure quality data in the end. 


Ultimately, the choice of survey language will largely be determined by a respondent’s language proficiency. If, for example, we are conducting an international study surveying senior executives that are likely to possess a sufficient level of English, who in turn have been university-educated, the use of single-language surveys in English may be adequate.

Nevertheless, when it comes to survey design, using clear language is key. Creating questions that are going to make it less difficult for non-native respondents to take the survey can make for a better overall experience for respondents, but if budget allows, consider native translation options to remove ‘almost’ all doubt.

One other aspect to consider is cultural etiquette. In certain European countries it can be seen as rude not to present the survey in a native language, so might not be the best idea to present your carefully crafted questionnaire to a respondent that is not particularly ‘au fait’ with an English only option! 

How can Dynamic Fieldwork help?

As International Data Collection specialists, Dynamic Fieldwork can help take away those headaches. We can advise on a universal English survey that cuts across geographies and cultures and help clients traverse the complexities of International Research.

In turn, we can also advise that a survey needs to be cognisant of local idiosyncrasies or that population minorities in certain countries will have local dialects with their own nuances.

Colm Russell, Managing Partner at Dynamic Fieldwork