Recently, a student visited my office to chat about her research. She began the conversation expressing her concern with the consent form because we ask researchers to submit translated materials if their participants speak languages other than English. For example, if a researcher is studying how students in the Dominican Republic respond to challenging mathematical tasks, the IRB consent forms will likely be in both English and Spanish.

She understood the justification and was in agreement with our policy. However, her concern emerged because of her research interests. Long story short, she studies elves—not the holiday ones, but the ones featured in books like “Lord of the Rings.” She proceeded to describe a school that teaches students about the legend of elves and a few sessions are taught in “elfish.” She was particularly interested in the courses where both the teacher and students spoke using only the elf language.

I urged her to think seriously about her target population and what translated materials would be most relevant to them, or what language they might understand most clearly. She ultimately decided that translating the materials into the elf language was not necessary under these circumstances.

As researchers, it is always important to consider the cultural and linguistic characteristics of a target population, especially when thinking about how to develop materials like consent forms.

These considerations are inspired by research in intercultural communication. Generally speaking, intercultural communication revolves around competence and sensitivity when engaging with diverse groups of people.

  1.  First, intercultural competence means to think and act in culturally appropriate ways. For example, a researcher might want to understand how communication processes differ among their target population and identify challenges that may arise from cultural differences. The researcher could learn ways to creatively address these challenges and develop skills, behaviors, and approaches for communicating with different cultures.
  2.  Second, intercultural sensitivity means to remain attuned to relevant cultural differences. For example, a researcher should know their target population and understand what is and is not permitted given certain circumstances. Sensitivity also means that in instances when the researcher speaks or behaves inappropriately, they listen and look for cues to respond differently or attempt to improve upon the communication for future interactions.

Researchers can reflect intercultural competence and sensitivity in their consent forms or other participant materials like recruitment scripts. This intercultural communication approach could help build a bridge between the researcher and study participant.

Others have written about when to translate a consent form and why translating consent forms for diverse populations is important. For example, these six tips listed on Language Scientific are particularly helpful.

To summarize, as researchers, it is important to understand your population, whether they are from Middle-Earth, or not.