Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos


In this CVR podcast series, we talk with those doing research and serving victims and learn about the work they've done together.

Tell Us About It, Episode 26: Linguistic Justice in Victim Research

A convo with Gabriela López-ZerónMay 12Time: 22:34

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Have you ever wondered how language barriers play into research on victims of crime? In this episode of Tell Us About It, Gabriela López-Zerón sheds light on how language access plays a key role in working with multiracial, multicultural victims.

Gabriela López-Zerón, PhD, is the director of the Linguistic Justice Division of the Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence at Michigan State University.

Learn more about Michigan State University’s Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence:



Susan [00:00:03] Welcome to “Tell Us About It: Victim Research Convos,” a podcast from the Center for Victim Research with support from the Office for Victims of Crime. On each episode of “Tell Us About It,” we talk to researchers and practitioners about their work, the tools being built for use in the field, and how we can work together to build an evidence base for victim services.

Susan [00:00:23] Today, we’re talking with Gabriela López-Zerón, the associate director of the Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence at Michigan State University and the director of the Consortium’s linguistic justice division. Welcome, Gaby.

Gaby [00:00:37] Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Susan [00:00:41] Gaby, can you start by telling us about linguistic justice? What does that term mean in the context of victim-related research?

Gaby [00:00:49] Yes, absolutely. Linguistic justice or language justice really refers to the right that everybody has to communicate in the language that they feel most powerful and most proficient in, and so linguistic justice is really a component of both racial and social justice. And this work has been developed by grassroot language cooperatives that promote a commitment to equity among languages and really identify language as a central part of any cross-cultural or cross-racial work. And so I think what’s really come to – is too often in our social justice movements, despite our best intentions, we really recreate some of the same language dominance that is at play in mainstream culture. So in the United States and in much of the world, English plays a dominant role. And so when we think about that and we think about the context of working with survivors of gender-based violence and just in all spaces, it really is critical that we create an opportunity in a space where survivors are able to express themselves in the language that allows them to best communicate their ideas, their experiences, their questions, their needs, really. And in research specifically, it’s important that we integrate this perspective throughout every stage of the process to really make sure that survivors are able to express themselves in the way that they prefer and that we’re capturing their stories accurately.

Susan [00:02:32] What caused you to focus on the application of this concept of linguistic justice as a researcher?

Gaby [00:02:41] I think it’s my own personal experience as a researcher, first as a student. My first language, a native language is Spanish. And so I was an international student when I came to the U.S. first as an undergrad, but then as a graduate student. And initially I am trained as a marriage and family therapist, or a couple and family therapist. And so I wanted to do work with the Spanish-speaking Latin American community. And I realized that there weren’t a lot of services, that I wasn’t able to get the supervision that I needed in the language that I was being – that I was practicing really as a trainee. And then I joined a Ph.D. program and started my training as a researcher. And in that process, I learned the importance of making sure that when we’re conducting research that our participants are able to express themselves in the way that they prefer and that they feel more comfortable and so that we can get accurate information and can accurately represent their stories and our data.

Susan [00:03:55] So, when you’re thinking about linguistic justice and inclusion, how would you think about incorporating inclusion at each stage of the research process?

Gaby [00:04:08] Yeah, so we can start from the onset. So I said that I’m a researcher wanting to do an evaluation that will involve survivors of gender, race, violence. So first we need to consider if this will involve survivors that may not identify English as their preferred and most proficient language. And so if that’s the case, then we need to consider budgetary needs to really ensure that we’re creating a linguistic, inclusive space. So really the key is to plan ahead. So, for example, as researchers, we must consider the population that we’re hoping to work with. How many survivors we estimate that might identify a language other than English as their preferred language, what languages that might be. And then it’s important to consider whether we have the multicultural and multilingual individuals as part of our research team with their expertise and their commitment to the project. Does the budget that we have support the hiring of translators, interpreters, multilingual, multicultural data collectors and multilingual, multicultural staff that can support the cultural and contextual interpretation of the data that were collected to make sure that we’re accurately representing that and that we’re accurately capturing the stories and the voices of the participants that we’re working with.

Susan [00:05:44] Let’s go back and look at some pieces of what you just talked about. Let’s think about translating instruments. What are things to consider? I mean, you know, there are so many automatic translation programs right now and people might just want to take the cheap and easy way out. What do they really have to be inclusive? What should researchers consider in translating, let’s say, a survey instrument?

Gaby [00:06:10] That is a great question and probably the question that I get most often because first we really need to think about what are the materials that need to be translated. Do we need to translate the recruitment materials like flyers and letters we send out, screening materials, consent forms, the actual survey or instrument, but also the receipts when participants gets their incentive. Once we know what materials we’re going to be translating – the ones that I just mentioned are data collection materials. So we need to think about whether we need to translate the data at the back end for analysis after data collection or not so that that gets captured into the budget too. So once that’s all done, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to translate these materials? Is there going to be a member of the research team or are we going to use one of the translation services that you mentioned? This consideration is critical to ensure the validity of the study on a few different levels. For example, there are words in our anti-violence movement that are technical that we use all the time that might be difficult to translate or might have multiple interpretations. So although it’s appealing to send it to a translation service, they might not have the expertise in the content area. So it might be a risk when it comes back. So if that’s the case, because maybe we need something that’s a quick turnaround, then who do we have on our end to review these materials to ensure that they’re translated not just accurately, but also with trauma-informed principles in mind and with the considerations of our field in mind? So translations may be accurate, but that doesn’t mean that the materials are culturally and contextually appropriate for the population. For example, we might have an accurate translation, but using very proper language that may not be easily understood. But for the groups that we’re working with may not be appropriate in our intention. So in general, literal translations are not appropriate and we need to make sure that we’re using thoughtful translation processes.

Susan [00:08:34] So does that cause complications on the research end? If it’s not a literal translation, do you ever have pushback when someone says but your instruments don’t precisely match one another?

Gaby [00:08:48] I think that is always a consideration when we’re thinking about – I think there’s a difference when we’re thinking about scales, like validated scales, and when you’re thinking about perhaps an interview question for qualitative interviews. So there’s different considerations. So certainly, yes, it makes it a little bit more complicated and it requires conversations with the principal investigator to consider what that means, because it might be a literal translation of the questions of the scale, but if the participant is not understanding them, then are we really collecting data that’s valid if they don’t understand what we mean, even if it’s the correct translation for it? So how do we meet participants in our population where they’re at?

Susan [00:09:42] Wow, so that is a much more complex issue than I think a lot of people have considered. Do you have the same kinds of considerations when hiring interpreters?

Gaby [00:09:54] Yes, I think similarly, when working with interpreters, there’s a lot of things to consider. I think the first thing that we talk about with researchers is if you think that you’re going to need an interpreter, then we should ask the participants whether they have an interpreter that they feel comfortable with, that they have worked with in the past. And so if they don’t and they don’t have an interpreter that they recommend and we don’t have interpreters that we work with, then it’s really important to make sure that interpreters are certified or highly trained. As researchers, it might also be really appealing to use over-the-phone interpretation services because they’re so useful in they’re right there for you. It’s convenient, but again, that might be a risk. Typically with over-the-phone interpretation, you don’t have the opportunity to talk to the interpreter before you need them. And so you don’t know whether interpreters might have the experience interpreting for survivors or maybe they have limited experience in interpreting as part of a research project and assessing whether an interpreter is trauma-informed and their interpretation is really important to make sure that then when they’re interpreting that, they are being sensitive and thoughtful regarding how questions are phrased and how they respond to interviewees as they go through the interview. So I’ve also found that it’s really helpful to provide a little bit of training before with the participant to be able to explain the rationale behind interview questions and the rationale behind some of the scales and what we intend to get at so they have a better idea of what’s about to happen in the interview and are better prepared for it. That makes the process much, much smoother and it makes it for a better experience for the research participant.

Susan [00:12:05] So then what should you consider when you’re selecting interviewers, and, you know, and its qualitative research? What should investigators look for beyond linguistic capability, or perhaps the interviewer is using an interpreter, but what are the considerations with the interviewers?

Gaby [00:12:27] Yeah. Hiring and training staff for this kind of work is really important. And especially when we’re working with survivors that are from diverse backgrounds that have diverse linguistic needs. So as a researcher, if I don’t speak the target language, I must consider how I will assess the staff’s language skills, but not just their language skills, but also their cultural and contextual understanding of the population. So, for example, we really have to consider whether an interview, or if you’re thinking about the linguistic needs of the population, whether an interviewer is a heritage speaker or a native speaker, to make sure that we’re really tailoring the training process to their needs. So, for example, heritage speakers might be somebody who grew up speaking a language in their home, but spoke a different language in the community, at school, perhaps with their friends, and may not have received a lot of formal education on the language versus a native speaker who might have received informal education in their home and in the community and in their peer group, and likely also received some formal education on the language. This distinction is important because heritage and native speakers might have different needs, different training needs. In my experience, heritage speakers often need some support in some of the technical language and finding ways to probe and follow up during interviews. Native speakers sometimes need extra support in processing their personal reactions to some of the stories that they’re hearing from survivors. They might hit close to home because they’re from the same region or they’re from the same home country. And so these are different training and supervision needs that we should be aware of. Additionally, I want to point out that often training is done in English, because if I am a researcher and that is the language that we’re using for the majority of our study and how we’re conceptualizing, then we’re also training in English. It is really important to train interviewers in the language in which they’re going to be collecting the data. So if an interviewer is going to be collecting data in two languages, and for the sake of illustration of they’re going to be collecting data in English and in Spanish, it’s important to train them in both languages. This is an opportunity to practice the interview, but also to give them specific feedback and know how they’re going about it, not assuming that interviewers can extrapolate their training in English to another language. So there are often cultural and contextual considerations to discuss. Aside from specific feedback on interviewing style, probing, following up and so this kind of training ought to be ongoing. So it’s important to have a process of data-tracking and being able to provide feedback to interviewers as they’re going through the process of interviewing.

Susan [00:15:50] So after you have followed all this advice on translation and interpreters and training your interviewers and you’ve completed the data collection in a way that you’re confident was culturally and linguistically inclusive, does that mean that the team has done the heavy lifting and it’s all smooth sailing from here on out?

Gaby [00:16:13] Well, I will first say that, you know, if you have taken into account all of these considerations, you have certainly integrated this framework to the data collection process, which is fantastic. But there is also an important consideration to bring in this framework to the analytic process, which is really important. So as researchers, we must really carefully engage in the interpretation of the data to really ensure that we are not ignoring important cultural, contextual factors. But it’s also important to be careful to not present the data in ways that reinforce problematic cultural stereotypes as well. So this is like dance here – there is a delicate balance between the recognition of cultural and contextual differences, which is really important, and equity. So in qualitative research, that certainly adds complexity to the analytic process, but also so much richness that it’s really important to not have all the data that’s collected in English dominate what the themes are, but really bring in this cultural and contextual understanding into the process, but walking that fine line.

Susan [00:17:39] So you have done so much to explain this process and how it should work and how it benefits the research and the learning that we can get when working with non-English-speaking populations. Are you starting to see any changes or increasing awareness around cultural and linguistic inclusion in research, either on the part of researchers or on the part of the service providers and communities that are the subject of research?

Gaby [00:18:09] I think that I’m really incredibly inspired by the researchers and the service providers and activists and communities that I have had the opportunity to work with as part of our division on linguistic justice within the university, we’re fairly new, and I’m just encouraged by the interest and the desire to learn more about it. We as part of RCGV at the university have the privilege to partner with the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and have together formed a working group of amazing people with a depth of experience and who are incredibly passionate about increasing awareness around language justice. And so we noticed that there is a need for more information about it. So we’re trying to strategize as to how to how to go about that. And in the research community, I’m really encouraged by the interest I see from colleagues in our movement to learn more about how to integrate this framework into their research when they’re working with survivors.

Susan [00:19:21] That’s really inspiring. Where do you think this is all going? What would you like to see? What do you hope to see in five years outside of your own settings?

Gaby [00:19:32] I really – I love this question because it allows me to dream on where we could be with this. So I think I am excited for the possibility of really seeing some systemic changes within the research community, but also within funders. So I would really love to see institutional review boards within universities and funders both require detailed, thoughtful plans to address language justice needs when researchers are proposing that they’re going to be working with multilingual, multicultural communities. I’m excited to see more researchers and advocates and activists come together to discuss the importance of these issues when working with survivors and identify language justice as social justice. So I’m also really excited for the possibility of seeing more representation of the communities being served in staff and in leadership. I think that that would really allow this to continue to take the importance that it deserves. And so I look forward to continuing this work and help other researchers who are committed to social justice learn about – learn more about how to ensure that the research is conducted in a trauma-informed way that really includes being responsive to survivors’ language needs so that their participation in research can be part of their healing process as well.

Susan [00:21:05] Gaby, this has been terrific. Thank you so much for your time. I’m sure that a lot of our listeners as well as myself have really had our minds opened and are really ready to be much more thoughtful as we pursue research and even as we consume research to think about that language justice issues at play. Thank you so much for helping us think about this important topic.

Gaby [00:21:36] Thank you so much for having me. It really has been wonderful to talk with you about these considerations when we’re conducting research with survivors of gender-based violence, and I really enjoyed our conversation today.

Susan [00:21:50] We hope you enjoyed this episode of “Tell Us About It.” If there are research or practice experts you’d like us to interview or research tools you’d like us to feature on this podcast, email us at

Closing [00:22:04] “Tell Us About It” is a production of the Center for Victim Research, funded by the Office for Victims of Crime’s Vision 21 Initiative through Cooperative Agreement Number 2016-XVGX-K006. The Office for Victims of Crime is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. However, the points of view and opinions discussed on this podcast are those of the host and expert contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position of policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.