Marina Jimenez thinks that all reporters should learn a second language, whether they’re covering a foreign country or their hometown. “It’s invaluable,” says Jimenez, a foreign writer for the Toronto Star. “You can read the papers, eavesdrop on conversations, travel, and walk around alone, feel more confident, understand the cultural nuances better.”
The ability to speak a second language offers journalists access to communities they might not otherwise reach. But interviewing someone in a different language than the one their outlet uses can lead to miscommunications.
Jimenez frequently reports on Latin America and often conducts interviews in her second language, Spanish. Politicians in particular prefer the precision that comes from using their mother tongue, she says. When she interviewed Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, she had a translator in the room, just in case she missed any linguistic nuances. Ann Hui, national food reporter for The Globe and Mail, mostly interviews English speakers, but her competency with Cantonese and working ability in Mandarin have helped her at unexpected times. When she was a Toronto City Hall reporter, she impressed her colleagues during a press conference held by then-mayoral candidate John Tory and a Chinatown grocery store owner involved in a high-profile act of vigilantism. The grocer was expected to support Olivia Chow for mayor, and his defection toward Tory was a big deal, but Hui recalls that it was clear from the press conference that he didn’t speak any English. “I remember jumping in there with a Chinese question and kind of surprising everyone,” she says. “I don’t even think most of the other city hall bureau reporters realized that I could speak Chinese.”
Like Jimenez, Hui says it’s usually best to interview someone in their first language, even if that means her questions are imperfectly worded in her second or third language. “I have a tape recorder,” she says. “If there’s any- thing that I’m not 100 percent sure about after the fact, I can always play it for someone else. If the person who’s being interviewed doesn’t have full capacity of a language, I wouldn’t want that to be lost at the gathering stage.” In many cases, interviews like these will involve both parties switching back and forth, using a kind of cobbled-together linguistic hybrid, until everyone can be sure they’re being understood.