© PICTURE 2006

HOW to INTERVIEW using a questionnaire


  1. GOALS: First, decide who you want to interview and what you want to investigate.
  2. PREDICTIONS: Before interviewing, write down hypotheses and predicted results.
  3. INTERVIEWEES (= the people you interview): Where to find native speakers in your town?
  4. FIRST OUTING: Interviewing your family and your neighbours.
  5. SECOND OUTING: Interviewing native speakers

Two Dutch students conducting a ”cultural viewpoints” interview of a British man.

1. GOALS: First, decide who you want to interview and what you want to investigate.

This course suggests interviewing " native speakers" of the language you are studying (or have studied), in order to investigate their cultural values.

Who counts as "native speakers"?

Native speakers of a certain language are those who, from childhood, use one of the accepted varieties of that language.

What are "cultural values"?

Cultural values are the principles that guide the everyday life of people in a community, and the ensuing attitudes that colour their words and behaviour. People acquire cultural values during their infancy.

See the video video above. It shows a young French woman strolling through Amsterdam, a place where it is considered highly offensive to "litter", i.e. to throw refuse on the street, and where many people feel the duty to teach others their community's principles and attitudes.

After viewing the video, describe each person's principles and attitudes - the ones that explain why they expressed themselves as they did (through their body language) and why they behaved as they did. Then say what this incident might teach us about intercultural understanding.

Now, what kind of questions reveal people's cultural values?

  • Questions about how they say things: For instance, you can ask what nicknames of affection ("sugar-pie") or of irony ("sourpuss") they use with neighbours and family members. This will teach you many new words and, more importantly, what those words reveal about interpersonal relationships in the other culture, with respect to your culture.
  • Questions about how they see things: For example, in the video "Model Interviews" appearing on the CD furnished with this course, four Dutch students try to discover how the British people that they interview (their "interviewees") see queue jumping and showing emotions in public.

After choosing the kind of question to ask select a topic - for example:

  • "Ways of talking to (and about) figures of authority in the other culture", or
  • "Attitudes towards physical contact in interpersonal relations in the other culture"

Then go to the collection of questions (here) and select the ones most useful for investigating that topic. You can also invent original questions if you wish. Or you can make a questionnaire with both standard and original questions.

NOTE: If you use standard questions, you can contribute to the PICTURE database on cultural differences by posting your results on the PICTURE website; ask your teacher how to do that.

Finally articulate your questions in questionnaire form. Make it easy to indicate your interviewees' answers, as well as their comments, rapidly - with a single pen stroke.

Write up your questionnaire using , for a model, the questionnaire in Appendix A.

2. PREDICTIONS: Before interviewing, write down hypotheses and predicted results.

  1. Say how you predict the majority of your interviewees will answer.
  2. Say what you hypothesize their answers will tell you about their culture.

In other words, make your suppositions explicit before you start interviewing. This is good, scientific research practice. You will also observe much better how your interviewees try to answer your questions, when you have clearly in mind what you are looking for.

3. INTERVIEWEES (= the people you interview): Where to find native speakers in your town?

A "native speaker" of French is anyone who has grown up in Paris (France), Geneva (Switzerland), Quebec (Canada), Senegal (West Africa), etc., and who therefore speaks, from childhood, Parisian, Swiss, Canadian, or Senegalese French - or some other accepted variety. However, since these different linguistic-cultural communities have divergent value systems, for the purpose of your interview you should concentrate on just one of them, i.e. you should you interview only Parisians or Genevans or Quebeckers or Senegalese.

It should be noted that, in an increasingly multicultural and migratory world, many people have multiple cultural identities. Let us look at three cases, this time imagining that you want to use English to investigate British culture, as the four Dutch students did in the videos on your CD. Who, then, counts as a valid native speaker of English belonging to the British cultural community?

  • A Brit who has been living outside of the U.K. for many years and who may have changed her/his way of thinking as a consequence? Yes, this person is valid because - except in very unusual cases - s/he would still be considered a Brit by fellow Brits, however eccentric s/he may be after 10 years of life abroad. In anthropology, a person is said to be a member of a community if s/he feels s/he is and if that community recognizes him/her as such, no matter where s/he has lived or for how long.
  • A citizen of the U.K. who is living there now but who was born and raised in Jamaica? Yes, this person is valid since s/he undoubtedly speaks English from childhood (English is the official language of Jamaica) and because most Brits accept the multi-cultural character of their society. In other words, they usually consider a person as British even if that person is British and something else, too.
  • A Swede who speaks BBC English without flaw and who, when in Britain, accepts behaving like a "perfect English gentleman", or an Irish poet (from the Republic of Ireland) who has won prizes for his verses in English and who is currently living in London? No, these people would not be valid because they do not necessarily claim to identify (entirely or bi-culturally) with the British community. Nor are they necessarily accepted as fellow Brits by that community, whose members may feel perfectly at ease with them but still not consider them as "one of the (extended) family".

So just ask the people you meet: "Are you x?" And in case of doubt you can add: "Do most x people consider you x when speaking with you?" ("x" = the linguistic and cultural community you are investigating.)

Now, where can you find "native speakers" of English French/German/Italian/Spanish in your home town? It will take a little effort and imagination but it is always possible to find someone.

To hear the Dutch students in the university of Amsterdam library discuss possible places in Amsterdam to find British tourists, see the video below. They plan to use the tiny digital recorder on the right (fairly inconspicuous if held as shown).

Now, where can you find possible interviewees in your home town? See Appendix D for guidelines.

4. FIRST OUTING: Interviewing your family and your neighbours.

Before interviewing foreigners, translate your questionnaire into your native language and conduct a few preliminary interviews at home and in your neighbourhood. THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ACTIVITY OF THE COURSE, SO DO IT WELL because:

  • it will give you confidence for when you interview foreigners later in their language;
  • it will give you the chance to test your audio or video recorder (you will discover that if you hold it too close, your interviewees will feel self-conscious and may be less sincere; if you hold it too far, they will pay less attention to it but your recording will not be clear);
  • it will enable you to make comparisons between people in your culture and people in the other culture(s);
  • it will reveal to you how different the people in your own culture really are. In fact, you and your classmates will get such diversified answers that you may begin to wonder if the people in your country really have a "common culture"! This will teach you that stereotypes about "national cultures" - including your own - are gross simplifications. In reality, all communities - including your own family and neighbourhood - are, in a sense, multicultural.

Compare in class your translation with those of the other students and select one. Everyone in class should use the same questionnaire, both in your native language (for family and neighbours) and in your interviewees' language (for the street interviews).

Write a report of your interviews

5. SECOND OUTING: Interviewing native speakers

Now you are ready to go out and conduct interviews of native speakers of the language you are studying, to see if your predictions about their cultural mentality hold up. But before going out to interview:

  1. practise saying the questionnaire,
  2. practise asking for clarification,
  3. practise noting down body language,
  4. prepare yourself psychologically!


  1. Practise saying the questionnaire: Try recording yourself saying the questions from your questionnaire; then listen to see if you said SLOWLY and with EMPHASIS the key words (which should be underlined or coloured). Then read the questionnaire to a partner, who pretends to be an interviewee, to get her/his impressions.
  2. Practise asking for clarification:

While doing the second part of exercise

Your partner - who is pretending to be an interviewee - must interrupt you to ask for clarification whenever you fail to accentuate the right words. Your partner should use all 4 steps indicated in Appendix B.

Practise noting down body language: using the Checklist in Appendix C. Ask your partner to indicate some meaning (disapproval, embarrassment, dissimulated mirth....) through non-verbal sounds, facial expressions, gestures and posture. Then try to represent in words what you see. Give your description to a third student and ask her/him to do the behaviour described. If s/he manages to communicate the original intent, your description is accurate. During your street interview, while your partner asks the questions you can take notes of significant body language messages. Even if you video-record the interviews you will conduct outside the classroom, a third student should come along to note down the body language messages. This is because the video camera may not be focused on the body language feature that you (or the third student) consider important.

Prepare yourself psychologically: both + positively and - negatively) before going out.

On the positive side, relax. The interview will be easier than you think.

  • Most foreigners will be happy to speak with you because they are alone in your country and have few contacts with the people there. Answering your questions is one way of "making contact with the locals".
  • In addition, most people are curious about cultural differences, so they will find your questions stimulating.
  • Moreover, most people like to help young people who are trying to learn; so if you say you are doing a task for school or university, you will almost automatically win their support.
  • Finally, do not worry about "making mistakes". Most of your interviewees don't know your language so anything you say to them will be more than what they could say to you! Besides, they are interested in your questions, not your grammar.

On the negative side, learn to be patient. It will take longer than you expect.

  • See the video above of a typical refusal: the man isn't British. Remember that you are conducting FIRST HAND RESEARCH, not just reading about other people's research, and this takes patience. Two of the Dutch students in the video waited outside the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam an entire, freezing afternoon and found only one couple to interview.
  • Don't feel offended if a foreign visitor refuses to be interviewed. Some really have no time. Others may fear that you represent some commercial activity - they may suspect that, during your interview, you will try to get them to buy something, take a tour, etc.
  • For the same reason, don't feel offended if your interviewees stop the interview halfway - as much as they may like talking with you, they may have tight schedules to respect.
  • For obvious reasons do not accept to go with them to another place for the interview.
  • Many interviewees will be so happy to speak with you that, upon seeing that you understand their first words, they will start talking as quickly as they do with friends at home. And so you will not understand anything. Instead of saying "please speak more slowly", use continual requests for clarification (Appendix B) - even when you understand most words, pretend that you don't and ask for a clarification to check your understanding. This stops your interviewees and forces them to follow your rhythm. Remember: YOU are the interviewer and so it is YOUR right to KEEP CONTROL of the situation.

Is it scary?

You may wonder whether interviewing foreigners is scary. It is not. See how our four Dutch students evaluate their experiences.