Same Language, Different Meaning: Context Matters

Shawon Jackson (The DREAM Project, Dominican Republic)
January 6, 2016


Shawon Jackson

“Just because we speak the same language, doesn’t mean we’ll always understand each other.”

At the time, this statement, highly emphasized during my orientation week, seemed rather trivial. Of course, my co-workers might misunderstand me if I awkwardly mispronounce or misuse a word in Spanish. Paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions is the key to effective communication, though – a rule that worked well for me in high school and college. As I began my yearlong fellowship with The DREAM Project, a youth and education non-profit in the Dominican Republic, I planned on following this same rule. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Now, as I reflect on my first six months in the DR – thinking back to that once trivial statement from orientation week – I’ve come to understand why.

Narrowly focused on the clarity of my communication, I often failed to provide adequate context. This lesson became apparent to me while supporting DREAM’s monitoring and evaluation. As an “M&E Specialist”, I coordinated the administration of a 96-question survey to over 150 11 to 14-year-old students across multiple schools. Incentivizing pre-teens to answer questions about their education, community, and personal behavior is no easy task, so I solicited help from local Dominicans, who administered the surveys 1-on-1 to students. Beforehand, I met with the three volunteers to explain the purpose of the survey and walk through the survey questions. At the end of our meeting, I summarized the main take-away points, and all three of the volunteers told me everything made sense.

A few weeks later, I began going through the survey data and realized there was a huge mistake. About 1/3 of the surveys had blank responses for over half of the questions. Those answers were likely “no” but left blank to save time, but ethically I couldn’t assume that. Was I 100% certain that the student answered those questions? Was I 100% certain those questions were even asked? No. Though I was quite sure those survey answers were actually “no”, it was only right for me to leave the data incomplete.  

I spent some time reflecting on this mistake – my mistake. I presumed filling in every question would be a given, but failed to consider why this seemingly small act was only “obvious” to me. My job revolves around data, so it’s easy for me to think about the long-term impacts of leaving survey responses blank. But for someone who hasn’t had the same experiences I’ve had, it’s unfair for me to expect them to think about the larger implications in the same way I do.

SShawon Jacksonince then, I’ve been more cognizant of the varying levels of context people have while working on a project, forcing me to more fully explain what steps need to be taken to collect, analyze, and report data effectively. Being specific allows our projects to get done more effectively, and perhaps more importantly, it allows others to gain new knowledge and important skills.

While it does take more time to explain the “nuts and bolts” of monitoring and evaluation, this time upfront allows DREAM to be more self-sustaining in the long-term, as local staff members become better equipped to manage data on their own. As a PiLA fellow, that’s ultimately my goal – to ensure the organization continues to function well, if not better, without me.