Harnessing the Power of Zoom to Conduct Virtual Simultaneous Interpretation for Cross-Lingual Focus Groups

by Juan Carlos Piña

SPR’s Philanthropy, Equity, and Youth (PEY) division is excited to announce that our project team will demonstrate at this year’s AEA’s 2020 conference on October 28 at 9:00AM on how to harness the power of online video conferencing platforms like Zoom to facilitate virtual focus groups among cross-lingual participants using simultaneous interpretation. Make sure to check out our toolkit that includes guiding principles of language justice as well as best practices for simultaneous interpretation.

Centering equity in our work:

Over the last 20 years, SPR has led equity-focused evaluations on building the capacity of specific racial groups to advance equitable outcomes for their communities. Across these efforts we’ve worked diligently to ensure that all voices are included in the evaluation process by meeting people where they are and adapting our methods to align with the needs of the communities we want to learn from, regardless of their language abilities.

Traditionally, evaluators would coordinate multiple language-specific focus groups on the same topic without ever bringing the groups together. However, doing so, can lead to a missed opportunity of creating comradery between people that would otherwise rarely interact with each other, if at all. To mitigate that issue, it is invaluable for evaluators to facilitate conversations between participants and build a shared understanding that their experiences are parallel to others who might speak a different language or live in another region.

Recognizing linguistic abilities and responding to emerging needs:

Moreover, given that the ‘shelter in place’ health orders remain active throughout the nation, evaluators will continue to rely on platforms like Zoom to collect qualitative data. It is becoming increasingly important that researchers go above and beyond to ensure that all voices are heard, especially during the COVID19 public health crisis that has affected vulnerable communities the greatest. While this is no easy feat, it is now, more than ever, vital for evaluators to incorporate the myriad of perspectives to understand community needs regardless of the language they speak – and offering virtual simultaneous interpretation is one way of doing so.

Technology is a powerful tool that can be used to bridge cross-lingual needs among focus groups led by evaluators that aim to understand social issues. Often, the conditions in the places that people live, learn, work, and play become shared experiences despite their geographic location. Likewise, these conditions affect communities in similar ways regardless of their cultural or linguistic differences.

Presenting at the AEA Conference:

To share what we have learned over the years, we will demonstrate what simultaneous interpretation for cross-lingual focus groups looks like in practice (see also our toolkit of best practices and guiding principles referenced earlier). First, we will ground the audience in an understanding of language justice and how to think about inclusivity in ways that are respectful and that employ a creative use of technology. Then, our team will explain how evaluators can leverage the unique features associated with Zoom to successfully manage the logistical components. To bring all components to life, our team will role play how cross-lingual focus groups can be virtually facilitated. Finally, we will end our demonstration with a Q&A segment on the opportunities and limitations that our team experienced firsthand while adopting this method.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can imbed these practices into your own work, then we encourage you to attend our session at AEA’s 2020 conference. For more details on this year’s list of presenters, visit AEA’s program schedule. We hope to see you there!


Juan Carlos is an Associate in the Philanthropy, Equity, and Youth division. At SPR, he supports a range of racial-equity and movement building projects. During his free time, he enjoys hanging out with his dog Cody and reading ethnographies in one of the many beautiful parks throughout the Berkeley/Albany area.