Marginalized mother languages – two ways to improve the lives of the people who speak them

21 February. This is the date chosen by UNESCO for International Mother Language Day, which has been observed worldwide since 2000. This year deserves special attention as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Both initiatives promote linguistic diversity and equal access to multilingual information and knowledge.

Languages can be a huge resource. At the same time, the mother language that people speak can be a barrier to accessing opportunities. People who speak marginalized mother languages often belong to remote or less prosperous communities and, as a result, they are more vulnerable when a crisis hits.

Yet, the humanitarian and development sector has been largely blind to the importance of language. International languages such as English, French, Arabic, and Spanish dominate, excluding the people who most need their voices heard. Marginalized language speakers are denied opportunities to communicate their needs and priorities, report abuse, or get the information they need to make decisions.

If aid organizations are to meet their high-level commitments to put people at the center of humanitarian action and leave no one behind, this needs to change. To understand better how to address language barriers facing marginalized communities, two actions can lead our sector in the right direction.

Aerial view of Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria. Photo by Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders.

Putting languages on the map

The first is language mapping. No comprehensive and readily accessible dataset exists on which language people speak where.

TWB has started to fill that gap by creating maps from existing data and from our own research. Our interactive map shows the language and communication needs of internally displaced people in northeast Nigeria. The map uses data collected by the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix team. This data shows, for instance, that access to information is a serious problem at over half of sites where Marghi is the dominant language. Aid organizations can use this map to develop the right communication strategy for reaching people in need.

Humanitarian and development organizations can add some simple standard questions to their household surveys and other assessments to gather valuable language data. Aid workers will then understand the communication needs and preferences of the 176 million people in need of humanitarian assistance globally.

But communication in a crisis situation – or in any situation – should not be one-way. That’s where the second action comes in.

Building machine translation capacity in marginalized languages

Language technology has dramatically shifted two-way communication between people who speak different languages. In order to truly help people in need, listen to and understand them, we need to apply technology to their languages as well.

TWB is leading the Gamayun Language Equality Initiative to make it happen. We have built a closed-environment, domain-specific Levantine Arabic machine engine for the UN World Food Programme. This initiative will improve accountability to Syrian refugees facing food insecurity. Initial testing indicates that Gamayun will provide an efficient method for accessing local information sources. It will enable aid organizations to better understand the needs of their target populations, especially in hard-to-reach areas.

TWB Fulfulde Team Lead conducting comprehension research. Waterboard camp in Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria. Photo by Eric DeLuca, Translators without Borders.

We need to continue building the parallel language datasets from humanitarian and development content that make machine translation a viable option. That will expand the evidence that machine translation can enable better communication, including by empowering affected people to hold aid organizations to account in their own language.

Taking action

These two actions can help the humanitarian and development sector improve lives by promoting two-way communication with speakers of marginalized languages.  These actions will need to be expanded to be truly effective, but International Mother Language Day in the Year of Indigenous Languages is a great time to start.

To read:

    • The IFRC 2018 World Disasters Report, which includes clear and compelling recommendations about the importance of language to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people are not “left behind”
  • TWB’s white paper on the Gamayun Language Equality Initiative

To do:

    • Consult our dashboard and think about how you can start collecting this data to inform your programs
    • Follow our journey as we continue to move forward with Gamayun (and learn along the way!)
  • Email us if you have an idea to share or want to do more in this area: [email protected]
Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders. 

Translating mental health — finding language solutions in northeast Nigeria

If the sign at the mental health clinic read, “Services for mad people,” would you walk in for help?

Yet that is the reality for many people in northeast Nigeria because of the difficulty in translating concepts like ‘mental health’ into Nigerian languages. Translators without Borders (TWB) is working with humanitarian experts in mental health to better understand the nuances among languages so that words can encourage use of services rather than hinder access.

Northeast Nigeria is linguistically diverse, with more than 30 mother tongues spoken by 1.9 million people displaced by conflict. Often traumatized by the conflict, many internally displaced people (IDPs) could benefit from mental health services. Yet the translation of ‘mental health’ into the main two languages used in the response – Hausa and Kanuri – carries a heavy stigma, possibly keeping people away from clinics.


How can those working in the mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sector communicate information about services, when the very name of the sector scares people away?


To address this question, TWB worked with affected people and sector specialists to identify terms that need to be communicated more effectively. The resulting terminology recommendations and the proposed language glossary, with terms translated into Hausa and Kanuri, promote the use of unambiguous and less stigmatizing language. Use of these terms may, by extension, increase the use of services by those who need them.  

TWB began by identifying 301 key mental health terms that are either difficult to translate, commonly misunderstood, or stigmatizing.

This list was then researched and discussed extensively. TWB facilitated a workshop with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) MHPSS specialists to identify particularly difficult words and discuss alternative translations, aiming to use plain language and to avoid words that stigmatize. A group of 53 internally displaced people then reviewed the translations. TWB tested comprehension among the group and explored alternative translations. Throughout the process, TWB discovered key areas where language posed a significant challenge in the delivery of mental health and psychosocial support services.

Points of confusion

One major finding was that many terms commonly used by English speakers when discussing mental health are heavily stigmatized or misunderstood in northeast Nigeria. “Mental health” in Hausa is literally “services for mad people” — a shocking example of stigma. An alternative way of discussing this sector may lie with the phrase “psychosocial support,” which TWB discovered did not carry the same stigma in Hausa.

Generic terms such as “abuse” and “stress” caused confusion as there is often not a comparable generic term in Hausa or Kanuri. In both languages, the translation of “abuse” was generally understood by respondents to refer only to ‘verbal abuse,’ similar to an insult. Similarly, “stress” meant only physical stress to respondents, such as the physical strain you feel after a day of hard labor. If an aid worker intends to communicate how to relieve “mental stress” or how to heal after experiencing “physical abuse,” it’s clear that miscommunication may occur. Therefore, it is best to always pair descriptive words like “physical,” “verbal,” or “emotional,” with “abuse” and “stress.”

A similar issue was found with the concept of a “safe space.” When used in an English-speaking mental health context, it refers to a physical space where one feels cared for and emotionally supported. However, those surveyed understood this concept as a place with armed guards. This is an example of how sector-specific jargon may not make sense to those who need services. In northeast Nigeria, the concept “accepted space” may translate better.

The TWB MHPSS Glossary


“This is a very laudable work that will hasten the delivery of services to the affected people of north east Nigeria.”  
– Dr. Muhammad A. Ghuluze. Director, Emergency Medical Response and Humanitarian Services


To provide a solution for these issues, TWB has updated its Glossary for Nigeria with the 301 MHPSS-related terms. This glossary app includes words, definitions, sample sentences, and audio recordings for the selected terms. It can be accessed on a computer, tablet, Android, or iOS device, and can be used both on- and offline, which is useful given the poor connectivity in northeast Nigeria.

The app is already being used in training sessions with positive results. Thomas Eliyahu Zanghellin, theMental Health and Psychosocial Support / Gender-based Violence Focal Point for the NGO INTERSOS in Maiduguri, Nigeria, has used the glossary in four training sessions already, generating “really fun group work with stimulating discussions.”

Language and terminology play a key role in the delivery of aid. Many sectors, including mental health and psychosocial support, use jargon and generic terms that do not readily translate in some cultures. Discussions about language allow the humanitarian world to challenge this terminology. The TWB Glossary for Nigeria provides a potential solution, allowing affected communities to access services and claim their rights in a language they understand.

Learn more about the TWB Glossary for Nigeria, and other TWB glossary projects here.

Bringing words to life in northeast Nigeria

yoga I recently returned from northeast Nigeria, where Translators without Borders (TWB) is providing language support in one of the most severe humanitarian crises and linguistically diverse areas in the world. Unsurprisingly, I had many conversations about language issues with humanitarian responders.

The good news is that many were already aware of the need to communicate information in languages people understand, despite humanitarian programming often disregarding local language communications. When hearing about TWB’s language support capacity, many felt relieved that someone might be able to help them tackle language barriers. The bad news is that, even with that acknowledgment, the most common refrain I heard throughout my four-week assignment was, “I have never thought about language so carefully before and neither has my organization.”

So I found myself asking, “How much is being lost in translation?” And, more importantly, “If two-way communication in the right languages in northeast Nigeria was truly integrated into programming, how would humanitarian action improve?”

The fact is that the importance of two-way communication between local communities and aid providers, in a language affected people can understand, is increasingly recognized by humanitarians.

Some of the best humanitarian programs are now consciously factoring language into their efforts to meet people’s information and communication needs. They do so recognizing that only when those needs are met can affected people reliably access assistance, provide input, and make the best decisions for themselves and their families. But despite the nod to language, mainstreaming solutions to language barriers within humanitarian work is still not the norm.

This was clear to me in northeast Nigeria.

After nine years, the humanitarian crisis remains one of the most severe in the world. In the three worst-affected states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, 1.9 million Nigerians have been displaced from their homes; overall, 7.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Data shows that displaced people speak over 30 languages as their mother tongues. Overwhelmingly, they prefer receiving information in their own language. However, humanitarian responders are communicating with affected people mainly in two languages, Hausa and Kanuri. This is not enough to meet people’s needs, and serious problems persist due to the lack of two-way communication.

Humanitarian field staff shared many concerns about language needs in the response. They were unsure how to provide potentially life-saving information in camps where they do not know which languages people understand. There was concern that language diversity and low education levels prevent them from accurately gauging people’s needs and priorities. I also heard frustrations from some aid workers, particularly those who spoke local languages in addition to Hausa or Kanuri. These field workers are often asked to translate complex messages and concepts into those local languages with little or no support or experience in translation. In this situation, I wasn’t surprised that translation was seen as a considerable additional burden for multilingual staff, often an add-on to agreed job descriptions.

These conversations were both concerning and compelling. It’s no secret that for field workers in the humanitarian aid sector, day-to-day work can be more than a little complicated. Language should help, not hinder, the ability to provide effective and accountable aid to those who need it.

The problem is not a lack of awareness among field staff. What is missing is for those who direct organizational policies and program design to focus on language needs early in a response and appropriately resource language support.

To that end, it was exciting to be working with TWB’s team on the ground in northeast Nigeria. We are striving to provide that language support for humanitarian responders communicating with vulnerable people. We have already started to roll out the TWB Glossary for Northeast Nigeria – an in-the-hand tool for humanitarian field staff, interpreters, and translators to ensure use of consistent, accurate, and easily understood words in local languages.  

Yet so much more needs to be done.

The only way for this tool and other forms of language support to make a difference is by mainstreaming their use across the humanitarian response. This begins with ensuring field staff have the knowledge and resources to meet language needs in the response – and the support internally to prioritize the role of language in communication and community engagement programs. Otherwise, we risk seeing too few of these examples reach their potential for humanitarian accountability and effectiveness.

Having conversations about the importance of two-way communication in the languages of the most vulnerable is the necessary first step. Now we must move from words to action about language.

Like most things in life, it’s not what you do but how you do it.

Read more about TWB’s response in northeast Nigeria. 

Written by Mia Marzotto, Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders.

Language Technology Could Help 157 Million People Get Access To Information

I was exhausted.  It had been a great week in Bangladesh, but the overload of language, smells, refugee camp, seeing old friends, meeting new friends, government, donors, and all the while pretending like I wasn’t jetlagged, was taking its toll.  I just wanted to go to sleep.

My last meeting was in Dhaka with someone in the Prime Minister’s office.  I had little hope of staying awake through the meeting.

And yet, I was captivated.

Bangladesh Help Desk Signage
Bangladesh Help Desk Signage

The literacy rate in Bangladesh is considered low (72.8% according to UNESCO in 2016) but is just below the global average. Literacy among women is lower (69.9%); but, in general, the majority of the people have at least basic literacy skills.  There is 90 percent mobile phone penetration and 96 percent mobile internet access. The International Mother Language Institute, the body in Bangladesh that supports the promotion, spread, and preservation of Bangla languages, says that 41 languages are spoken in the country, only five of which have written scripts.  In the humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Translators without Borders (TWB) finds the situation particularly difficult. Rohingya has no agreed written script. Very few of the refugees can read and write, there are few people who speak Rohingya and anything else well. Add to this mix low radio coverage – not only do the Rohingya not have radios, even if they did there is not even radio coverage in parts of the camps, and about one million people living in poor and difficult conditions that speak many different dialects and you begin to understand why communicating effectively is difficult.

It’s vitally important that there is two-way communication between the people – refugees and local Bangladeshis – and the government and aid workers. Take the issue of the coming monsoon. The formal and makeshift refugee camps have sprouted up all over the Cox’s Bazar district, an area that includes a national park and lush forest. But now the trees have been torn down to make room for shelters and for firewood.  This makes the soil very unstable and dangerous, with monsoon rains promising huge mud pits and the possibility of landslides. It is also a hilly area; tents are built on the sides of hills that will become slippery and unstable with heavy rains and wind. Refugees, as well as local residents, need to know where to go, what to do if there’s an emergency, how to get help for those needing medical attention, and what to do if food gets swept away.  

The challenges abound. The digital world seems a world away.    

And yet, enter Dr. Jami.  In a buzzy, busy office with a high level of excitement and a relatively good gender balance, I was suddenly in the middle of a high tech environment.  Dr. Jami launched directly into what he wanted us to know and do.

Dr. Jami runs the Access to Information (A2I, inevitably) project in the Prime Minister’s office. The aim is to help the people of Bangladesh quickly and easily get information on public services. One of A2I’s projects is the digitization of government institutions; they have developed over 1,000 key government websites.  Dr. Jami is not a language guy (he’s a solutions architect), but he proceeds to tell me quickly that Bangla was only standardized in Unicode five years ago, so there is very little data available from which to build good translation engines.  While there’s 90 percent mobile phone penetration, in 2018 GSMA estimated that only 28-30 percent of those were smartphones. Yet, 96 percent of internet access is via phones. Whaaa? How does that work? It’s also startling how little desktops and laptops are used to access the internet.  

I asked a taxi driver, who was using a smartphone, if he used his phone for the internet.  He replied, “No, but I use it for Facebook.”

There are no data charges for Facebook in Bangladesh – unless you want to see videos or pictures.  Internet use is Facebook and Facebook is only text. Those who are illiterate, or only barely literate, won’t have smartphones.

To Dr. Jami, who needs more people to have smartphones to help ensure they can get access to information, the cost is not the barrier:  There are very inexpensive smartphones in Bangladesh. He believes it is fear of technology, which he believes is associated with illiteracy. To reach his goal of migrating 70 percent of the current mobile phone users to smartphones, he must address fear.

Language is an issue.  With a population of over 157 million people, and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, you’d think that the language technology for Bangla would be outstanding.  It’s not. That’s surprising. And without that technology, equipping 1,000 websites with dynamic information in Bangla is nearly impossible, not to mention making them interactive and/or adding audio.

The work that A2I is doing is globally relevant, of course.  Other countries are already seeking their support to bring better access to information to their people.  He mentions that they are already working in South Sudan – which has the 2nd lowest literacy rate in the world.  Again, the language barrier is huge. And, again, there is little digital language data.  

Dr. Jami has heard of TWB’s Gamayun project – can we help?  Can we be a neutral broker to bring together the limited language data out there and leverage our knowledge of language and the language industry to help Bangladeshis get access to information about basic services?  

Dr. Jami and the TWB team will continue this conversation – there are still many questions to be asked and answered.  But I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the accomplishments of his team. And I am really excited to see where Dr. Jami and other countries take this exciting initiative.

Written by Translators without Borders' Executive Director Aimee Ansari. This article was also published on HuffPost UK.


Read a related post on The #LanguageMatters blog, ‘Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution’.  In TWB’s last blog post, Executive Director Aimee Ansari explains why we need to create and disseminate a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries.