The language lesson: what we’ve learned about communicating with Rohingya refugees

A Translators without Borders study found that access to information has improved in the Rohingya refugee response as a result of an increased humanitarian focus on communicating with communities. Yet language barriers still leave many Rohingya refugees without the critical and life-saving information they need. Prioritizing spoken communication in Rohingya and a mixed approach on formats and channels is key to effective communication.

Our assessment of comprehension and support needs among Rohingya refugees tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.

From the outset, language challenges have played a central role in the Rohingya refugee response. There are at least five languages — Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English — used in the response. Low literacy levels and limited access to media compound the situation.

To find out how humanitarians can effectively communicate with refugees, Translators without Borders assessed language comprehension and support needs among the refugees. We surveyed more than 400 Rohingya men and women living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We asked them what languages they spoke, how they preferred to receive information, and we tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.

Here is what we found.    

Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed

Twenty-eight percent of refugees say they do not have enough information to make decisions for themselves and their family. Extrapolated to the whole camp population, this suggests that about 200,000 people feel that they lack the basis to make properly informed decisions.  Nevertheless, it is a marked improvement from a year ago when an assessment by Internews found that 79 percent of refugees did not have enough information.

Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical

Rohingya is the only spoken language that all refugees understand and prefer. Our study shows that 36 percent of refugees do not understand a simple sentence in Chittagonian. Women are less likely than men to understand spoken Bangla or Burmese. Refugees prefer to receive information in spoken Rohingya, either by word-of-mouth, loudspeaker, or phone call.

This preference for spoken Rohingya coincides with strong trust levels in imams, family, aid and medical professionals, and majhees (government-appointed community leaders) as sources of information. Radio, TV, and the internet are less trusted by and less familiar to women.

After spoken Rohingya, simple visual messaging is the most widely understood format. Comprehension rates for visual communication are high regardless of gender, age, or education level.

These Rohingya participants helped us assess language comprehension and support needs among the refugees living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
These Rohingya participants helped us assess language comprehension and support needs among the refugees living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Burmese is the preferred written language, and is relatively well understood

After Rohingya, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Although two-thirds of refugees prefer written communication in Rohingya, the language lacks a universally accepted script. Refugees prefer written information to be given in brochure or leaflet form. This allows them to take information away with them and ask a friend or family member to help them understand it.

Sixty-six percent of refugees said that they cannot read or write in any language, and comprehension testing broadly confirmed this. When tested for reading comprehension, 36 percent understood Burmese, a similar rate to Bangla and English.

Investment in language will improve the response

These findings make it clear that there are varied language needs within the Rohingya community. They show that different people understand, prefer, and trust different formats and sources of information. Nonetheless, practical actions for effective humanitarian communication exist.

Using Rohingya for spoken communication, and Burmese for written information is important. Providing information in a mix of formats and channels to account for varied preferences and education levels will also help.

Investing in formal training for field workers and interpreters in the Rohingya language and in humanitarian interpretation techniques is key. Staff should be supported to communicate in the language understood and preferred by the whole community.

This enumerator is tests a Rohingya man’s comprehension of simple spoken information.

As time goes on, communication and language preferences may change. Ongoing assessments on information and language support needs should be coupled with further research to better understand communication issues affecting the Rohingya refugee response. Sustained coordination among humanitarian organizations can help ensure communication is consistent, appropriate, and addresses key community concerns.

View the research brief.

Read the full report.



This study is part of the Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability. Funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and by European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO). It was conducted in partnership with IOM Needs and Population Monitoring and REACH Initiative. Translators without Borders has been working in Bangladesh in support of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017, conducting research on language barriers and communication needs, advocating for local language and cross-cultural competence, providing translation and localization support, and training humanitarian staff on the Rohingya language and culture.

Written by Mahrukh 'Maya' Hasan, Evidence and Impact Consultant for the Rohingya refugee crisis response in Bangladesh.

TWB Glossary for North-East Nigeria

How a glossary helps increase access to life-saving information in north-east Nigeria

Nigeria glossary landing page

The humanitarian community in north-east Nigeria is well aware of the challenges of communicating with a population who speak more than 70 languages. Yet until now, they have largely lacked satisfactory solutions. There are few if any trained interpreters and translators for most local languages. Local staff and volunteers do their best to relay information to communities and listen to the people they meet, but it is not surprising that messages can become distorted when they have to be translated through a succession of languages. The question must be asked, what constitutes ‘access’ to humanitarian relief when language is not taken into account during implementation?

Field teams in north-east Nigeria have not been using standardized terminology in local languages. Even when providing messages in just the two main languages of the response, Hausa and Kanuri, humanitarian organizations have found that translations were not consistent. As a result, already vulnerable communities could receive inconsistent information. This can confuse or prevent people from taking protective actions, accessing available assistance, and claiming their rights. Until that time when the sector communicates in the wider range of regional languages, it must, at least, ensure that what is written and spoken in these two languages consistently and accurately conveys key concepts in a way affected people can understand, as a necessary first step.

Understanding this problem, Translators without Borders (TWB) partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council and other protection specialists to develop an English/Hausa/Kanuri glossary for two fields: general protection, and housing, land, and property rights.

The process

To create the glossary, TWB pulled out key terminology from internal and external communication documents created by organizations active in each field. Hausa- and Kanuri-speaking staff and sector specialists came together to review and expand the glossary list. In small groups, they analyzed the English meaning of each word and agreed on the best word or phrase to describe it in Hausa and Kanuri. The result is a glossary which conveys as much of the meaning as possible, chooses words which do not stigmatize, and is based on local usage of the two languages.

Challenges arose throughout the process about the intent and meaning of certain words. For example, the term ‘access’ emerged as an issue. The land rights specialists understood ‘access’ as referring specifically to roads, paths, and physical accessibility. For the protection specialists ‘access’ meant removing cultural and gender barriers. ‘Access to information’ was identified as a third meaning, and ultimately the group selected three translations appropriate to the three contexts.

One group of specialists then checked the other’s lists.

After all, if a protection specialist cannot understand the vocabulary of the land and housing team, what hope is there for someone who is not a humanitarian professional?

After two days of debates and corrections, TWB presented the glossary lists to professional translators. They removed inconsistencies in spelling and corrected any grammatical mistakes before the new terms were entered into TWB’s glossary app for Nigeria.

TWB is happy to announce that the glossary is now available for viewing on mobile phones and other devices here: https://glossaries.translatorswb.org/nigeria/. It is designed to support interpreters, translators, field staff, community outreach workers, and enumerators in using the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with affected people.

The glossary can be viewed on Android or iOS devices and will automatically cache, making it available for offline viewing. This glossary is a living document and TWB welcomes feedback and questions, which will help us improve it over time. Our aim is to expand the glossary app to cover further sectors and more of the languages of the people caught up in the humanitarian emergency in north-east Nigeria. We hope you find it useful in the meantime.

Written by Alice Castillejo, Country Program Manager, Translators without Borders Crisis Response

TWB’s Words of Relief program is supported by Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund – a grant-making facility supporting organizations and individuals to identify, nurture and share innovative and scalable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing effective humanitarian assistance. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) initiative ‘Accelerating the Journey to Scale’ is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

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