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

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