The line-up for first day of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) Conference, 6 March 2020, proffered a host of intriguing language-industry-related topics. Set in the splendid surroundings of BMA House, London, the organisers and presenters certainly didn’t disappoint.
Following registration, and a spot of coffee-infused networking, the day began with the first keynote presentation by Ellie Kemp from the fantastic humanitarian organisation Translators Without Borders (TWB). Her presentation, How do you talk about Ebola?, focused on the interwoven linguistic, cultural and capacity-based issues faced by humanitarians trying to effectively communicate health and disease prevention information to a populous in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) often intensely striated by localised, and often irreconcilable, ethnic and linguistic differences.
Ellie began by noting that there are over 400 different languages currently used within DRC; mainly French and Swahili accompanied by a host of regional minority and marginalised languages, such as Kinandé, which represent a real barrier for communication when coupled with the poor levels of health literacy and inherent confusion about the disease amongst local populations. Information about the disease simply doesn’t exist in local languages, which puts certain sectors of the population at increased risk. To this, Ellie highlighted the three main vulnerabilities of speaking a minority language, a person’s level of wealth and poverty and gender as being particularly pertinent to a their ability to gain access to, and understand, information about Ebola—an older woman living in a small, impoverished village within a region of DRC where only one or a handful of minority languages are spoken is comparatively less likely to access information about the disease which is comprehensible in her own language.
To this end, TWB continues to support language communicators in disseminating information in a local context as, for example, many western technical medical terms, such as mental health, are often considered diminutive in marginalised languages and the task of researching and deciding on localised, perhaps not entirely equivalent, phrases represents a cogent task for communicators on the ground.
Ellie was also keen to emphasise that this is not just an issue confined solely to the DRC, it’s a worldwide problem. A lack of data around minority languages can, and has, introduced language bias into humanitarian data. Marginalised languages are, in Ellie’s words, being “airbrushed out of the data”, which, in turn, can have serious consequences for service commissioning. Although, as mentioned earlier, TWB’s glossaries may not perhaps be technically accurate, they’re judged on how effectively they’re understood by locals.
TWB is a wonderful organisation which WMTS has had the great pleasure of collaborating with. They do vitally important work around the world and Ellie’s engaging and revealing presentation gave us only a small glimpse into how effective communication can make all the difference, especially when it could mean the difference between life and death.
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All photographs by William Maitland ©2020