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Ensuring that local communities have access to reliable information about COVID-19 is a challenge for governments and organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) – which is difficult for speakers of minority languages.
In response to this challenge, the virALLanguages initiative is working with local community leaders around the world to disseminate basic health information about COVID-19 via audio and video using “diverse proverbs, metaphors, and rhetorical strategies” to minority language speakers.
VirALLanguages is a collaboration between the KPAAM-CAM / Community for Global Health Equity project at Buffalo State University, USA, and the World Language Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at SOAS University, London, UK.
The initiative provides supporting materials for videos distributed on YouTube and Facebook under a Creative Commons license. As more language communities around the world unite, coverage in more languages will increase. Videos can be downloaded from the Internet Archive.
So far, the project has worked with seven different languages, all from Cameroon, one of the countries most affected by coronavirus in the region, with at least 2,265 cases as of May 9. In a country with 250 different languages, there is a linguistic divide between speakers of majority French and speakers of minority English, both brought by colonization. The three years of language conflict between French and English have displaced 500,000 people.
In October 2019, Rising Voices spoke with linguist Mandana Seyfeddinipur, who heads SOAS's Endangered Languages Documentation Program, during the 2019 Decolonization of Internet Languages Conference, to learn about the critical role of indigenous languages in access to information. When the coronavirus pandemic occurred, Seyfeddinipur's knowledge served as the basis for a podcast episode titled: “Indigenous languages in times of pandemic”:
Rising Voices recently contacted linguists Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Pierpaolo Di Carlo and Jeff Good – project managers of the virALLanguages initiative – to learn more, and they responded as a group:
Subhashish Panigrahi (SP): Tell us something about this project. What is the key issue you are trying to address and what is the major goal?
virALLanguages (VL): We're targeting marginalized languages which also means languages that may not have a writing system, and languages that are spoken by relatively fewer people, or are not used for official purposes like spreading information about a pandemic. As public authorities tend to share vital health and other public information related to coronavirus, many marginalized communities might not understand sufficiently. There are also social and cultural barriers in addition to such linguistic barriers. Experience from other health crises has shown that pure translation into major languages does not seem to be enough for life-saving behavioral changes. We are aiming to fill this gap with our work based on our experience working with marginalized communities.
We're working to create a network of people who are willing to not only translate key messages in marginalized languages but to adapt them to local contexts so that people will understand what to do in potentially endless circumstances.
virALLanguages (VL): We are targeting marginalized languages, which also means languages that may not have a writing system, and languages that are spoken by a relatively smaller number of people, or that are not used for official purposes such as disseminating information about a pandemic. Because public authorities tend to disseminate vital health information and other public information related to the coronavirus, many underserved communities may not understand it sufficiently. In addition to these language barriers, there are also other social and cultural barriers. Experience from other health crises has shown that merely translating into major languages does not appear to be sufficient for life-saving behavior changes. Our goal is to fill this gap with our work based on our experience of working with marginalized communities.
We are working to create a network of people who are willing to translate key messages into marginalized languages, and to adapt them to local contexts so that people understand what to do in potentially endless circumstances.
SP: How are you trying to meet these challenges in viral languages?
VL: So, we use reliable health advice (WHO) which speakers of marginalized languages then translate by making it as culturally appropriate as possible. We are also attempting to enable acceptance and trust by involving spokespersons who are trusted locally, like traditional authorities, local medical doctors, or other figures that are respected and listened to by the local communities.
The recording is played back to the other speakers for checking and if there is a larger agreement for the distribution through the relevant channels in a given community – social media channels or community radios or even mobile apps.
VLTherefore, we use reliable health advice (WHO) that speakers of marginal languages translate and make it as appropriate as culturally possible. We also try to make acceptance and trust possible by engaging locally trusted spokespeople, such as traditional authorities, local doctors, or other figures that local communities respect and listen to.
The recording is played to other spokespeople for checking and if there is greater agreement for distribution through the relevant channels in a given community – social media channels or community radio or even mobile applications.
SP: How many languages or communities are you targeting?
VL: Well, the project title is telling. We target the other languages - those that major institutions cannot target, so that important messages reach as many people as possible in different ways.
VL: Well, the project title is revealing. We turn to the other languages - those that large institutions cannot reach, so that important messages reach as many people as possible in different ways.
SP: What kind of languages do you focus on and why?
VL: We are focusing on marginalized oral languages, and those languages in which vital and general health information are rarely distributed. We are trying to reach out and to build a network of people who can then use the workflow and resources built by us for their own languages. So, we are responsive on the one hand and proactive on the other. We have started proactively in Cameroon, considering our past experience there and the presence of a very close network. … We're also reaching out to those who worry that information only in writing or in majority languages will not reach many people, and may not be trustworthy by all. Our effort is to help communities disseminate crucial and life-saving information in oral languages, and extend the usage of such languages.
VL: We focus on marginalized oral languages, and languages in which vital and general health information is poorly distributed. We are trying to reach out and build a network of people who can use the workflow and resources that we have built in their own languages. Therefore, we are receptive on the one hand and proactive on the other. We have started proactively in Cameroon, taking into account our past experience there and the presence of a very close network. … We are also reaching out to those who are concerned that information only in writing or in the languages of the majority does not reach many people, and may not be trustworthy by all. Our effort is to help communities disseminate crucial and life-saving information in oral languages, and to extend the use of these languages.
SP: What is expected of any speaker of an indigenous language who has an interest or of a community of a marginalized language?
VL: The project website has resources that can be used as guides for local communities to create their own video content. We encourage the communities to include anything that is culturally appropriate while still retaining the essential health advisory intact. They can look at the scripts in English to create a script of their own while addressing local context including proverbs, metaphors, and other culturally appropriate features to make the messaging more impactful. Those who are interested to join us are required to read a reference text and pass a short quiz. This test ascertains that the potential contributors can produce a message that, while culturally appropriate, will still convey accurate information.
VL: The project website has resources that can be used as guides for local communities to create their own video content. We encourage communities to include everything that is culturally appropriate, keeping intact essential health counseling. They can look at scripts in English to create their own script while addressing the local context with proverbs, metaphors, and other culturally appropriate features to make the message more impactful. Those interested in joining us should read a reference text and pass a short exam. This test determines that potential contributors can produce a message that is culturally appropriate and continues to convey accurate information.
SP: How are the videos spreading in addition to YouTube and Facebook, especially in the target languages?
VL: Our local collaborators know best what the appropriate channels are in a specific demography. … We are now downsampling our recorded files to make them available on Archive.org… for viewers to download. Some teams have proposed to engage with radio channels to broadcast the audio content in local radios. We have done this for the Mafa language that is spoken in the extreme north of Cameroon, through a local radio channel, “Radio Échos des Montagnes.”
VL: Our local partners know better than anyone what the appropriate channels are in a specific demographic. … We are now reducing the sample of our recorded files to be available on Archive.org… for viewers to download. Some teams have proposed engaging with radio channels to broadcast audio content on local radio. We have done this for the mafa that is spoken in the extreme north of Cameroon, through a local radio channel, “Radio Échos des Montagnes”.
SP: Since you are dedicated to outcasts and oral language speakers, how do you and the communities plan to spread these videos more widely?
VL:… Communities (are) key. Eleven audios and videos are downloaded and shared as files by the communities, we have no way of measuring their impact. We must rely on our local collaborators to tell us if our output is effective.
VL:… Communities (are) key. Once the audios and videos are downloaded and shared as files by the communities, we have no way of measuring their impact. We must trust our local partners to tell us if our result is effective.
The project directors told Rising Voices that VirALLanguages intends to increase its coverage in more languages with invitations to collaborators to form teams of marginalized speakers to create content. Those with connections to minority language-speaking communities can also form local language teams, and the project is actively seeking volunteers and support for local radio stations, which help broadcast audio files in local languages. Everyone can contact virALLanguages volunteers to make donations to those language teams that need financial assistance for video production.
Remarkable efforts are underway to create important public health announcements related to coronavirus in indigenous languages. For example, the Endangered Language project lists resources in approximately 366 languages.
Indigenous communities face increased risk from the coronavirus, which has prompted the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and other experts to urge the dissemination of health advice in more indigenous languages.
Editor's Note: The author of this article has volunteered for the virALLanguages project..