Without data on the languages of affected people, humanitarian organizations are ill-equipped to communicate with them effectively. In May of this year, Translators without Borders (TWB) started trying to better understand what data is available regarding the language preferences of populations affected by humanitarian crises. The short answer is that there isn’t much. In September 2017 we published a report highlighting the major gaps in data regarding what languages migrants and refugees arriving in Europe speak. The report also describes the difficulties organizations have in providing information in the appropriate languages. Around the same time, we began a similar research initiative in Nigeria.
In June 2017, TWB worked with the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix team to add language -related questions to their ongoing data collection efforts with internally displaced people in four conflict-affected states in north east Nigeria: Yobe, Gombe, Adamawa, and Borno. This was the first time any routine language data collection had been done in the current response. There are over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. For humanitarian organizations working in the north east, this diversity of language is an incredible challenge. Organizations report difficulties in knowing what language pairs they should recruit interpreters in, in designing communication materials that use the most appropriate languages, or in understanding what formats are most effective. One of the main reasons for these difficulties is that they do not know what languages their intended audience speaks, or to what extent they understand various lingua francas such as Hausa. As one NGO staff member in Maiduguri explained, “In a focus group discussion, we may hear that somebody only speaks Marghi, but then we have no way to respond to them.”
IOM’s DTM team gathered input from key community members to identify sites where language was a major barrier to effective aid delivery.
Following this, we worked with a team at Map Action who designed a web map to help visualize some of these geospatial patterns and trends. We combined this map with qualitative and quantitative comprehension research that we conducted in partnership with Oxfam and Girl Effect. The combined findings gave a clearer picture of the language landscape for humanitarian responders. We have summarized the findings in an interactive storymap - see below or click here for a full-screen version.
By Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager at Translators without Borders.