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Why is Communicating in Local Languages Important?

What is the most important problem or barrier to be addressed when giving someone the knowledge and confidence to do a mission critical job? We suggest it is how you communicate the key information to empower locals and then the ease with which they can translate that knowledge into practical action.

This blog post also appears here and discusses a project funded in 2017 which builds on advances in pedagogy, smart phone communications, simulated reality and gamification, in order to address how to give local people the ability to help themselves and reduce international support. See project details here.

Nicholas Mellor (MiiHealth) and Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur (SOAS) led a session at the LIDC Biennial Conference 2017 on 'Inequality in Local Language Use: Linguistic lessons from humanitarian interventions in the Ebola.'  See abstract here.


Albert Einstein once commented “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.”

What is the most important problem or barrier to be addressed when giving someone the knowledge and confidence to do a mission critical job? We suggest it is how you communicate the key information to empower locals and then the ease with which they can translate that knowledge into practical action. For aid organisations seeking to make training as effective and impactful as possible communication in local languages can make all the difference. On the one hand working through the local language allows making information as accessible as possible to people who may find themselves in the frontline of an outbreak.

On the other hand, it encompasses a participatory approach empowering the local communities. Communicating in ‘their language’ as opposed to ‘our language’ is a critical element in local empowerment, whilst not using their local language can have all kinds of often unintended, but damaging consequences. We carried out a literature search to explore studies in linguistics and healthcare. Local languages are often seen as “minor implementation issue, a mere communication problem, easily overcome with bilingual translators” (Henderson et al. 2014).

Communications quickly coalesce around a single dominant international language. Locals who speak the major language become brokers for services, acting as translators and possibly even becoming part of the local capacity building initiatives. This special role of these often-male brokers who also have a particular role in the community is then also the bottleneck as the validity of the translation cannot be assessed. And of course, bilinguals are people who speak two languages and not professional translators. Providing access to services through majority languages are the harbingers of language endangerment.

The local language and knowledge is de-valorised as communication has to be accomplished through a majority language and much is lost in translation. Later, access to aid, resources and support is only possible through the majority language in operation.

The effectiveness of interventions is often hampered due to Western essentialist models of behaviour change and a lack of appropriate knowledge transmission through the local language. It is the local language which encompasses trust and known concepts of illness and healing and treatment practices not the majority language often the language of the rich and powerful. Unintentionally this perspective of local languages as a minor implementation issue is also reinforcing inequalities around education, language, literacy and gender. Longer term they undermine the local languages and cultural practices that are the basis of the local sense of identity, cohesion in communities and resilience going forwards.

In our ebuddi work, we did see these issues at work. When we reached out to many different stakeholders whilst developing the concept of ebuddi many brilliant ideas were shared with us. A musician who had been recording traditional music in West Africa commented how easy it would be to record the voice-overs in different dialects in the field. Using only the simplest of recording devices such as a smartphone, he believed it would be possible to create a database of voiceovers from the Ebola affected region that the trainee – frontline health workers – could select from. We set out to test this idea.

We soon found local voices engaged the trainees more quickly, built a trusted rapport, and were more easily understood. This became evident in the anecdotal feedback from the early trials, when the quality of the voice over, dialect and accent were often commented upon in the evaluation. We did not have the opportunity to systematically explore the value of a local dialect, or gender for that matter; but we believed it important to create a simulated learning environment that was as authentic and immersive as possible. The first prototype had the option of Krio. We recorded the voiceover working with Diaspora volunteers in London. In trials this was easily identified as ‘London Krio’.

During the next phase, we recorded the voices locally – in the communities where ebuddi was being trialled. An additional benefit came from offering choice as well, enabling learners to choose the language they were most comfortable being communicated with, as opposed to the enforced use of an international language for training.

One might expect that communicating in local languages creates an additional complexity in the process of contextualising local capacity building, but what we showed with our development work during the Ebola crisis was that this need not be the case, and the added benefits from authenticity engagement, and equality are overwhelming.


Co-authored by Nicholas Mellor, MiiHealth, and Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Director of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, at the Department of Linguistics at SOAS, University of London.

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