Celebrating language skills, acknowledging challenges, and sharing resources: Lessons from a language survey at GOAL

27 July 2020
Dr Wine Tesseur

by Dr Wine Tesseur

Postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Translation and Textual Studies School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies, Dublin City University

Clear information in a language and format that is easily accessible to people is crucial in a humanitarian crisis. The importance of health-related information in the global fight against COVID-19 is a case in point. All of us have had to absorb regular news updates and guidelines on hand washing, physical distancing and staying at home in recent weeks. Many humanitarian organisations have assumed the role of disseminating COVID-19 related information through awareness and prevention messaging campaigns. For example, CHS Alliance member GOAL, which I am collaborating with at the moment, has launched information campaigns using radio, social media, posters, and vans fitted with megaphones in all 13 countries where it runs programmes.

As part of these awareness raising campaigns, it seems obvious that information is disseminated in a wide variety of languages. While NGO networks like the CHS Alliance and organisations such as Translators without Borders are dedicated to improving access to information in a language that people understand, we know little about how NGOs handle the translation of information. Previous academic research has shown that few international NGOs employ professional translators in their organisation, and that many multilingual NGO workers provide oral or written translation, although this language work often falls outside their job descriptions. It seems strange that we know so little about how to achieve successful multilingual communication, when clear and accurate communication is an absolute cornerstone in assisting local communities and working in partnership, both essential for effective aid.

Language skills at GOAL: a survey

As part of a two-year research project that I am currently working on with GOAL, I conducted a survey on staff’s language skills. This project aimed to gain insight into who ensures that information is shared in an easily accessible and culturally appropriate language and format, be it for project participants, partner organisations, or colleagues in other countries. I asked staff if and how they used their foreign language skills at work: for which tasks, how frequently, and for which languages. I also asked them what tools they used to support their language needs at work, such as online dictionaries or free machine translation tools, and if there was any specific language support that would help to improve their performance. My aim with this survey was to map the language skills among staff and to celebrate the existing in-house language capacity, which had up until this point largely remained under the radar. The survey was made available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Turkish, and received 117 responses.

The results provided evidence of the rich and varied linguistic skillset of GOAL staff. Respondents reported language skills in a total of 37 languages, among which African languages like Amharic and Zarma, and the indigenous Central-American language Miskito. Fifteen of these languages were used at work. Because GOAL is an Irish organisation and English is the language used by its headquarters, English could be expected to be widely spoken. The results confirmed this, but it was somewhat surprising that the reported levels of spoken English in the French and Spanish survey were relatively low: 50% and 42% of respondents respectively reported a basic level of spoken English. While these language levels may not be entirely accurate because they were self-assessed and respondents may be over- or underconfident about their skill level, they do warrant reflection on how low levels of fluency may affect staff’s ability to participate in meetings and trainings organised by headquarters, where the use of English is standard.

Language tools and support

Another key finding was the widespread use of free machine translation tools such as Google Translate. In the English survey, 63% said they used these tools at work, while in the French and Spanish survey this went up to over 80% of respondents. While many of us may use Google Translate occasionally to help us with writing and reading e-mails, the widespread use indicated by these findings raises questions on how exactly staff are using these tools. It is essential for any organisation working with sensitive and confidential data to ensure that their employees know when and how using these tools is appropriate. Indeed, massive privacy breaches have occurred in the past in companies where employees had used free machine translation, like in the Norwegian oil giant Statoil. As the use of machine translation continues to grow globally, the need for training in a new skillset, namely machine translation literacy, becomes increasingly important.

Keeping in mind the widespread use of machine translation and the relatively low levels of spoken English, it is only logical that the survey question on support triggered an overwhelming demand for English language support, especially from those participating in the French and Spanish survey. Approximately 90% of respondents in these languages asked for support either with English language learning or with English report writing.

Recognising the added value of language and translation

In addition to mapping existing language skills in GOAL, I also wanted to use the survey to initiate a dialogue with staff about the role of language and translation in their work. Respondents were asked at the end of the survey if they had any further thoughts on the role of languages and translation in their work that they wanted to share. Colleagues left comments relating to various issues, for example the potential of using translation technology, the need for more guidance on how to handle translation needs, requests to create a small internal translation team, and demands for more support with language learning.

What stood out to me most was the wide interest in the topic and the relevance of language and translation to all areas of GOAL’s work. This was reflected in the fact that 53 staff members participated when I presented the survey’s findings at an online webinar in May 2020. Colleagues from a wide variety of locations as well as job roles attended: from programming and monitoring and evaluation, to logistics and procurement, compliance, accounting, finance, human resources, external affairs and strategic partnerships. We know that key areas to consider on the use of language in aid work definitely include those of feedback mechanisms, safeguarding and fraud prevention. Yet the wide interest in this topic made me realise that my research up until now has perhaps unjustly focused only on programming aspects, while overlooking support functions that ensure the programming work can actually take place.

So now what?

The survey marked the start of a dialogue on language and translation that I intend to continue over the next year of research through interviews with colleagues. But what can GOAL and other NGOs do in the meantime to start addressing some of the challenges that colleagues spoke about? While there are no easy and cheap solutions to address all of the issues raised, colleagues made some suggestions that are feasible. For example, to make language learning part of personal development plans and to set up an online language exchange programme. This could be as simple as creating a spreadsheet where colleagues can leave details on the language that they want to learn, the language they speak and their availability. This would not only improve colleagues’ language skills but would also build closer relationships between colleagues in geographically distant locations. Another suggestion was to provide more bilingual templates and multilingual versions of key documents, particularly relating to partnership, finance and logistics, and to produce some basic glossaries with key terms in GOAL’s work. Finally, there are already quite a lot of free and easily accessible resources out there that can address some of the basic guidance and training needs that NGO workers have. Therefore, I have compiled a list that brings together these resources. I would like to call on readers to add more resources that they think may be useful to NGO workers. Any language welcome!

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