Being able to communicate effectively is always important, though it becomes even more critical when an urgent crisis is at hand. Unfortunately, many people's crisis preparation plans do not include anything to cover the possibility of a language barrier. This can lead to miscommunication that can cost lives or take valuable time away from urgent information. In this post, we'll talk about the role that language plays in dealing with a crisis and how you can better prepare for the chance of finding yourself in a multilingual crisis situation.
The Importance of Communication in a Crisis
In recent memory, there have been several examples of the international community coming together to solve a problem. We will discuss three of them here:
- The Wild Boars soccer team rescued from a cave in Thailand.
- The outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- The Coronavirus that broke out worldwide in early 2020.
In many cases, there will be teams of professional scientists who can take advantage of English's role as a lingua franca. But as these examples show, it isn't just the professionals working on a solution that need to understand it.
Wild Boars Cave Rescue
The divers that formed the rescue team for the Wild Boars soccer team from a cave in Thailand are an example of highly skilled individuals who did not all speak a common language. While the whole world came together to rescue those boys, that meant dealing with multiple languages during a time when communication was most vital.
Thankfully, the dive team, which consisted mostly of English-speaking divers, was able to communicate with the boys because one of the trapped youngsters spoke English. Had that not been the case, guiding those boys through treacherous passages when many of them hadn't even been taught to swim yet could have gone far differently.
Ebola in the Congo
Translators Without Borders found a similar problem when helping out with the effort to control Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not only did the general population not understand the information that they were given about the disease, but the local health professionals were also left with questions about the treatments and recommendations they were giving out. This has led to cases that are misdiagnosed and caused people to get the disease when they could have easily prevented it were they better educated on the topic.
COVID-19 is unique from the other two cases in that it has turned into a global issue, affecting peoples of all cultures and language groups. Given its widespread impact and the quickly changing information on best practices and regulations, it's easy to see where cross-cultural communication is necessary and may be a road block.
There are now communities all over the world needing to communicate to each other, and needing to reach their populations that don't speak the dominant language. Getting information to all people groups quickly is vital not only for their own safety, but for the safety of communities as a whole.
Machine Translation Efforts
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti prompted relief efforts from all around the world to help with medical needs and infrastructure repairs. A huge barrier to these efforts was met when relief workers realized that most people on the island spoke Haitian Creole, a resource-poor language spoken by very few people outside the island.
Microsoft, using a dataset released by Carnegie Mellon University, developed a machine translation tool. No one involved spoke the language and once they found someone who did, they realized that the matter was extra complicated because of a peculiarity of Creole grammar explained in their paper on the subject:
Creole has multiple registers in its written form: a "high" register that uses full forms for pronouns and a set of function words, and a "low" register that corresponds more closely to its spoken form, and is written with many contractions.
These inconsistencies with how words are used made it difficult for the machine to map the meaning of one Creole word to one word of English.
We are still a long way from being able to seamlessly communicate across languages through a computer translator alone. Anyone who's used machine translators knows that, while they can get the general point across, there are often errors in the translation. Furthermore, this method of translation often strips nuance from the equation.
Throughout the post, we've used big, well-known events to illustrate the important role that language plays during a crisis, but not every crisis is an international incident. An emergency at the office could put you in a situation where you need to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English very well. In a crisis, all communication is vital and all time wasted trying to get a point across is potentially dangerous. It pays to plan ahead and have a translation service in mind that will be able to quickly step in and help you out should issues arise.