Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



virALLanguages – Coronavirus explained in minoritised languages

At a SOAS Alumni Continuing the Conversation Event held on the 28 May 2020, Mandana Seyfeddinipur and Pierpaolo di Carlo discussed the question ‘COVID-19: Can Linguists Save Lives?’ and presented the project virALLanguages. The virtual event was the second in the series, and was attended by over 100 people.virallanguages coronavirus explained in your language, logo

What is virALLanguages?

virALLanguages is a project initiated by the SOAS World Languages Institute and the KPAAM-CAM Project at the University of Buffalo, SUNY. The project aims to reach marginalized communities and share reliable and memorable information about COVID-19 to inform people how to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In an interview with Subhashish Panigrahi for Global Voices the three Project Directors, Pierpaolo di Carlo, Jeff Good and Mandana Seyfeddinipur said:

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.

Sirri Yıldız explains how to protect yourself from getting infected with coronavirus in Bafut, spoken in the North-West Region of Cameroon.

How does virALLanguages work?

virALLanguages addresses communities speaking minoritised languages. Each of these communities have their own ways of assessing the reliability of a source of information. The project attempts to disseminate information featuring speakers who are widely known and respected in their communities.

Relying on the WHO as the main source of information and partnering with the Community for Global Health Equity at the University at Buffalo (SUNY, USA) virALLanguages ensures that correct and up-to-date information is spread about COVID-19. In collaboration with advisors and international collaborators, the project has developed a detailed protocol so that the messages will not diffuse false or potentially harmful information.

virallanguages' model
virALLanguages is a community centered project.

Communicating information that people can understand and will trust is only possible through native speakers who are able not only to translate from a major language to a local one, but also to adapt features of the translated text in ways that make it more appropriate to the environment, customs, and speech style that are most relevant to each language community. Proverbs, metaphors, and diverse rhetorical strategies are key to get the information across in a way that will enable behavioral change necessary to save lives. It is also important for any specific examples to be tailored to local ways of living. For example, recommendations to disinfect doorknobs will be meaningless in places where doorknobs are hardly found.

This is why virALLanguages provides a 5-page summary of basic info and background information about COVID-19 which was developed in collaboration with the Community for Global Health Equity Leadership at the University at Buffalo. Language Teams, made up of a speaker and a judge, read the text and then take a quiz to make sure they understand all the information in the text. The speaker then records a video or audio message, which is then checked by the judge. 

The project’s website and resources are currently available in English, French and Bahasa Indonesia.

Herick Abongwa Forsuh gives information on coronavirus in Mendankwe, spoken in the North-West Region of Cameroon.

The video and audio files are distributed via virALLanguage’s YouTube channel and the project’s facebook page. Additionally the files can be downloaded from the Internet Archive, allowing them to be distributed via Whatsapp. Audio files are also disseminated via local radio stations where possible.

Zahida Parveen Khan explains how coronavirus spreads in Wakhi, spoken in Tajikistan, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Who are the people behind virALLanguages?

virALLanguages is a volunteer run project, and relies on speakers of minoritised languages interested in translating information into their languages.

Organizational Partners

Project Directors

  • Pierpaolo Di Carlo, Lead Coordinator – University at Buffalo, SUNY
  • Jeff Good – University at Buffalo, SUNY
  • Mandana Seyfeddinipur – SOAS, University of London

virALLanguages Team

  • Leonore Lukschy, Technical Management – SOAS, University of London
  • Sydney Rey, Operations Management – SOAS, University of London
  • Yẹwá Ògúnṣẹ̀yẹ, Survey Management – SOAS, University of London
  • Vasiliki Vita, Social Media Management – SOAS, University of London
  • Bradley McDonnell, Director of the Indonesia team – University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
  • Jacob Hakim, Coordinator of the Indonesia team – University of Hawai’i at Mānoa

A full list of people involved in the project can be found here.

If you are interested in collaborating with virALLanguages, please get in touch via email: virallanguages@gmail.com