The contribution of linguists in times of crisis

Syrian refugees arriving in Lesvos

by Christina Chrysoula, Project Manager at Commit

Refugee crisis, Paris terrorist attacks, so many unfortunate crisis situations seem to be happening lately that affect everyone in our globalized world: civilians, governments, businesses. However, how often do we think of the importance of communication in times of crisis?

Last September one of our team members visited Lesbos, Greece, to offer volunteer work for the refugees and immigrants. There, she had the chance to experience first-hand the problems caused by the lack of professional linguistic services. When she returned and shared her experience with us, this got us reflecting on the subject: what are the main sectors affected in such a situation and what is the actual contribution of the linguist?

One of the main sectors affected is healthcare services. In this case, on-site medical interpreting is of paramount importance. People need to be able to communicate their condition, medical record and any other information that will allow first-aid workers and doctors to take care of them and in some cases even save their lives. Unfortunately, in most cases there are no available professional interpreters at health centers and hospitals who can offer their services at all times. This is due to various factors: scarcity of professional linguists for less common language combinations, lack of financial resources for hiring trained interpreters and translators, and many more.

To overcome this problem, it is common practice to seek help from people who simply speak the language and have no official training. However, this may create serious problems and even put people’s lives at risk since it is very probable that wrong or insufficient information is provided to both sides, doctors and patients. Another case is that very often family members – mostly children and teenagers who speak English – assume the role of the interpreter. This solution causes problems since minors usually lack adequate knowledge of medical terminology and have insufficient language skills. Furthermore, this practice poses the issue of sensitive personal information being revealed, for example children finding out about a parent’s medical condition they were unaware of. And of course, we should not underestimate the psychological stress such situations put on all involved parties. Finally, there are cases where communication is not possible at all and doctors play a guessing game, which undoubtedly endangers people’s lives or, in the best case, leads to the provision of poor medical care.

Another sector where linguistic services prove vital is the fast and accurate translation of critical information for those seeking shelter or travelling, or the translation of important information on legal matters such as legal procedures for asylum seekers, penal procedures etc. The translation of such content by non-professionals often results in the dissemination of misleading, inaccurate information and even the violation of basic human rights such as that of people fleeing war-torn countries to apply for asylum.

Of course, communication is not vital only on humanitarian basis. In today’s world, where businesses operate all over the globe, crisis cannot be restricted at a local level; everyone could be potentially affected – directly or indirectly. Again, fast and accurate linguistic services are extremely significant. Internal communication between a company’s headquarters and its branches, press releases, emergency responses and measures to be taken in a crisis situation need to be communicated right off between all involved parties. The Paris attacks last November were a tragic example. Companies from all over the world needed to make sure that all their employees and their families were safe, communicate their solidarity to those affected, examine the impact of those events to their business, and put into effect a plan to tackle possible consequences. Without the help of professional linguists, all this interaction could not have taken place.

Communication spans everyday life on a multi-level basis. Even more, in times of crisis language mediators can play a vital role: facilitate crowd and panic control, ensure the respect of vital human rights, allow everyone to communicate as needed, with those needed, when needed.