How Does Language Impact Disaster Relief?

Disasters happen all over the world. These disruptive, dangerous events require immediate response. While an appropriate response can save lives and help those affected, the wrong response can be calamitous.

Because disasters happen suddenly, disaster relief organizations must plan ahead in order to be prepared to mobilize quickly. While it may be obvious to prepare by collecting essential supplies, like drinking water, food, and medical equipment, one of the most useful tools in any relief organization’s arsenal can easily be overlooked: language preparedness.

Language can affect disaster relief efforts in the following ways:

Cultural Competence

Culture can play a huge role in a group’s beliefs, practices, and actions, and is likely to shape local perceptions about health, healing, and causation of disasters, as well as attitudes towards those providing assistance. Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, for example, linguist Kristine Hildebrant reported that local people believed that earthquakes happen “when things fall out of balance,” and that “earthquakes are viewed as karmic payback for too much modernizing or for sin or for taking economic assistance from China.”

These types of belief systems can endanger people’s lives, leading to unsafe, fatalistic reactions during disasters. It is thus essential for organizations to be aware of cultural beliefs about disaster when planning their relief efforts. In remote regions, where expert teams may not be available, communicating in the local language is the first step to understanding these cultural values and thereby shaping disaster preparation and response practices.

Clear Communication

Strong disaster relief requires clear, efficient communication. When relief workers can use appropriate, concise wording, it can make it easier for those affected by the disasters to understand what is happening and interpret instructions meant to help them.

However, there are words and concepts that exist in some languages and not others, which can make clear communication trickier.

During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Hildebrant also found that some local languages conceptualize spatial and directional information differently than they are conceptualized in English. Another example of this is the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr, which does not have terms like left, right, up, or down. Instead, all spatial information is rendered using cardinal directions.

These differences can prove enormously tricky for relief organization, since they often use spatial and directional descriptions to communicate instructions. Clear communication in disaster relief may therefore require an expert-level speaker.

Information Materials

Relief organizations may provide printed informational materials to explain what is happening, what residents should do, and how to get help. When producing these materials, it is essential to consider the languages needed, otherwise some community members may not have access to this information.

This can be as essential in reacting to disasters within the United States as abroad. For example, the town of Guyman, Oklahoma is home many immigrants and refugees. It has a population of just 12,000 people, but thirty-seven languages are spoken in its public-school district, including Amharic and Tigrinya, from Ethiopia and Eritrea, various languages spoken in Myanmar, and at least seven indigenous Guatemalan languages. Lacking access to information about local disasters in their native languages, parents often rely on their children – who tend to learn English more quickly than they do – to communicate disaster-related information they receive at school.

Situations like this are less than ideal. Where there are language differences present, printed materials should be provided in as many languages spoken in the region as possible. Additionally, audiences may have varying levels of reading skills, so written materials should be crafted with readers of lower literacy levels in mind.

Access to Services

If people impacted by a disaster cannot communicate with relief workers, they may miss out on services.

Even if impacted populations understand services are available, they may not seek them out if they cannot communicate comfortably with providers. This can lead to unnecessary suffering due to language barriers.

Having a disaster relief team with verified skills in a wide array of languages is tremendously helpful. When your organization’s staff doesn’t have the skills necessary to communicate clearly, ALTA Language Services’ interpretation services may be the bridge you need to serve those affected by disasters. ALTA offers on-site interpretation, over-the-phone interpretation, video remote interpreting, conference interpreting, and interpreting equipment, providing convenient interpretation options to fit your needs. The translation department can also assist with any major document translation requirements.


Meredith Kreisa is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer with a love of languages, learning, and culture.

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