Hossain Ahmed faces a language barrier each time he sees a doctor in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps.
His 17-year-old son, Mohammed Tuha, can’t move his legs. Ahmed said soldiers shot his son when the family fled Myanmar’s military purge of the Rohingya population starting in August 2017.
Tuha spends most of his time lying prone on a straw mat, apart from frequent visits with his father to a health clinic in the refugee settlements.
“I mostly don't understand what they say in the clinic,” the father said, “and I think they also don't understand what I am saying.”
Communication has proven to be a challenge for both father and son in the packed refugee camps they share with roughly 900,000 Rohingya chased from their homeland in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
They’re not alone. Research by Translators without Borders (TwB), which helps aid groups communicate with people in crises, shows many Rohingya struggle to make themselves heard.
When communicating with aid providers, the Rohingya rely most often on translations by speakers of Chittagonian, the dialect common in this part of southern Bangladesh. Many Chittagonian speakers believe their language is nearly identical with Rohingya.
But TwB research shows there are important differences. One survey suggests more than a third of Rohingya – 36 percent – did not understand a simple message spoken in Chittagonian.
“Everybody thought: ‘Chittagonian is close enough to Rohingya to be understood’. But that is not the case,” said Mia Marzotto, the senior advocacy officer at TwB.
Language, trust, and the coronavirus
Aid group surveys show misinformation about the coronavirus is rife in the Rohingya camps, from false cures to a rumour that those who are infected might be taken away and “executed”.
Clear communication in an understandable language is directly linked to trust, and some rumours reflect a distrust of healthcare providers, according to recent research on healthcare during the pandemic by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, and humanitarian analysis group ACAPS.
About half of 56 Rohingya surveyed immediately after visiting health centres reported negative or neutral experiences.
“We couldn't understand any word that they said to us, and they went away without a proper explanation,” a Rohingya man, whose son has severe breathing problems, told researchers after seeking help at a clinic.
Rohingya are now making far fewer visits to health centres: consultations have dropped by more than half since the pandemic began in March. Researchers say it is driven in part by rumours and the perception that clinics won’t provide proper treatment.
At the same time, the Bangladesh government’s ongoing ban on mobile internet in the camps continues to fuel an information shortage, making it harder for volunteers and aid groups to spread coronavirus safety advice or combat misinformation.
There’s a particular language gap when it comes to healthcare. About a third of Rohingya who visit health facilities reported not understanding everything that’s said, and that they don’t feel all their questions are answered, according to TwB research published in September.
Crucial vocabulary used in healthcare, terms describing gender-based violence, and even words used for disasters are easily misunderstood. Language advocates say these mistranslations can be a life-or-death matter.
Language and communication have been a problem throughout the Rohingya response. Aid groups have also been criticised for using English signage, or for relying too heavily on written script – the Rohingya language has no commonly accepted written form – to convey vital information or to solicit feedback. Women and girls in particular are less likely to be able to read, or to speak another language.
Groups like TwB are trying to compensate by organising regular training sessions for interpreters, issuing glossaries of key terms, and advising local and international aid groups on the best ways to listen to refugees.
“Bad communication can have very serious consequences,” Marzotto said. “Still we don’t seem to quite have learned the lesson in this response.”
The issue has become even more critical now due to the pandemic. COVID-19 misinformation is common, and many Rohingya report a mistrust in healthcare – driven in part by language barriers. The camps saw their first coronavirus case in May, and aid groups fear the virus could spread quickly through the packed settlements. There were at least 45 cases and four deaths as of 21 June.
Essential concepts like “quarantine”, “isolation”, and “shielding” have had to be translated into phrases that Rohingya clearly understand. “If these terms could not be translated successfully, there would be little possibility of people fully understanding the disease and what assistance is available,” said FanMan Tsang, TwB’s programme director in Asia and the Pacific.
A range of languages is spoken throughout the camps, including English; Myanmar’s national language, Burmese; Bangladesh’s national tongue, Bangla; and Chittagonian. Bangla, Burmese, and English are also written in different scripts.
But only one language – Rohingya – is understood by all the refugees. Despite similarities between Chittagonian and Rohingya, there are key differences in vocabulary, particularly for healthcare terminology. There are even stark contrasts in language among Rohingya who have lived in Bangladesh for years and the hundreds of thousands who arrived from Myanmar after the August 2017 purge.
Many Chittagonian speakers believe the two languages are interchangeable, and humanitarian groups have largely echoed these assumptions and underestimated the barriers.
Read more → How do you translate a pandemic?
“People say Chittagonian and Rohingya are the same, but no, no, no,” said Sultan Mahmud, a freelance interpreter who works for international NGOs. “I would say only 75 percent of the vocabulary is the same.”
Mistakes can have serious consequences. Mahmud described how a colleague had to intervene to correct a poor translation. A doctor, who was from elsewhere in Bangladesh, was prescribing medicine to a woman he didn’t know was pregnant. The doctor’s interpreter did not translate that women who are expecting shouldn’t take the medicine.
“Terrible things could have happened if my friend hadn’t intervened,” Mahmud said.
Another Chittagonian-speaker who works for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said he doesn’t understand everything the Rohingya say, even though he grew up near the camps, which have hosted refugees for generations.
“I have worked with the Rohingya for years and still don’t understand everything,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous as he wasn’t authorised to speak on behalf of his organisation.
He also thinks that many field workers aren't aware of these language barriers. “Language is so essential for showing dignity and respect," he said. “Those who come to the field should be better trained.”
Listening to refugees
Many foreign aid workers misjudge language comprehension because Rohingya are reluctant to speak out, said Khin Maung, a Rohingya activist and teacher who fled to the camps in 2017.
“We don't have the right to complain much in our host country that is so generous with us,” he said.
Though advocates for better communication have encouraged aid groups to hire native Rohingya-language speakers where possible, many information sessions and much of the NGO training are often conducted in Chittagonian.
“Rohingya are uneasy when NGOs give trainings to them in Chittagonian,” Khin Maung said. “Chittagonians tell you they understand Rohingya, but they don’t.”
TwB research found a large majority of humanitarian workers interviewed believed most Rohingya understand Chittagonian.
“The standard approach is to not think about refugees’ language and communication needs before sharing information or setting up feedback mechanisms”, said Marzotto.
“We have heard many times field workers saying, ‘We have explained X,Y, and Z to Rohingya refugees, but they just don’t understand,’” she said. “This attitude projects a deficit onto refugees. But it’s actually us who need to listen and make sure we understand refugees’ needs and priorities, and language is a key factor for that.”
This may mean Rohingya aren’t fully grasping important information – coronavirus safety advice, for example – but also that humanitarian groups are missing out on crucial concerns from refugees. Sexual violence against men, for example, has been widely under-reported in part due to the type of language used to describe it.
“We are also creating problems around justice and accountability if we don’t properly understand refugees,” Marzotto said.
The communication problems also go beyond the spoken language. Abdu Subahan, a 40-year-old refugee, said he struggled to find a doctor in his camp after one of his family members became ill: there were signs pointing the way, but like many Rohingya who missed out on education in Myanmar, Subahan can’t read.
“How can I read signs? I've never been to school,” he said, staring at the ground in embarrassment.
There are also differences in the language among Rohingya women and girls, who use euphemisms that are often missed or mistranslated.
When referring to menstrual cycles, for example, women often speak instead of “taking a shower”.
Linguists say this is part of a sociolect – a sort of coded lexicon used by groups of people within the same language. In Rohingya society, women are largely expected to stay home among other women.
“It's not intentionally a secret language, but it comes close to one," said AK Rahim, a Bangladeshi-American linguist who worked with TwB in Cox’s Bazar and also speaks Rohingya.
“Rape would be referred to as ‘the bad deed’, for example,” he explained. “The translators understood the words, but in the beginning of the crisis they were confused about the meaning.”
Groups like TwB are trying to capture these sorts of nuances and the growing breadth of the Rohingya language. They’ve compiled updated glossaries of Rohingya words and terminology, and issue frequent bulletins on language and other issues based on focus group discussions with refugees.
There are also regular training sessions for interpreters and other field staff to better communicate with refugees.
At a training session held at a hotel in the city of Cox’s Bazar last year, a room full of Chittagonian-speaking interpreters listened to a recording of a Rohingya person.
The interpreters took turns repeating and translating the sentences into Bangla. “The baby isn’t well because of pressure in the mother’s belly,” one young interpreter said.
But the translation was off: it's the mother who isn't well, not the baby.
Over the past year, language advocates say they’re seeing improvements in how aid groups communicate with refugees. Cyclone preparedness messages, for example, are increasingly issued in the Rohingya language, using audio-visual formats geared to people who can’t read.
But problems remain. When the pandemic began weeks ago, humanitarian groups were still asking for translations into written Rohingya – when no official script exists.
“There is still much to be done to make sure we’re listening to people’s questions, and making sure we know what words they prefer to use, instead of technical terminology many people won’t understand,” said TwB’s FanMan Tsang.
Nearly three years after the 2017 Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, both refugees and local Bangladeshis are also learning to better understand each other.
“When I started out, I didn't understand everything they say,” said Yesmin Akter, a health worker from Cox’s Bazar. “But now I understand everything.”
Yet everyday words and phrases can still become lost in translation.
It was only by chance – on one of her frequent visits through the camps to advise women on maternal health issues – that she learned the Rohingya word for a common ailment: “gastritis”.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.