Here is the full transcript of Aimee Ansari’s TEDx Talk: How to Change the World Through Language Whilst Sitting on Your Sofa at TEDxYouth@Bath conference.
Aimee Ansari – Executive Director of Translators without Borders
Just over a year ago, I watched a child die. I was working for a major aid organisation in South Sudan, responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the civil war.
The child’s mother had walked eight hours crossing front lines known for the brutality and violence against women in order to save her starving child. We accepted the child’s death as the consequence of a cruel and unjust war, but it didn’t have to happen that way.
That mother had information on nutrition and how to feed her children. But it didn’t help save her baby girl. In part, it didn’t help save her child because she couldn’t understand the information. The information was in Arabic. And while she speaks Arabic, she really only understands Nuer, and she’s illiterate.
The organization I work for, Translators Without Borders, has done some research on language comprehension. One of the things we found is that when you get information in a language you speak, you really only understand about 16 percent of it. So look at the person sitting next to you.
Pretend that person is bleeding, perhaps profusely. And I give you this information. It’s 16 percent in English. Is this information going to help you to stop the bleeding? Now, if that’s a loved one, is this the information you want to help save their lives?
Clearly, getting the right information in the right language matters if we want to help save lives and get people the information they need. I think there are three critical issues that have to be addressed in order for people to get the information they need and want in their language.
First, critical life-saving information has to be communicated effectively in local language. Second, people need access to information. And third, with that access to information, they have to be able to understand it.
Let’s start with the first: Critical life-saving information communicated effectively in a local language. We know that when you speak to somebody in their language, it creates an emotional connection. It creates the sense of trust, of empathy.
Right now, the international aid system works that one person communicates information usually to a group of local aid workers. Those local aid workers then must translate that information in their heads and communicate it to the people who really need it, sometimes days later. And in that process, information is lost, forgotten, misunderstood, mistranslated. This is because critical information isn’t in local languages, and when it is, it’s often written down and not spoken, which most of those languages are voice-based languages.
Take for example. West Africa. The official languages of the countries of West Africa are English and French. When the Ebola crisis broke out, almost all healthcare information was in English and French. But 90% of the people in the region do not speak either English or French, do not fully understand either of those languages. In fact, 48 percent of the people in the region are illiterate, in any of the 90 languages they speak.
Only 13 percent of women in Sierra Leone fully understand English, and most of them are in urban areas and not in the rural areas that were most impacted by Ebola. So even if people were getting information, they weren’t able to understand it or use it. It actually took months before local government and aid workers understood the importance of getting information in local language.
And when they did – when they started to translate information in a local language and communicate it via posters or on the radio in local languages, when they started to talk to local leaders and tribal chiefs in local language, then the tide of the epidemic changed. And much of that translation was done outside of the region.
Translators sitting in their homes all over the world on their sofas, we’re translating key messages into local languages and sending them back. And the translations for future crises can happen now. If you learn a language, you can help start translating critical information. Because language matters, and it will matter in future crises.
Let’s move on to the second thing: getting people information. Well, how do we get information? I, at least, I google it, I go to Wikipedia, and I get it on Twitter or Facebook. If you’re Russian, you might go to VK or OK; if you’re Chinese, maybe Renren or Weibo. All you need is some pretty simple technology and an internet connection. And this is happening all over the world. Almost everybody in Kenya uses an online financial transfer system on their phones.
80-year-old, semi-illiterate grandmothers living upcountry in Kenya sell their bananas, accept payment for their bananas via this financial transfer system on their phone. Almost everybody in Kenya knows this. They can also, for about 40 cents a month, they can get solar panels. And with those solar panels, they can get electricity to charge their phones, put electricity in their house, and maybe run the radio. And when you get those few things together, when you get electricity, basic technological literacy and a mobile phone connection, then the Internet is going to come soon and all of the information with it.
I’m reliably informed that in about 20 years, almost everybody on the planet will have access to whatever the Internet becomes.
So let’s move on to the third thing because this is the really hard one and the really important one. Once people have access to all of that information, will they be able to understand it? Well, as an aid worker myself, I’m always thinking about the people I’ve met along the way and the information challenges they pose to me.
So, for example, the 17-year-old prostitute in Bangladesh, who wanted information on sexually transmitted diseases, confidentially, because she didn’t want to be seen going to the clinic. Or the woman who lived across the hall from me in Kyrgyzstan, whose husband was beating her up and throwing her down the stairs. She wanted to know where there was a women’s shelter that she could go and take her teenage daughters to be protected from this abusive man.
Or the tribal leader in eastern Chad, who was tired of seeing the young men in his village die in pointless battles. He wanted information on the peaceful conflict resolution. If those people had access to all the information out there, will it be useful to them? No. Because almost all the information is in English and French and maybe Japanese and Spanish, and none of those people speak those languages. And two of them are illiterate.
So how do get – how do we help those people get the information they need in their language? About 94% of the population in the world speaks just 300 languages. Of those 300 languages, about 100 already have online translation systems, machine translation engines like Google Translator, Microsoft Translator. And in 20 years’ time, those machine translation engines will be of pretty high quality. Not probably as good as human translators, but still pretty high-quality.
But what about the other 200 languages? Because those are the languages we really care about. Those are the languages of the most vulnerable. The people who really need information. Well, if you learn one of those 200 languages, you could help develop and continuously improve machine translation engines. This is happening.
Facebook, for example, announced functionality in Fula a couple of months ago. Fula is a language spoken in some of the most Ebola-impacted areas of Guinea. And you can help make that happen while sitting on your sofa. You can also record voice data. The tech geeks of the world can connect text data with voice data.
And when you can do that, when you can go from one – text-dated in one language to voice in another language, then that reduces the barriers of illiteracy and blindness. And if you learn a language, you can help make that happen while sitting on your sofa.
Now, some of you are going to want to pack a bag and go out to a developing country. This is the Barbie Saviour Instagram account, also known as Aid Worker Barbie. Aid Worker Barbie is that person who believes that they can help people in developing countries even if they aren’t bringing professional skills that aren’t already in that country and don’t speak a language.
Why not, instead, learn a language and put it to good use? Because language matters. Whatever you do, whatever you become, whatever you decide to do with your life, if you learn a language, you can help people get the information they need. Because if people can get the information they need and want, when they need it and want it, in a format they can understand and critically, in their language, then that puts them at the center of decision-making in their lives. It empowers them. It empowers them to make change.
And when people are empowered to make change, that that will change the world. And you can help make it happen if you learn a language while sitting on your sofa.