Pre-existing, unresolved language barriers are thrown into sharp relief when a global pandemic requires the rapid dissemination of information.

As governments around the world struggle to develop effective communications strategies to keep their citizens up to date with ever-changing information on Covid-19, some minorities are being particularly badly hit by a crisis that is linguistic as well as medical. In the refugee camps of Bangladesh - where displaced Rohingya muslims number into the hundreds of thousands - misunderstandings, mistranslations and misinformation are dangerously common.

When Myanmar’s brutal and systematic ethnic cleansing of Rakhine state began in the summer of 2017, the Rohingya muslim minority had already been excluded from the national census and denied citizenship for many years. Since the outbreak of violence in the region, and murder of 7000 civilians in the first month alone, significant numbers have fled over the border into Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who managed to escape are now sheltering in Bangladeshi refugee camps.

One of these, a camp known as Kutupalong, is home to over 860,000 displaced persons and it is considered by the UN to be the largest refugee settlement anywhere in the world. Such a concentration of displaced persons living in unsanitary conditions constitutes a potential health catastrophe during such a highly infectious pandemic, especially when communication is far from easy.

As an ethnic and religious minority who have long been prevented from accessing basic services in Myanmar, the Rohingya people are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to literacy and intercommunication with foreign aid organisations. Many Rohingya who were denied access to education in Myanmar are unable to read the languages typically used in regional public health communications. The latter are often produced in English, a long-standing lingua-franca in the area due to the legacy of the British colonialism, yet it is not only the official use of English which results in dangerous language barriers. In the refugee camps of Bangladesh the national language, Bengali, can also be seen on signage and much spoken communication occurs in Chittagonian, the regional minority language of Southern Bangladesh. Despite having no mutual intelligibility with Bengali, Chittagonian and Rohingya are often erroneously dismissed as a ‘nonstandard dialects’ of the national tongue and many assume that they are simply regional names for the same linguistic variety.

This is far from the truth. The assumption is so pervasive, however, that Chittagonian has been adopted by various aid groups in the mistaken belief that it is identical to Rohingya. In fact, whilst these two minoritised languages are undoubtedly linguistically related and share some mutual intelligibility, they contain differences of vocabulary significant enough to cause frequent misunderstanding and miscommunication. Indeed, a study published by Translators Without Borders (TwB) showed that 36% of Rohingya refugees could not understand a simple message reported to them in Chittagonian. TwB has also told of the confusion which arose between Chittagonian interpreters and the incoming refugees in 2017 when neither group was able to understand the other’s term for ‘safety’: respectively ‘nirafot’ and ‘hefazot’. These vocabulary differences are also true of terms such as ‘danger’, ‘rescue’, ‘cyclone’ and ‘rain’, making warnings about natural disasters particularly difficult to convey via Chittogonian.

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