Talking the talk: Why NGOs need to think again about their use of language

Standard Research Grant (Standard):
The Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and cultural knowledge in development programmes
PI: Hilary Footitt

Language and cultural knowledge are very important in development work - yet they are often neglected.

This project aims to increase NGOs’ and their donors’ understanding about the importance of language in relation to cultural knowledge, power dynamics and development programme design.

There is a lot of talk about listening in NGO circles, particularly the big UK-based ones. But this listening tends to take place in one language and for UK NGOs, that language is, of course, English.  

“Despite the fact that the relationship between an NGO and the community they are representing is normally presented by NGOs as a meeting in which local communities speak and NGOs hear, the role of foreign languages in these encounters passes largely unnoticed,” says Professor Hilary Footit, of the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism at the University of Reading.

“In international relations and development studies there has been little interest in the inevitable ‘foreign’ dimension of these NGO/local meetings and in the role which foreign languages and cultural knowledge may play within them.”

To address this shortcoming, the three-year project brings together specialists from two universities to examine the language policies and practices of four large and well-established UK-based NGOs in three different locations - Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Peru.

The locations were chosen because of the different status of English in each place. In Malawi, English is an official language; in Peru, it is not an official language but is the first foreign language; and in Kyrgyzstan, English is hardly spoken at all.

Footit hopes the project will achieve a much broader understanding of the process of listening: What it means, the importance of cultural knowledge and how trust is formed and deepened through language.

“We are interested in identity and relationships and to explore how the listening relates to power,” she says. “We hope to make international relations more linguistically aware.

“There needs to be an awareness of what language does and the fact that people may feel disempowered by not being able to communicate in their first language. Language forces you into a different position. Can a person really have freedom of speech, when not speaking in their own language, for example?”

Some NGOs have acknowledged that their understanding of the role of foreign languages in development work is lacking – in terms of their relationship with people, in the use of local versus external language intermediaries, in terms of power dynamics and in programme design.

Languages tend to not have a high profile within NGOs. Many do not have language policies in place and funding for translation and interpreting is limited. The project team want this all to change.

They want foreign languages to be integrated into NGO policies and practices at each stage of the development cycle.

In order for that to happen, Footit says foreign languages need to be embedded in the vital funding, monitoring and accountability frameworks which major donors set for their NGOs.

The role of translators and interpreters is a core focus of this project. The team plan to provide detailed evidence about the status, working conditions, training and security of language intermediaries working in NGO development programmes.

They already know that some NGOs are very proactive about ensuring that language negotiations are not carried out only in English. One NGO in particular has a policy that all documents produced can be translated into the native language and that they are acronym and jargon-free.

This policy is exemplies where translation is understood as vital in an organisation and how that is beneficial in its day to day operations.

As the project progresses, a toolkit will be devised. This toolkit will offer advice and guidance on how foreign languages can be integrated into NGO policies and practices at each stage of the development cycle.

Intended outcomes and impact

  • To increase the importance of foreign language in NGO circles and development work and raise awareness of issues such as power dynamics and cultural knowledge
  • To raise the profile of interpreter/translator professionals and their trainers
  • To develop a framework for analysing the role of foreign languages in NGO development work.