Non-written languages and refugee research

Often one of the biggest challenges in working with displaced populations is speaking to them. This is because most of the people who have the resources to undertake these activities are from Europe and North America and speak English or French, and most displaced populations do not. In addition, as many displaced populations are ethnic minority groups, they often speak languages for which there are a very limited number of interpreters available. The poverty and resulting lower education levels that is often common among groups that have been discriminated against makes good interpreters even harder to find. In other words, with many displaced populations you are often limited to the most rudimentary of communication.

My most problematic encounter with this issue was in Chad, trying to document conflict history and consequences among Darfur refugees. Most of the refugees we were working with were fluent in Massalit, a tribal language with no systematic written form. I needed to design a structured survey so that refugees we hired to carry out the survey could document things that had happened to their community members and the consequences in a systematic way (i.e., everyone had to ask the same questions). So how do you write an unwritten language? Well, I didn’t know, so I had the interview questions first translated into Arabic (then translated back into English to check the equivalency), then did a lot of training (in Arabic) with the people who would be conducting the interview — all of whom spoke Arabic and Massalit. The interviewers then had to interpret from the written Arabic to Massalit when they conducted the interviews. Messy? You bet. But how else could we have done this?

Later, my friend and sometimes co-conspirator Ken Miller had an answer for me. For his doctoral dissertation, he worked in Mexico with Mayan refugees from Guatemala. The Mayan dialect most of them spoke had no written form. What he did was to record someone speaking the questions in that dialect and take the tape and tape recorder into the field (he used cassette tapes at the time — Ken got his PhD a little while ago). He would then play the recording for the participants in the field, and all of them could then answer the same questions, not some slightly different interpretations of each question (as was almost certainly the case in my chad research).

Another answer is presented in today’s New York Times: create your own written form of the language in question. It turns out that for Massalit, this is being done… right here in New York City… at New York University… where I work. New York City, like other large US cities, is apparently something of a linguistic treasure trove for linguists interested in disappearing languages. A couple years ago Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and NYU, established the Urban Field Station for Linguistic Research. He has recruited and recorded speakers of several disappearing languages in New York, including one man from Indonesia who appears to be the sole remaining speaker of his language.

He has also recruited Daowd I. Salih, 45, a refugee from Darfur who lives in New Jersey and is a personal care assistant at a home for the elderly, to teach Massalit, a tribal language, to a linguistic class at New York University. They are meticulously creating a Massalit lexicography to codify grammar, definitions and pronunciations.

“Language is identity,” said Mr. Salih, who has been in the United States for a decade. “So many African tribes in Darfur lost their languages. This is the land of opportunity, so these students can help us write this language instead of losing it.”

The lesson? You don’t have to go too far to get good language help. Start with the diaspora of the groups you think you will encounter.

Read the rest of the article and view the accompanying video here.

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3 Responses to “Non-written languages and refugee research”


  1. 1 Lina May 4, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Very interesting entry…

  2. 2 Abdelkarim Ali M Nour July 1, 2010 at 6:11 am

    Hi, MR Andrew
    thanks for your efforts, I would like to introduce myself to the post of interpreter for these languages: Massalit, English, Frnch and Arabic for your mission to the refugees or IDPs camps in Darfur or East chad.
    Please don’t hesitate to call me on +22790499422
    or write in my email abdelkarim69@gmail.com

  3. 3 Isham September 7, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Your article is really good , Keep up the good work . I would like to know more on the languages which does not have any written form . Could you help me out with it. I would appreciate if you could do so


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