Futurelearning
Why language matters in a crisis

Language barriers are often overlooked or downplayed in large-scale rescue missions, Associate Professor Minako O’Hagan writes 

Last week we had a rare positive news story thanks to the successful rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team from Tham Luang cave in Thailand.

Although it sadly cost the life of one diver, the mission illustrated the coming together of methodical planning and technical expertise to execute a complex and high-risk operation. Particularly inspiring, was the mental and physical resilience demonstrated by the rescued schoolboys and their coach, who survived nearly two weeks with little food or fresh water, not knowing whether they would be found.

They then had to complete a treacherous underwater journey, despite the boys not previously knowing how to swim. And there was another factor which contributed to the successful outcome of the rescue mission: the ability to be able to communicate with foreign divers.

Like many such highly specialised operations, the rescue team included international experts who did not speak Thai. Among the numerous media articles covering the story, the New York Times and a few others highlighted the language skills of 14 year-old Adul Sam-on, who, as the only English-speaker in the group, was reportedly the key to communicating with the British divers who first found the boys. Adul, who speaks several languages, was able to answer the divers’ questions and relay critical information about the group’s immediate needs.

We are fortunate to live in a time which allows specialists with the right skills to be quickly reached and flown across the world to deploy their expertise. Behind such international cooperation in times of dire need is the humanitarian spirit and compassion that transcends other differences.

Yet, an aspect which is often overlooked or downplayed is the issue caused by the international dimension of such large-scale rescue missions: the language. Despite the lingua franca status of English, it is still not widely spoken in many parts of the world, as is the case in Thailand.

It is right to recognise that Adul’s ability to speak English even under duress increased the chance of the boys’ and their coach’s survival. His language skills made it possible to aid, and not hinder, the international rescue process.   

Joining in celebrating the safe return of the Wild Boars team and its coach, we should make note of the role played by foreign language competence as a way to enhance one’s resilience against the unforeseen.

This resonates with the rationale behind an EU-funded international project INTERACT, the International Network on Crisis Translation, in which we are involved at the University of Auckland. Led and coordinated by Dublin City University and University College London along with other partners, we are together addressing the multilingual and multicultural needs of crisis communication that seeks timely, accurate and trusted communication across languages.

In particular, at the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics, we are working with DCU and UCL on training people who can act as translators in various crisis and disaster scenarios. Not long ago the tragedy of London’s Grenfell Tower fire highlighted the urgent need for translation plans in case of an emergency.

In New Zealand the devastating Canterbury earthquakes have taught us many valuable lessons, including recognition of the importance of planning how to communicate critical information with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities.

Various initiatives set up in Christchurch have laid the grounds for strengthening community interpreting and translation in disaster scenarios. By further building on such initiatives we hope to make New Zealand as a whole well-equipped to deal with multilingual and multicultural communication especially in times of crisis.  

In an age of steadily improving translation technologies, the INTERACT project recognises the advantages as well as the limitations of such technologies and looks to optimise their use where appropriate, combining them with human expertise.

Yet, in disaster scenarios, basic communications infrastructure may be damaged, including power supplies, making a total reliance on technology untenable.

While translators should be able to apply technologies appropriately, it is often solid linguistic and cultural skills that save the day in crisis scenarios, as was the case with Adul deep in Tham Luang cave. Adul put his language ability to critical use, enabling crisis communication across languages.

In New Zealand, the value of knowing other languages is not always appreciated and language departments at universities are struggling to attract domestic students for many of their offered languages.

The length of time it takes to master a language, together with the availability of free online translation tools may be factors in this decline.

Joining in celebrating the safe return of the Wild Boars team and its coach, we should make note of the role played by foreign language competence as a way to enhance one’s resilience against the unforeseen.