Language lifelines in Haiti: Relief assistance in Creole

27,Jan,2010

The language community has come together to increase the provision of language services through the medium of Haitian Creole for the millions of people affected by the devastating earthquake which shook Haiti this month. The media industry, linguists, software engineers and technology companies have all held special meetings, combined skills and found solutions to some of the language problems hampering relief work.

The literacy rate in Haiti is extremely low at 45%, which makes radio the country’s most popular media. But as reported in Radio World, the earthquake damaged the electricity grid and communication systems in the capital, making the dissemination of information extremely difficult. Out of the 50 radio stations in operation prior to the earthquake, only 20 were broadcasting again this week. It is thought that there was only one radio station which remained undamaged at the time and which managed to stay on air to provide critical information and lists of missing people.

Since the disaster, the number of services through the medium of Haitian Creole have been increased: Voice of America (VOA) has extended its broadcasts in this language to 10 hours per day (up from 1.5 hours) and the BBC are broadcasting for the first time in Haitian Creole with Connexion Haiti – a daily programme relayed from Miami to the six largest towns in Haiti, offering practical information, public health advice and vital updates about aid relief work being carried out.

Also in the media world, Reporters Without Borders and Quebecor (a Canadian communications group) have set up a centre for Haitian (and foreign) journalists, offering equipment such as laptops, printers, mobile phones and generators, along with services such as broadband internet, satellite TV links and an audio/visual conference system.

However, the communication difficulties for people who do not speak a common language are magnified in disaster zones. As it is not always possible for a human interpreter to be present at the scene, a language barrier can potentially slow down a rescue operation and any delay could be the difference between life and death. Yet, recent events have seen collaborations between technology companies, language specialists and IT experts, keen to get machine translation products off the ground and into the hands of the humanitarian workers in the field.

CrisisCommons is an international group of volunteers who ‘create technological tools and resources for responders to use in mitigating disasters and crises around the world.’ This group have been instrumental in making machine translation (MT) tools compatible with the Haitian Creole language. Microsoft has also offered support. MT tools include: Microsoft’s Bing Translator (similar to Google Translate) which now includes Haitian Creole – a free service with an Application Programming Interface (API) supporting other software and websites; Tradui (which means ‘translate’ in Creole) – a translation app in Haitian Creole and English for the iPhone and Android market. Tradui is available free and once downloaded to a device, there is no need to maintain internet connection; and for automatic real-time translators, Jibbigo (two-way speech recognition software) is now available in Haitian Creole and English for the iPhone and iPod Touch, with input and output methods possible in both text and speech format. Finally, there is a visual aid work in progress – a ‘Pict-o-speak’ book, which will cover subjects such as health, emergency shelter, water and sanitation, education and food. Commercial suppliers have already been contacted and it is hoped that their smartphone software and paper versions of their books will be made available to Haiti relief work. In a country where nearly half of the population are illiterate, having a compact and portable smartphone with visual images would be indispensable.

There are many more schemes currently in progress: specialised and general dictionaries, books and emergency phrase books have been donated, online glossaries have been compiled, copyright issues have been waived in an effort to increase aid resources, and a report by CrisisCommons makes reference to GPS powered mobile maps of Haiti with satellite imagery and incident reports.

‘After a crisis like the Haitian earthquake, people need a lot of things: food, shelter, medical aid. They also need information’, state Radio World. And in a society so reliant upon verbal communication, the spoken word has never been so important.