UP’s ‘language warriors’ fight to equalize access to COVID-19 information

| Written by Andre DP Encarnacion

Photo from the Language Warriors PH Facebook group page. [https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10157354034723212&set=g.228424555009755&type=1&theater&ifg=1]
Photo from the Language Warriors PH Facebook group page.

 

It may seem a long time ago for many, but it was only on March 16, 2020 that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte first imposed an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) on the island of Luzon in response to reports of rising cases of COVID-19. As with many, the women and men of UP Diliman’s Department of Linguistics (DL) felt a heightened urge to provide any meaningful help possible to counter the dire situation.

 

“Team Ginhawa” or the people behind Language Warriors PH (LWPH) from the Department of Linguistics. Clockwise from top-left: Prof. Aldrin Lee, Prof. Jesus Federico Hernandez, Prof. Kristina Gallego, Prof. Mary Ann Gaitan-Bacolod, Prof. Elsie Marie Or, Prof. Vincent Christopher Santiago, Prof. Michael Manahan, Ms. Jurekah Chene Abrigo. (Volunteer faculty not in photo: Prof. April Perez, Prof. Divine Angeli Endriga, and Prof. Ria Rafael). Photo courtesy of LWPH, logo created by Elsie Marie Or.
“Team Ginhawa” or the people behind Language Warriors PH (LWPH) from the Department of Linguistics. Clockwise from top-left: Prof. Aldrin Lee, Prof. Jesus Federico Hernandez, Prof. Kristina Gallego, Prof. Mary Ann Gaitan-Bacolod, Prof. Elsie Marie Or, Prof. Vincent Christopher Santiago, Prof. Michael Manahan, Ms. Jurekah Chene Abrigo. (Volunteer faculty not in photo: Prof. April Perez, Prof. Divine Angeli Endriga, and Prof. Ria Rafael). Photo courtesy of LWPH, logo created by Elsie Marie Or.

 

We felt like we needed to come up with something that would contribute to the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Prof. Kristina Gallego, a faculty member of DL and currently a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. Assessing how public health information was being disseminated while the virus was spreading, Gallego and her colleagues observed that a great majority of the material produced was communicated in only Filipino and English, to the detriment of many who did not use either language.

Noting the powerful role that language plays in any effort to contain the pandemic and the rise in community translators working on DOH-released information, DL officially launched Language Warriors PH (LWPH) in late March. Dubbed a “meta-translation initiative”, the project aims to connect the disparate community translation projects and “language warriors” across the country that are translating materials related to COVID-19 into the country’s estimated 180 or so languages.

Making connections

Building on recent BA Linguistics graduate Soleil Vinoya’s work done on explaining public hygiene in Philippine languages and tapping into existing networks already actively translating COVID-19 materials, the project members decided that rather than duplicating what was already being done, they could best help by bringing all these initiatives under one roof. “LWPH serves as a platform for these community translators to collaborate, share resources, and get informed about overall translation efforts in the country,” Gallego explained. All these are in service of the broader aim of relaying public health information in languages people use and understand.

 

A summary of the work done by LWPH volunteers with sources mostly coming from the Department of Health and the World Health Organization. Photo courtesy of LWPH.
A summary of the work done by LWPH volunteers with sources mostly coming from the Department of Health and the World Health Organization. Photo courtesy of LWPH.

 

One of the project’s most important aims is the creation of a repository of all translated material for easy access, monitoring and dissemination. The group provides frequent status reports on the state of these materials, as well as on individual translators and projects, while connecting the right people to translation jobs where they are needed most.

While Gallego admits that a more thorough study must be done on how equitable the access to government-produced COVID-19 materials has been, the group’s March to May 2020 data revealed that most materials produced on this and other important issues were produced through grassroots efforts. “This clearly shows that the local communities are aware of the need to provide information about the pandemic in the languages the people understand,” Gallego said. While LGUs typically provide information in major Philippine languages, smaller languages are usually left out.

 

Material from UPD PsycServ on mental health, which volunteers translated into a number of Philippine languages. Cases of anxiety and depression in the time of COVID-19 necessitates the move for translating material concerning more than physical health. Photo courtesy of LWPH.
Material from UPD PsycServ on mental health, which volunteers translated into a number of Philippine languages. Cases of anxiety and depression in the time of COVID-19 necessitates the move for translating material concerning more than physical health. Photo courtesy of LWPH.

 

“The communities where these languages are actually spoken are actually the most vulnerable to the pandemic,” Gallego said. “They don’t have access to basic medical facilities, no direct access to news and they lack institutional support in all directions.”

“In addition,” Gallego added, “the Filipino Deaf community is often left in the periphery. New outlets rarely provide FSL interpretations. As a result, some members of the Deaf community were not aware of the implementation of community quarantine procedures in the initial months of quarantine.” She credits one group, FSLACT4COVID, for partly addressing this problem by providing FSL interpretations of new broadcasts on their Facebook page.

The repository

The volunteers of LWPH, who come from a staggering array of backgrounds, have certainly been busy. The is reflected in the group’s material repository, which can be accessed via their Facebook page. As of their May 8, 2020 report, the group had done work in 70 languages, having translated 927 materials in 10 thematic domains, including physical and mental health.

Gallego cites the enthusiasm and activity of their volunteers as the secret behind the considerable material they amassed in such a short period. According to the report, the languages with the highest number of materials include Bikol Sentral (222), Tagalog (143), Hiligaynon (41), Ilocano (37), Cebuano (37), Chavacano de Zamboanga (36), Kapampangan (30), Maguindanaoan (26), Akeanon or Aklanon (26), and Surigaonon (24). Gallego warns, however, that despite its breadth, the repository should not be taken as representative of the collective translation efforts in the country due to difficulties in acquiring material to translate.

 

A chart tracking the languages with the highest numbers of translated materials by LWPH volunteers. Photo courtesy of LWPH.
A chart tracking the languages with the highest numbers of translated materials by LWPH volunteers. Photo courtesy of LWPH.

 

Many of these languages have online communities, which connect language users and can serve as springboards for the propagation of translated materials. While Gallego admits this method of dissemination is not enough to completely serve the users that the project hopes to reach, she cites the work done by groups such as Mag Bikol Kita and the Surigaonon Studies Centerw ho share their materials to local communities and medical facilities. This step is important because smaller, more remote communities largely beyond the reach of the internet need the information the most.

The next battlefield

While the group’s brief existence has seen several considerable successes, especially in terms of producing materials, its members hope that its existence extends far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. And one part of ensuring that these efforts are made sustainable is through a retrospective look at its gains and losses. On that note, Gallego said that the next proximal step is doing an impact assessment to judge how meaningful the group’s efforts have been, especially in reaching its target users.

 

Translated material by the Surigaonon Studies Center in response to the call by the Department of Health. They are also one of the groups responsible for distributing material to communities. Photo courtesy of LWPH.
Translated material by the Surigaonon Studies Center in response to the call by the Department of Health. They are also one of the groups responsible for distributing material to communities. Photo courtesy of LWPH.

 

“Production of materials is one aspect of the overall aim to push for inclusive and equal access to information, but dissemination is an equally important part of the goal,” Gallego said. “This phase of the LWPH group would hopefully highlight the gaps in the current translation efforts and direct us to where to take the project.”

The larger overall battlefield for the group, however, beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, is pushing for stronger state support for indigenous communities by ensuring that all relevant information concerning these communities and the country reaches everyone, a goal which she calls a “basic human right”. Gallego said that the findings from the project will be used to publish policy recommendations, which they will do in the future.

Through these actions, LWPH’s members hope that the Facebook group maintains its function as a space for language activists to work together and fight for the language rights of indigenous communities in the Philippines.

“I encourage people interested in language activism to join the Facebook group and participate in the activities we will be having in the future,” Gallego said. “Share posts, contribute to the discussions, and let your voices be heard!”

 

The trusty team of LWPH volunteers who collected material for the repository. Clockwise from topleft: Manuel Tamayao, Soleil Vinoya, Joey Auxilian, Sander Ayala, Yeddah Piedad, Glenn Huerto, Shiela Tamparong. Photo courtesy of LWPH.
The trusty team of LWPH volunteers who collected material for the repository. Clockwise from top left: Manuel Tamayao, Soleil Vinoya, Joey Auxilian, Sander Ayala, Yeddah Piedad, Glenn Huerto, Shiela Tamparong. Photo courtesy of LWPH.

 

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