Today is International Mother Language Day. The theme of the day is that “linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development.” Put more simply, in the world of development, you need a good grasp on the language you’re working in for your work to be effective
The UN goes on to explain “It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus [they] play an important role in promoting sustainable futures.”
The UN is suggesting that if you want to learn about something and remember what you have learned (a crucial part of sustainable development), you need to learn it in your mother language – the language that you first heard and learnt as a child.
Why Language Matters:
Language is more than just words. Behind the words are their meanings. Ideas and concepts are conveyed by the use of a certain word. But, those words are shaped by our cultural understanding. Words like “paradise” have a different meaning depending on your religious beliefs or on your idea of a good holiday location.
Take a look at the trees and grasses in the pictures below. What color are they?
Green, said all of our western readers. ខៀវ (Kieuw) or blue, said all of our Cambodian readers.
In Cambodia, if something is that colour and living, it is Kieuw, the same word used for the sky or the color blue. The word green បៃតង (bei-tong) is reserved for paint and non-living things that are that color. Why? Well, at the time of writing this, CIF’s communications team still didn’t know. We don’t understand the culture enough to understand the beliefs and concepts that originally affected the use of the word. We also don’t know any Cambodian people who can explain it either. It just is.
Language and Social Work
If English and Khmer are that different in our cultural understanding of colours, imagine some of the differences that could happen with concepts surrounding relationships, trauma, dates, expectations, or in a whole range of other communications. Now imagine what can be lost by conducting an interview or assessment in Khmer, and then writing the notes about it in English. Imagine someone else writing up your notes for you because the record system is in English – which you are not literate in. It happens frequently. It used to happen at CIF.
Here at CIF we strongly believe that our children and families need to have someone journeying with them who understand their mother tongue. This is why all of our case workers are Cambodians, working with Cambodians. We also think that it’s important that our case workers are able to do their jobs, their interviews, note-taking, and assessments in the language that they understand the most. Our foreign volunteers also learn Khmer before working with us and it is why we built OSCaR to be primarily a database in Khmer.
The Importance of OSCaR
OSCaR (Open Source Case-management and Record-keeping) has been developed to provide our staff with the tools they need to do their case-management well. It helps them complete assessments, create task lists and follow up with their clients. It was created in Khmer because our workers are Cambodian. By having notes that our staff can refer to and read again, they are able to remember more of a client’s journey and be a greater support to the families we work with.
OSCaR does have a translate button which converts the basic labels and fields of the database into English. This helps those doing monitoring and evaluation, whose first language is often English, to be able to provide donors with the reports that they need. However, our primary focus has been on making sure the system can exist in the language of our front-line staff.
It’s our front-line staff who are working with their clients in their mother-language, listening and accurately recording people’s struggles and triumphs. Thanks to OSCaR, their records and administrative tasks are now in their mother-language too, giving them more time to support the families and develop their own social work skills. That helps make the work that we do at CIF a sustainable model for the future.
To find out how OSCaR can be used by your organization, and customized to your organization’s mother-language, check out www.oscarhq.com