By Vicky Mancuso Brehm.

Most of us who have worked in international development can easily come up with colourful anecdotes of cross-cultural misunderstandings, language bloopers and mistranslations. Whilst the work of development NGOs relies heavily on quality relationships and partnerships across cultures, how far do international NGOs take this seriously by developing policies and practices in relation to cross-cultural communication and language?

This key question was posed at a workshop in Reading in January 2014. The workshop presented an opportunity for a range of practitioners to express their experience of the challenges faced by the NGO sector in relation to languages. Languages issues do not have a high-profile within organisations, formal languages policies are often not in place, translation and interpretation needs are often under-funded and there is a general lack of quality standards.

Following on from the workshop, the University of Reading, the University of Portsmouth and INTRAC are now launching a joint three-year collaborative research project in order to investigate in depth how languages and culture play out in practice in NGO activity at all levels. The project, in this previously un-researched area, will explore some of the key issues highlighted at the workshop, for example:

  • Languages and power relations in the development process
  • Organisational awareness of languages and language policies
  • Language provision, including working with translators and interpreters
  • Communicating with key audiences and partners, including the potentially mixed effects of English language as a medium.

Throughout the research process, INTRAC hopes to engage with a wide range of NGOs with the aim of ensuring that the research findings will contribute to the understanding of good practice in relation to languages and cross-cultural communication.

Information about ‘The Listening Zones’ Research

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the research will be led by Professor Hilary Footitt, with Dr. Wine Tesseur (University of Reading), alongside Dr. Angela Crack (University of Portsmouth), Vicky Brehm (INTRAC Research Associate) and an Advisory Group composed of a range of NGO staff as well as language professionals with an understanding of development practice. The policies and practices of UK development NGOs will be examined, in addition to three in-depth country case studies. Research findings will be disseminated at a series of workshops for NGO practitioners.

For further information about the research, please contact Sarah Lewis (INTRAC Research Officer):