three headshots
virALLanguages Indonesia team from UH Mānoa. From left, Bradley McDonnell, Jacob Hakim and Khairunnisa.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Linguistics is a leading voice in an effort to deliver reliable information about the COVID-19 pandemic to more people around the world.

Assistant Professor Bradley McDonnell teamed up with experts from the University of London and State University of New York at Buffalo on virALLanguages, a project aiming to provide marginalized communities with accurate COVID-19 information in their own languages so their people are informed about how to prevent the spread of the virus. The volunteer team focuses on endangered languages and started by developing resources for nearly 20 languages spoken in Cameroon. The team has also covered languages in Ghana, Indonesia and Pakistan, with more expected.

“The virALLangauges team partners with language communities all over the world, and the larger numbers of resources in languages of Cameroon, Ghana, Pakistan and Indonesia represent existing connections that members of the virALLangauges team had already developed,” McDonnell said. “For example, I have been conducting linguistic fieldwork in Indonesia for over a decade, so I reached out to language communities and academic linguists in Indonesia.”

Team members were inspired to create the project because written information in majority languages is not well-understood or well-received by many minority communities, especially in areas where information is mainly communicated orally. The team created YouTube videos and a Facebook page in different languages with basic health information on COVID-19, tutorials on making hand sanitizer and advice on adjusting one’s social life amid COVID-19.

“This is an excellent example of how the Department of Linguistics works to address real-world problems for communities that are often overlooked in the world today,” Department Chair and Professor Kamil Deen said. “Professor McDonnell, as a representative of the Department of Linguistics at UH Mānoa, is the perfect ambassador for that ethos.”

headshot of Yanti
Yanti, member of the virALLanguages Indonesia team

UH Mānoa students Jacob Hakim, Khairunnisa, Jessica Charest, Shirley Gabber, Leah Pappas, Sebastian Ohara-Saft and Katherine Strong have contributed to the project. McDonnell also worked closely with Yanti, the head of the Center for Language and Culture Studies at Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia; and Ika Nurhayani, the head of the linguistics graduate program in the faculty of cultural studies at the University of Brawijaya in Malang, Indonesia.

Information source

The team’s main information source is the World Health Organization with assistance from the Community for Global Health Equity at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After gathering the latest COVID-19 information, team members shared it with native speakers for them to create video and audio recordings in their own languages.

“The most rewarding part of the project for me is seeing the willingness of people to help their own communities in spite of the challenges they are currently facing,” McDonnell said. “We’ve had medical doctors, nurses and professors volunteer their time to record heartfelt messages in their own languages to reach their own communities.”

Recruiting collaborators

headshot of Ika Nurhayani
Ika Nurhayani, member of the virALLanguages Indonesia team

The team is recruiting speakers of minority or endangered languages around the world who are willing to assist with the project. The team is also looking for researchers, activists and travelers familiar with communities who speak a marginalized language and can establish a connection with team members. Visit the virALLanguages website for more information.

“Our biggest challenge remains recruiting people who are able to make the recordings of reliable and memorable information on COVID-19,” McDonnell said. “In many cases, we are simply unable to identify people in a number of communities. In Indonesia alone, linguists have identified over 700 different languages, and so reaching people from each community is a real challenge.”

Translation video by Lusi Susianti, the team Leader and speaker for Kapuas Hulu in Indonesia.

—By Marc Arakaki