Knowledge translation in the Global South: A language perspective

Published on 23 May 2023

Research Fellow at On Think Tanks

Anywhere in the world, knowledge translation (KT) is facilitated through a process of communicating messages to an audience, who will ultimately use that information to inform their own opinions and actions. However, the way that information is perceived, digested, discussed, and passed on is shaped by the environment in which an audience lives. For example, factors such as education, economic status, political climate and cultural norms play a part in how we consume information. Here I will focus on one factor that has influenced my work in research communication in Sri Lanka: language.

Language has a significant influence on the way KT takes place in bilingual and multilingual countries. For example, in Sri Lanka, a tri-lingual nation +, the language in which information is conveyed affects the way that information is perceived and accepted by an audience. Here’s how:

  • To begin with, all languages use different metaphors and idioms to construct a message. Hence a message crafted in English will sound very different if it is (directly) translated into a local language.
  • Language also affects the way we react to information. Studies have shown that a bilingual person’s emotional reactivity is more with a native language compared to a foreign language.
  • Design aesthetics differ according to language. In Sri Lanka, visual content displayed in English (such as in local newspapers) tends to be sombre and minimalist, while the same content displayed in Sinhala tends to be vibrant and colourful.
  • Language, particularly in the Global South, doesn’t exist in isolation – it plays a role in a country’s history and identity. In Sri Lanka, a former British colony, English is still perceived as a language of the ‘elite’. This perception can influence the way local language speakers perceive messages disseminated in English drafted by English speakers.

The platforms through which knowledge is disseminated affect the way information is received. Using local languages on platforms that predominantly use English can be ineffective. For example, in Sri Lanka, English- speaking audiences are more likely to express themselves on Twitter; and Sinhala- and Tamil- speaking audiences are more likely to express themselves on Facebook. Therefore, when it comes to disseminating information, mixing languages on one platform may be ineffective.

So, what does this mean for knowledge translation in the Global South, particularly in countries with bilingual or multilingual audiences? To effectively reach such audiences, knowledge needs to be re-framed to fit the norms, expectations, and experiences of individual language communities. In practice, organisations that produce evidence-based research to inform behaviours and policies need to create separate, original messages in local languages. In essence, for KT to be effective, we need to step away from translating information directly and move towards creating original messages that resonate in local languages. This switch will ensure greater participation, inclusivity, and accessibility in KT and make research more impactful.

Once we create original messages, we should also pay attention to where we choose to put out information, as our target audience may choose to consume information from a platform entirely different to the ones we normally use (e.g., a website or Twitter account). This approach will often require organisations to have separate communication strategies for different languages and even have separate staff who specialise in storytelling in local languages.

The more organisations become aware of linguistic, social, and cultural nuances that affect dialogue with their audiences, the more equipped they will be to customise their KT strategies to achieve optimum results. Moving from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to a more adaptable, localised approach should be the outlook adopted for KT in the Global South.

This blog was originally published on the On Think Tanks website.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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