A multitude of languages can be heard around the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. There are the Rohingya refugees themselves who speak Rohingya; some also speak Burmese. Rohingya children are being taught English and Burmese in the learning centres. Aid workers in the camps are foreigners who speak English or Bangladeshis, including government officials, who speak Chittagonian (also known as Chatgaya) and Bangla. Chittagonian is the local dialect spoken in the areas of Cox's Bazar where the camps are located. Signs and posters around the camps are often in English, Bangla, and Burmese.
With such a cornucopia of languages, the camps are a complex linguistic environment to navigate. “This crisis is one of the most linguistically challenging that I've ever worked in,” says Irene Scott, programme director for Translators without Borders (TWB).
One advantage, however, was that the Rohingya and locals in Cox's Bazar can largely understand each other's languages. To the extent that Chittagonian-speaking locals were hired in droves as interpreters for aid agencies, humanitarian organisations, and journalists working in the camps. These local interpreters were effectively first responders, the first to communicate with the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled their homes across the border.
The two languages share noticeable similarities; however, these are wrongly conflated. A key finding of a study in November last year by Internews, an international non-profit working to improve access to news and information, was that 62 percent of the Rohingya refugees surveyed were unable to communicate with aid workers.
While the Rohingya language and Chittagonian dialect sound quite alike, both sets of speakers agree that it is not 100 percent similar. “The main difference is that the vocabularies differ,” says AK Rahim, sociolinguistic researcher for TWB and a native Chittagonian speaker. For example, he says, Rohingya incorporates Burmese and Rakhine words while Chittagonian includes many standard Bangla terms.
According to a TWB language assessment last year, Rohingya speakers estimated that there was a 70 percent similarity between Chittagonian and Rohingya. It also noted that on the other hand, Chittagonian speakers estimated a 90 percent similarity between the Cox's Bazar dialect of Chittagonian and Rohingya.
Similarities increase with geographical proximity. “The dialect spoken in southern Chittagong, such as in Teknaf, and townships in northern Rakhine are very similar,” says Rahim. Conversely, Chittagonian further north such as in Chittagong city and Rohingya spoken further down in Rakhine towards Sittwe, are “almost different languages because they are so geographically far apart”. For example, the local dialect spoken in the Maungdaw area of Rakhine is particularly close to Chittagonian, while that spoken in Buthidaung, further inland, is slightly different.
From Pahartali in Chittagong city, Bhuiyan Mahmood worked until very recently as a communications officer for the World Food Programme (WFP). When she initially went to the camps, Mahmood expected that Rohingya was quite similar to her native Chittagonian. “But the words they use are quite different. So is the accent and how they phrase their words. Often, they [the refugees] would not understand what I'm saying simply because of the way I was speaking,” she says.
Mahmood says she didn't understand many words when she initially began interpreting and conducting interviews. “In my first few days working in the camps, I somehow got by. But then, I soon understood the areas in which there were gaps in understanding.”
Take the word for diarrhoea for example, which Mahmood says she would hear quite frequently from Rohingya women, whose children were suffering from it. The Rohingya phrase for it is gaa-laamani. Translated literally to Chittagonian, the phrase means “my body is falling apart” or “my body is coming down”, which made no sense to Bangla and English-speaking aid workers.
The similarities and differences in Chittagonian and Rohingya, along with their interplay, is something Rahim has been studying in the camps. Even Rohingya spoken by older, registered refugees who arrived in Bangladesh and newer arrivals differ. “The language of the registered Rohingya has shifted in the past 30 years, it's become more similar to Chittagonian,” says Rahim.
The Rohingya language borrowed words from Burmese, as well as from Urdu, Arabic, and Farsi. “The Rohingya language is eclectic, borrowing from many different sources. It's a very rich language,” adds Rahim.
The Rohingya language is better understood by Chittagonian-speaking locals from the Cox's Bazar area. “I didn't have any problems understanding them or making myself understood. There are differences, of course, but it's quite similar to our dialect,” says Ahammed Hossain, a local from Ukhia, who has been working in the Rohingya refugee camps since 2012.
While Chittagonian-speaking interpreters often did hear words unfamiliar to them, they still had a job to do. Context helps. “When I slowly became familiar with their [the refugees'] stories, I would understand more easily what they're trying to say even if I didn't get a particular word. You can understand the story then but can learn specific words later,” says Mahmood of her experience working in the camps.
Other unfamiliar terms were humanitarian speak—usually technical words and acronyms—which the interpreters had to relay to the refugees or had difficulty understanding the colloquial terms used by the Rohingya refugees.
“There is no equivalent for the word 'gender' in Rohingya. So when we originally translated the term 'gender-based violence' it translated as 'violent women',” said a Rohingya translator, cited in the TWB study.
“There remain some subjects that are tricky to navigate where you can see misunderstanding in communication still occurring,” says Rahim. This is particularly true for women, who have a hard time explaining health or body-related issues to, usually, male interpreters.
“In Rohingya, the academic term for menstruation is borrowed from Arabic, haiz. Instead they [Rohingya women] use the word gosol (shower), which is used in Bangla and even in Rohingya. The interpreter wouldn't get it. Even a female Chittagonian interpreter may not get what the term connotes—they use maashik (a Bangla word).”
In June, Translators without Borders, a nonprofit providing translation services for charities in crisis zones, came up with a glossary together with Oxfam and UNICEF. The app, which works offline as well, includes terms (in text and in audio) in the five languages which are spoken in the Rohingya camps—Rohingya, Chittagonian, Burmese, Bangla, and English.
Sociolinguist Rahim came up with the 180 initially translated terms from focus group discussions with refugees in the camps. Presently, the terms in the glossary mainly centre around the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector.
“What we were trying to do with the glossary is try and bridge that gap between field workers who are trying to communicate with the refugees,” says Scott. Terms that are soon to be included, adds Scott, will be related to disability and gender, among others. “It's really designed for humanitarians that are working in this response but is publicly available online for anyone that has an interest in the language.”
But with thousands of aid workers in play, a standard in interpretation can hardly be ensured and the terminology online, limited. Hossain, for example, has not heard of the glossary or received training on the Rohingya language or interpretation.
Rohingya and Chittagonian are both oral languages with no agreed on written scripts. Historically, the Arabic and Urdu scripts have been used by the Rohingya. A Latin script has also been developed, called “Rohingya-lish”. In the 1980s, the “Hanifi” script was developed with elements of Arabic, Burmese and English. The last has been used in textbooks in religious schools in the Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, through grassroots efforts to promote a written script for the Rohingya community in Bangladesh.
In the Internews study, 73 percent of the refugees said they were illiterate. 71 percent of the refugees also have had no formal education.
The lack of a standardised script, in addition to high levels of illiteracy, means written communication such as fliers or posters are not particularly useful in disseminating information in the camps. Messages are rather encouraged to be played in audio or through pictorials, says Scott.
The way the Rohingya language is changing in exposure to Chittagonian, humanitarian terms, and the English and Bangla languages in the camps is also fascinating to study, says Rahim. For example, cereal packs provided to Rohingya children for nutrition are referred to by the refugees as suji khana because these look like suji (semolina). The refugees have also picked up the Bangla word for nutrition, pushti, says Rahim.
“Language is constantly shifting.”