The challenge of languages for international NGOs


International NGOs doing development work in cross-cultural contexts face myriad technical challenges. Among these, the issue of linguistic and cultural communication in interactions with partners, communities and colleagues is frequently overlooked.

This is just one key finding in the final report of a three-year project titled Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and Cultural Knowledge in Development Programmes, a collaboration between researchers and practitioners at the Universities of Reading and Portsmouth and the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC).

The study focused primarily on UK-based international NGOs and included interviews with staff in the UK, the Department for International Development (DFID) officials in the UK, and NGOs in three countries Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Peru.
As well as highlighting key findings, the report provides recommendations for international NGOs working in multicultural and multilingual contexts. They are:

• supporting NGO staff to acquire skills in the language of the community and providing access to English language training
• planning projects using words that communities uses to describe their needs
• budgeting for translation and interpretation at the start of the project
• sharing translations with local communities and get feedback from them
• creating glossaries of key development terms in local languages that can be shared in NGO networks

To the last point, the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament is collaborating with EU/UN agencies and civil service organizations on a series of projects under the umbrella of “Terminology without Borders.” TWB provides glossaries in the domains of health, education, and others via the website The goal is that the glossaries will provide clear and consistent terms not just for translators and interpreters, but also for staff of international organizations like the ones featured in the report as  well as ordinary citizens.

The Listening Zones of NGOs report is worth reading in full for anyone interested in strategies for dealing with linguistic diversity within international organizations.


Written by Anabel Mota – Study Visitor in Communication at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and student in the Master program in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She speaks Spanish, English, and French and she is learning German and Arabic.