Messages sent during disasters to those affected can be confusing and unclear, particularly if English is not the recipient’s first language.

Griffith University research fellow Dr Helen Bromhead is trying to solve this problem by working with governments to ensure preparedness and warning messages about disasters use clear language and can be easily translated across languages.

In disasters a lot of public communication is not accessible to people who do not speak English, have limited English, speak another language or have low reading levels. This accounts for a large proportion of the population.

“A lot of disaster preparedness materials are written at quite a high Level. I study disasters in the social and cultural environment of Australia, and look at ways of speaking, at the meanings of words, things like for example “Black summer’ or expressions like ‘I don’t hold a hose mate’,” she says.

“Sometimes colloquial language can be hard to translate or hard for people from non-English speaking backgrounds to understand, for example not everyone understands the meaning of ‘if it’s flooded, forget it’.

Dr Bromhead is formulating guidelines for writing messages in disasters, so that they are easier to read using what is called the minimal languages approach or clear, explicit translatable language.

She was involved in a 2022 project for the Queensland Flood Review exploring warning messages sent by councils to those affected by the floods. Her role was to help make messaging from councils in future disasters clearer.

“Wording like ‘evacuate if required’ can be confusing, so using something like ‘leave if it’s not safe to stay’ is clearer,” she says.

“Instead of saying ‘make a plan’ before a disaster, to unpack that a bit for people you might say ‘think about what you will do and write it down’, that’s another example of unpacking disaster messaging.”

Her research is critical for people involved in preparedness and warnings messaging. She is working on guidelines about how to make disaster messages easier to understand.

“A lot of the translation that’s done in this space is not done by professional translators and interpreters. It’s done within culturally and linguistically diverse communities by people often called information intermediaries such as community leaders,” she says.

“These situations are very stressful. If people can work from a message that has been designed with translation in mind, that will ease the burden of their translation and interpreting efforts.”

Dr Bromhead’s research has wide-ranging benefits as improved clarity of messaging can help to save lives.

“It’s very scary to be in these sorts of disasters or even just thinking about having to prepare. A lot of people don’t want to do it. But if just a little bit of that burden of comprehensibility is lessened a bit that could be beneficial.”

She is also interested in messaging about heat waves, ensuring public communication is clear when such events occur.

Dr Bromhead is about to start work on a new project that will strengthen emergency engagement and communication for culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

That project will design support packages with those communities, with a focus on preparing for future pandemics while also taking in emergencies more broadly.

You can read more about Dr Bromhead’s research here:

And here:

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