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Giving language a shot

Giving language a shot

In 2020, Public Health students at Fort Lewis College recognized a lack of accessible COVID-19 information for Indigenous communities and people with disabilities. As their teacher and mentor, I encouraged them to partner with the Accessibility Resource Center and Center for Teaching & Learning to launch a mini-grant-funded collaboration, Using Multimedia to Translate COVID-19 Vaccine Communication.

Tapati Dutta and Camille Keith pose outside under a green tree on a sunny day.
Camille Keith, a senior majoring in Engineering, translated COVID-19 terms with support from Tapati Dutta, assistant professor of Public Health.

The project kicked off in our Global Health and Research Methodology courses with a review of COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions found on the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention websites. Three student volunteers identified 15 vaccine-related FAQs they felt might have mattered most to the underrepresented communities. These included questions concerning hybrid COVID-19 vaccinations, vaccinations during pregnancies, adverse effects following immunization, and loss of vaccination cards.

They worked with Sarah Malin, resource & accessibility coordinator, and Elvira England, instructional multimedia developer, to translate these FAQs into Braille and podcast formats. Malin oversaw the Braille translation, outsourcing the pre-selected questions and answers to Brailleworks International. For the podcast formats, England helped students capture skits around disclaimer statements, vaccine eligibilities, emerging virus variants, and other complex aspects of the virus.

"This project has made me realize how COVID-19 terminology is evolving in the Navajo language."
— Camille Keith (senior, Engineering)

To translate the FAQs into the Navajo language–Diné bizaad–Camille Keith, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and senior majoring in Engineering, connected with her relatives, who are certified nursing assistants and Navajo language teachers. Based on terminology provided by the Navajo Department of Health and KTNN, a local Navajo Nation radio station, they began with the term “COVID-19,” which translated to Dikos Ntsaaígíí, or “big cough.” They continued describing, rewording, and rephrasing common virus words and phrases back and forth in English and Navajo until reaching a consensus on each. “Antibiotics” was translated as “ch’ósh doo ít’ii’nii naaltsedí’gii azee,” meaning “drug that kills the bugs you cannot see.” “COVID vaccination” was translated as “dikos ntsaaígíí náhastee ts’áád’á azee bí náábin,” meaning “the vaccine for the big cough.”

“This project has made me realize how COVID-19 terminology is evolving in the Navajo language,” Keith said. "I reflect upon where I stand, where each generation stands to speak and write the Diné language, and the importance of continuing to speak that language with my family.”

This project captured a breadth of vaccine communications and practice in intercultural humility. From finding fluent Navajo speakers to recording with masks, students used research creativity and the power of what I call “peer'severance,” that is, the endless possibilities revealed when faculty, staff, and students come together for a common cause.

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