July 28, 2020
An estimated 30 percent of people globally lack basic health information on COVID-19 in their local spoken or signed language, hindering their access to essential knowledge that could protect themselves and others from the global pandemic that has affected everything from the economy to livelihoods to education.
ACR GCD-funded innovator SIL LEAD is seeking to narrow that information gap. In March, the nonprofit launched a global effort to translate COVID-19 health messaging, including children’s books, into local spoken and signed languages. Now, they’re encouraging others to develop or translate COVID-19 resources in local languages using their Bloom book creation software, funded and enhanced through ACR GCD’s Enabling Writers prize and Book Boost: Access for All Challenge.
These efforts have spurred the creation or translation of 198 COVID-19-themed children’s books in 166 languages, said Paul Frank, executive director for SIL LEAD. The books created are in a variety of formats, including digital, audio and for print.
“It’s rewarding to leverage both the power of Bloom for this cause and demonstrate what Bloom can do in helping communities create literature in their own languages,” Frank said.
Bloom software is the only open source book writing software that can be used offline and has the ability to guide the production of decodable text and leveled readers in any language—including sign languages. Books can be exported in book format for print (PDF) or for digital distribution (PDF, EPUB, Bloom Reader). The software also includes a “talking book” function that enables authors to record audio.
Through their Begin With Books prize award from ACR GCD, SIL LEAD also is developing or translating culturally appropriate COVID-themed books in Soninke and Senoufu for children in Mali. Those books will be available on the Bloom Library, Global Digital Library, Worldreader library and African Storybook in September 2020, said Hannah Hudson, project support specialist for SIL LEAD.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were deeply concerned about the health and welfare of children in these local language communities in Mali,” Hudson said. “We desired to use our Begin With Books project as a platform to reach these children, and we were so grateful when ACR GCD echoed this desire, recognized the urgency of the need, and modified our award. This enabled us to create and adapt books with accurate health information.”
Hazel Large, SIL LEAD’s local project manager on the Begin With Books project, even wrote an original story from the point of view of a child trying to understand the pandemic. “Thanks to ACR GCD, we can translate, illustrate, and publish this story, which was written specifically for these kids,” Hudson added.
The COVID crisis has also amplified the power of diverse book partners working together to accomplish a common goal, Frank added. SIL LEAD uploaded the story and graphics of a book titled “Sniffles”—developed by Pratham Books and made available on their Storyweaver platform—into Bloom. SIL LEAD then translated it in three Malian languages (French, Soninke and Senoufo) as part of their Begin With Books prize award. Other organizations are encouraged to translate these and other open source books into additional languages as well.
“This means another great story can be shared further,” Frank said. “That’s the power of open licensing and the collaboration between different book partners.”
The work ACR GCD has done since 2011 has advanced education technology solutions like Bloom to provide literacy and educational resources to children who lack access, or those out of school due to conflict or crisis situations like COVID-19. In 2015, through ACR GCD’s Enabling Writers prize, SIL LEAD added features enabling local authors to create leveled and decodable books. A follow-on award in 2019 through ACR GCD’s Book Boost: Access for All Challenge enabled SIL LEAD to add tools to make accessible books.
“Each ACR GCD award we received increased Bloom’s visibility and challenged us to increase Bloom’s capabilities and work with new partners, so now we can serve multiple groups of children,” Frank said. “In the COVID-19 era, there’s a lot of talk about repurposing or inventing something new, but Bloom is a resource and a strategy that was ready to go when the COVID-19 crisis happened.”
Further, while barriers remain a challenge for reaching 30 percent of the population who lack resources in their first language, Frank says he’s gratified by the different agencies that have been paying attention to and mitigating these barriers as a result of COVID-19. A major effort by SIL LEAD to identify, track and code local language COVID-19 health resources has identified more than 2,300 resources in more than 700 languages, he said.
SIL International, SIL LEAD’s parent organization, also led a global effort to translate the phrase, “Wash your hands,” into as many local languages as possible. That campaign has yielded 635 translations and counting, and SIL continues to invite others who are multilingual to contribute to the effort.
“The COVID-19 crisis has involved the most extensive global effort ever made to disseminate information in hundreds of languages in a relatively short space of time,” Frank said. “People have woken up to the fact that language is a barrier. That’s encouraging to us as advocates for the use of people’s own languages to communicate critical information to them.”