Messaging Identities: Uplifting Linguistic Diversity to Improve Public Health Communication

Jeff Good.

Published October 27, 2020


#’s, emojis, likes, GIFs, handles – 10 years ago none of us would have understood these terms as forms of communication. Today, they enhance our communication with people around the world, connecting us but also contributing to our 21st century identities, both real and perceived.

Dr. Good’s work in Cameroon has expanded and connected him with a vast network of Cameroonian partners. In one meeting, participants were naming their primary languages. When Dr. Good said his primary language was English, his colleague laughed stating “How can we put English, then we don’t know where you are from?”

Dr. Jeff Good, Professor and Chair for the UB Department of Linguistics feeds off the complexities and incongruencies of language. Growing up, Dr. Good had an interest in grammar, but it was his study of Latin that exposed a distinctively different form of grammar from English and the variation possible in language suddenly expanded.

Dr. Good received his B.A. in Linguistics from University of Chicago and M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. During his graduate studies, the field of linguistics was quickly becoming concerned about endangered languages, or languages that are falling out of use because they have few surviving users. (For interested readers, Dr. Good published an excellent piece about endangered languages in The Conversation in August, 2017). 

The Field of Linguistics

The field of linguistics encompasses diverse specialties. Some linguists have a theoretical leaning – they might research, for example, the notion of the phoneme, a major theoretical discussion that began in the early 20th century which is now a part of the general arsenal of linguistics. (Before this theory, the idea that the ways that sounds can be contrasted to form different words is specific to each language was not generally accepted.) Others may focus on specific languages or work in applied linguistics – they are experts in Latin or German, for example, or they focus on the pedagogical side of language by improving language instruction.

Dr. Good entered the field largely as a theoretical linguist focused on understudied languages. After studying the Bantu languages (Swahili, as an example) he met a Nigerian linguist, Dr. Imelda Udoh, whose language was close enough to see the connection to Bantu, but divergent enough that it was intellectually fascinating. Dr. Good wondered about historical comparative connections and what that could tell him about word and sentence structure.

What is Field Work?

Dr. Good applied for and received a postdoctoral fellowship with the Max Planck Society, Germany’s most successful research organization and one of the world’s most respected research institutions – 20 Nobel Prize winners are in its ranks. Although he hadn’t begun his career intending to do fieldwork, or the process of observing and collecting data about people, cultures, and natural environments, his fellowship supported it and his colleagues recommended he go to Cameroon.

Dr. Good selected the languages he would study, in part, by happenstance. To avoid the heat, he wanted to work in the Grassfields, a highland area of Northwest Cameroon known for its exceptional concentration of languages. He began inquiring in Lower Fungom, an area in the Grassfields’ northwest periphery, and a place where few people were doing linguistics work. Within the map of linguistic diversity, he chose to work in a core inhabited area that stretched 10 kilometers, and contained seven languages, or small language clusters, spoken in thirteen villages.

His research, which focuses on linguistic documentation and description as well as ethnographic and historical analysis, was initially supported by the Max Planck Society. It has also received funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Endangered Languages Documentation Program.

Traditionally, linguists will select a language and write a description of its sound system, word structure, and grammar. Dr. Good intended to follow his colleagues and document the languages of Lower Fungom in this way.  However, Dr. Good’s lived experience in Cameroon changed the trajectory of his career. While the languages he documented are classified as Bantoid, five of them do not have any established relatives outside of this region, nor are they closely related to each other. This challenged his ideas about language. He saw language interaction phenomena he would never have observed before. He couldn’t understand why and how every language remained vital in such a small space. Why was it that this area maintained language diversity when so much of the world did not?

Language Tells You Where You are From

To understand, he flipped the traditional documentary approach. He studied the area instead of the language. This “linguistic ecology” approach led him into the fields of anthropology and geography and a collaboration with linguist anthropologist, Pierpaolo Di Carlo, now a Postdoctoral Researcher with the UB Department of Linguistics. With Dr. Di Carlo, Dr. Good began to consider the ways that people express their identities through the use of different linguistic codes.

In Lower Fungom, Dr. Good and his team began to research the culture and history of the communities. With interdisciplinary collaboration from Cameroonian faculty and students they looked at each language, but they also incorporated insights from anthropology and a study of ethnographic literature. They documented language interactions and created better, more nuanced maps. This fuller, bigger, re-contextualized picture of Lower Fungom’s languages included a fuller, bigger picture of local ideologies, history, and identity.

Dr. Good’s work in Cameroon has expanded and connected him with a vast network of Cameroonian partners. In one meeting, participants were naming their primary languages. When Dr. Good said his primary language was English, his colleague laughed stating “How can we put English, then we don’t know where you are from?”

English was not something that readily “identified” Dr. Good. In Lower Fungom, the language you speak links you to a specific community. To be an independent political unit, your community needs to have its own variety of language that is distinctive enough for it to be a known entity. 

History and Identity

Traditionally, linguistic scholars apply their expertise to help communities develop written standards for their language and to create resources such as dictionaries and collections of texts. However, communities that speak oral languages depend upon their oral histories to distinguish and define their identities. These oral histories shift and change according to their interpreters; community-wide meetings might reflect the chief’s history while a family’s history might be foregrounded at a wedding or a funeral.

Written language provides a community with a unique tool, but it may not always be a community’s most urgent need. This is why Dr. Good’s work on language and identity, his deep research into culture and history, and his established collaborations with Cameroonian partners is so important. By focusing on these relationships, Dr. Good came to know that the Cameroonians he worked with valued and needed schools, health care, and roads. Thus began Dr. Good’s investigation into how his linguistics work could contribute to education, health care, and infrastructure.


Language and identity have a major impact on public health. These days, we are inundated with facts, misinformation, and disinformation about COVID-19. Public health experts and scientists recommend wearing masks, handwashing, and maintaining safe distances between one another to stop the spread; yet, politicians ignore and challenge their advice. Our beliefs and actions are increasingly determined by our political affiliation.

Knowing that written information, published in the language of the government might not be believed in communities where reliable information is shared in local languages orally, Dr. Di Carlo and Dr. Good, along with Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, directed a team to create a tool that could reach as many people as possible to share lifesaving information. They also understood that who communicates that information matters. As such, they established virALLanguages, a mechanism whereby local leaders share public health information from the WHO using local languages. Local leaders translate and adapt WHO content to make it more appropriate to the environment, customs, and speech style of a local language and then share their video and audio recordings on virALLanguages’ Youtube and Facebook channels.

The Community for Global Health Equity has partnered with virALLanguages to ensure the reliability of coronavirus information and translation protocol. virALLanguages’ Youtube channel now features over 75 videos of community leaders from Cameroon, Ghana, Pakistan, Indonesia, Tajikistan, and China, explaining COVID-19 prevention, symptoms, and treatment in multiple local languages. Many use personal stories, as well as proverbs, metaphors, and rhetorical strategies, to share information that will enable behavior change that can save lives. They also reference traditional practices which may have deep impact within local communities, but cannot be addressed by international agencies like the WHO.

The social determinants of health – economic stability, the neighborhood and environment, education, food, social and community context, and health care – are known conditions that influence health risks and outcomes. Our access or barriers to, for example, food, housing, parks, and schools, is often grounded in language and communication. Virtual tools like virALLanguages provide a collaborative framework to communicate life-saving health information. But they also simultaneously uplift endangered languages and expand their reach – creating a virtual space for users to continue the work of defining and distinguishing their history and identity.