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How to use your languages to help others

Using your language skills for the greater good is vital, and more accessible than you’d think

Normality feels a distant memory to so many of us at the moment. Two years ago, on 16th March 2020, I’d just finished packing up my life in Lisbon and headed to the airport, with no idea what was going to happen next. Just as we’d all started to think that this lingering uncertainty might finally have begun to dissipate, once more we’ve all been thrust into a world that feels strange and confusing.

This time, though, you don’t need to be a medical professional to help those in need. In November, Kadri wrote a fantastic article about how to help others, wherever you are. In the meantime, however, the need for translations to help humanitarian efforts all across the world has become more apparent than ever, particularly as a result of the current situation in Ukraine. In the last few weeks I’ve had many people reach out to me, saying that they feel helpless and want to do more to aid these causes. As a result, I’ve done my best to collate a list of ways to help, with a particular emphasis on tasks that translators, with their own unique skill sets and linguistic capabilities, can excel at.

Jump straight in: translate for a translation-based NGO

The most obvious thing that speakers of more than one language can do to help those trapped in a humanitarian crisis is to go straight to an organisation that works to fulfil the translation needs of other NGOs working with humanitarian projects. The most well-known of these is undoubtedly Translators Without Borders — they have a network of over 80,000 translators and are currently looking for help for many language pairs.

Although the most acute needs right now are likely for Ukrainian and Polish, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t many languages that don’t need other help. I’m a signed-up member, which means that they can email as their needs evolve. Remember that as people cross borders, more and more language pairs are likely to come into play, so it’s vital to keep yourself ready for whatever needs might arise.

Help on the ground

There are many, many places where your translation or interpretation — or indeed other skills — could be vital. In some cases, there may be people asking for help right around the corner from your house. I found several projects where volunteers were required within a 5km radius of the Unbabel office; if you’re based in a larger city than Lisbon, imagine what you could find.

With just a few dedicated minutes of searching our networks and more broadly on the internet, my colleague Ana and I found some really interesting projects. Govolunteer (in German only) has projects that relate to acute humanitarian needs all over Germany, but there are also plenty of remote roles. In Portugal, we found this page set up by refugees with directions for those looking to help with Portuguese lessons among other things. There will be something similar in your community — and if you manage to find it, please comment below so others can help too.

Other ways to help remotely

Many people reading this may well be outside of larger cities, or indeed in places where they may feel there isn’t much they can currently do to help with humanitarian crises that are thousands of miles away. Well, as with the examples above, you may be surprised to find that many needs can be fulfilled remotely, even in sectors which have traditionally required people to be physically present. It’s something we can forget, but the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our society and driven so many communities online, so old assumptions about how best to aid and organise may not be that current. Don’t write off any opportunities on assumptions; check your social feeds if you have them, connect with people in the comments of articles such as this one, and find ways to help.

One such thing I found was Refunet, a fantastic site that links refugees wanting to learn English remotely with volunteer teachers. Although this is UK-based, they consider sign-ups from other locations, in particular when they are in acute need of support. There are loads of other local organisations all across the world, and there are resources to help you. I found the Volunteers in Language Learning project and their resources particularly compelling; based on real-life research in the EU and in partnership with language teachers across the continent, they’ve produced guides for best practices in teaching refugees and they’re a brilliant resource for anyone considering going down this route.

Share, share, and share again.

In my search for writing this article, I found that by far the most effective way to find people and places that need help was to ask people I know or look at online lists compiled by individuals rather than organisations. By sharing this article with a fellow linguist or on your social media platforms you can help these causes find the people they need way more effectively than the other way around, which (take it from me) requires a lot of frantic internet research and doesn’t get you anywhere particularly fast.

We know our community at Unbabel is something special and that our potential to help others is huge. Let’s prove it.


If you’ve found a project in your local area that’s looking for linguists to help with humanitarian efforts and would like to share it, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

How to use your languages to help others was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.