A Creole Call
for Localization

Sophia Eakins

Sophia Eakins is a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Michigan and a former marketing content specialist for Lionbridge. She holds dual bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and French from Wellesley College.

Sophia Eakins Headshot

A Creole Call
for Localization

Sophia Eakins Headshot

Sophia Eakins

Sophia Eakins is a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Michigan and a former marketing content specialist for Lionbridge. She holds dual bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and French from Wellesley College.


hen the 2018 Category 5 Hurricane Michael threatened to devastate the Florida Panhandle, the US government needed to quickly communicate evacuation plans and safety guidelines to millions of inhabitants at risk. However, many were non-native English speakers. A lack of local translation resources made connecting with the Vietnamese, Filipino, and Haitian populations especially challenging. Localization to the rescue! Within 24 hours, Lionbridge teams translated the safety information into four different languages: Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Haitian Creole (Kreyòl).

Everyone needs to be communicated with in a manner they understand, regardless of what language they speak. Of course, fulfilling that need for some communities can be more challenging than for others. Consider, for example, the difficulty of localizing for India’s diverse linguistic landscape of 22 official languages, 121 major languages and thousands of minor languages and dialects. Like in India, where the majority of languages are rarely localized into, creole languages are regularly overlooked in the world of translation.

Where different languages separate one community from another, localization brings them together. With culturally mindful linguistic adaptation, localization allows us to reach across regional frontiers to connect with communities different from our own. It encourages international collaboration and promotes understanding between different cultures.

Beyond building these cross-cultural bridges, localization serves as a critical resource to linguistic communities in need, providing equal access to healthcare, educational resources, and public services. In a crisis, localizing messaging helps ensure the safety of everyone in the community.

Creole language localization

Creoles face numerous challenges preventing effective translation. The foremost is a lack of translation resources. Underlying sociopolitical prejudices play a role in this, which means that in some cases, creoles may be characterized as mere dialects of their European counterparts. This linguistic stigma discourages the formal education necessary to train translators, and generally muffles the urgency for creole translation.

Additionally, the term itself is shrouded in confusion. Most people are likely to associate the term “creole” with a group of people or a particular spice mix rather than a linguistic classification.

Professor Michel DeGraff, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a specialist in creole languages and the founder of the MIT-Haiti initiative, explains that creole languages are grouped together due to a shared socio-historical context. They emerged during a period of colonization when the language of the colonizers came into contact with the languages of other inhabitants — most commonly slaves brought over from Africa. Linguistically speaking, however, there are no distinctly creole structural identifiers common to all creole languages.

Localization into creole languages is rare. Lionbridge, for example, receives comparatively few requests for creole language services. Most requests are for Haitian Creole (Kreyòl) speakers in the United States who need English interpretation for government matters.

With close to 100 creole languages spoken worldwide, the need for translation is clear. Bringing to light the existence and validity of creole languages is the first step toward gaining more translation attention.

A look into Kreyòl

Speakers of creole languages around the world face linguistic injustice. Many creole languages are devalued in their communities in favor of their European colonial counterparts. One compelling example of the bias against creole languages and its effects is Kreyòl in Haiti. While French is considered educated and formal, Kreyòl implies a casual and informal tone to many people.

“Haiti has perhaps the largest population of speakers who communicate only in the local vernacular,” as compared to other creole-speaking communities, explained DeGraff. Data collected by Ethnologue, an online database cataloging the world’s living languages, estimates that of the 11 million Haitians living in Haiti, 7 million are monolingual in Kreyòl.

As the major language of Haiti, Kreyòl dominates in everyday exchanges and informal media platforms. However, it wasn’t until 1987 that Kreyòl was recognized as an official language alongside French, and as the country’s only common national language.

Only about 3% of the population speak French proficiently. Paradoxically, “French is de facto the sole official language in most academic and governmental spheres of Haitian society, especially in formal written texts,” said DeGraff. Consequently, only a small percentage of the population can access positions of authority in the country.

Documents including birth certificates, land deeds, and pharmaceutical labels are generally written in French. DeGraff recounted a story of one woman whose health was put at risk because she misread the French instructions on how to take her medicine. The label prescribed two cuillères à café, which she took to mean “two spoons of coffee” instead of two teaspoonfuls of the medicine.

Court proceedings are also conducted entirely in French, barring a few exceptions. Many Haitians on trial have no idea if they have been judged guilty or innocent until the handcuffs come on or off.

Sadly, Haiti’s story of linguistic apartheid can be applied to almost any creole language community. Residual colonial influence preserves the European language as that of power and prestige.

Sunglasses resting on a stack of books on the beach

Kreyòl in the classroom

For DeGraff, improving the linguistic hierarchy in Haiti requires addressing the root problem: the education system. Similar to hospitals and courtrooms, Haitian school materials, especially for higher grades, are mostly in French — with no translation. This is a problem when the students, and often even the educators, are not proficient in French.

Because the teachers themselves are rarely fluent in French, they often resort to Kreyòl in their classrooms. A common Haitian expression jokes candidly that teachers use Kreyòl when they want students to understand the lesson and French when they want them to behave.

Numerous studies show that people learn better when taught in their native language. When they can’t understand their coursework, students become discouraged and learning becomes near impossible. That’s evident from Ethnologue data reporting that Haiti has a literacy rate of just 60%.

“In Haiti’s classrooms, most children do not like to ask or answer questions. They are constantly struggling to translate from Kreyòl into French or from French into Kreyòl,” said Guerda Jean-Guillaume, a professor at the Training Center for Fundamental Schools in Haiti, in a quote on MIT-Haiti Initiative’s website.

The inequity in Haitian education is why DeGraff founded the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

“The basic premise of our initiative,” DeGraff explained, “is that using Kreyòl for Haitian education is an essential ingredient to improving quality and access for education for all.”

The project answers a long-overdue call for change in Haiti. Using modern techniques and tools for interactive pedagogy, in-house teams of Haitian educators have developed digital resources and curricula in Kreyòl, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas. In the classrooms where they have tested Kreyòl-based learning, the results speak volumes.

“All 25 sixth-graders at LKM [Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa, a school where Kreyòl is the main language of instruction] passed the official exam administered by the state (compared with an overall success rate of 71%),” DeGraff told MIT News in 2015. “What’s less measurable, but also profoundly important, is the dignity of these Haitian children at LKM, whose joyful creativity is set free when they can learn in their native Kreyòl.”

DeGraff hopes that by bringing Kreyòl into all classrooms at all levels of the education system, it will improve equality and cede control of civic spaces to the Kreyòl-speaking majority in Haiti.

How can localization help?

Improving access to opportunity can start with localization. For Kreyòl-speaking Haitians, this means more content available in Kreyòl.

Because French is the preferred written language, almost all documentation is created and published exclusively in French. Again, this deficit of written material in Kreyòl is partially due to the historically ingrained stigma, but a lack of translation resources is another major impediment.

Currently, there are not enough professional Kreyòl translators to support the scale of linguistic reform Haiti needs. The solution to cultivating more Kreyòl translation lies, yet again, in education. Unfortunately, the relative rarity of Kreyòl materials in the classroom means lower literacy levels and fewer translators, propagating the cycle. Reforms to include Kreyòl as the primary language of instruction will improve fluency in both languages, as French can then be appropriately and adequately taught as a second language.

“Once children have strong foundations in their native language,” DeGraff said in the MIT News interview, “they are better equipped to learn all academic subjects, including second languages such as French.”

In addition to reforming the education system and training more native Kreyòl translators, two other areas poised for localization development in Haiti are the government and healthcare industries. In a country where 95% of the people are fluent in exclusively one language, producing legal and healthcare documentation in that language seems crucial to creating an equitable society. Translation of legal documents would grant the people of Haiti access to what many would consider their basic rights as citizens.

Regarding the quality and efficacy of healthcare, language is equally important — if not more so. With the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, DeGraff sees an increasing need for localization in Haiti. Perhaps recognizing the danger of communicating exclusively in French, the government chose to create and translate information in Kreyòl.

“It’s been good to see the government making a real effort for their medical advice to the population be published in Kreyòl,” DeGraff said.

How does this relate to other Creole languages?

According to the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures (APiCS), creole languages are found on six of the seven continents and represent between 70 and 100 of the world’s languages. Creole-speaking communities around the world face similar challenges to Kreyòl speakers in Haiti. For all of them, localization — and language access in general — is crucial.

Professor Marlyse Baptista is a linguist and creole expert at the University of Michigan. She specializes in the Portuguese-based creole Kriolu, spoken in Cabo Verde, a country comprised of a group of islands off the west coast of Africa. Like DeGraff with Kreyòl, she believes that the representation of Kriolu in the education system is core to bringing equity for the Cabo Verdean people. With most of the speakers living outside their native country, localization is especially important for the Cabo Verdean diaspora. An estimated 65,000 Cabo Verdeans live in the Greater Boston Area alone.

“It feels that Kriolu is invisible to the broader society. It has little representation in education, particularly in the Boston Public School system,” said Baptista. “A more widespread creation of and translation into Kriolu would go a long way toward empowering Cabo Verdeans — not only for the betterment of their education, but for access to their basic linguistic and human rights.”

The bottom line

Creole speakers are not the only linguistic communities in need who can benefit from localization, but they do tell a unified story of the importance of communicating to an audience in a language they understand.

Language is often what distinguishes one community of people from another. But our ability to communicate using language is also a uniquely human quality that relays a powerful unifying message. Localization celebrates these differences by building bridges between languages, cultures, and people around the world.