MEDICAL CARE AND MULTILINGUALISM – PANDEMIC PERSPECTIVES
With the rise of COVID-19, newspapers have begun to issue reports about communication clarity. Pandemics require communication at an international and national level, as well as at a local level. This week’s tasks explore aspects of how health advice is reported, who reports it and how. We ask if some people in the UK and Ireland might be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting up to date health advice, and cast our net out wider into the world to examine how countries where many more than two official languages co-exist deal with getting accurate and clear medical information to their citizens.
NEW VIRUS: NEW VOCABULARY
We begin with a report about how the pandemic has driven a need for new vocabulary. You might want to think about what words the situation has brought you to learn; pandemic, face mask, furlough, social distancing count among some of mine.
This piece though focuses on one official language of Wales, Welsh. Ceredigion Council, a council responsible for residents where approximately 1 in 5 people have Welsh as their first language, has produced a glossary of coronavirus for residents, doctors and officials to use:
Ceredigion County Council (2020) A new vocabulary developed in Welsh as a result of the coronavirus. Available online at:
Read it through and reflect on it.
It is sometimes usual for speakers of Welsh to use English words for new terms (this is pretty usual in contexts where many speakers are bilingual and there is a neighbouring country with a language which has new terms. This reading though gives many reasons why Welsh terms are a good idea for Welsh speakers. Make a list of some of them.
Find out who compiled the glossary
How do you think they did it – did they ask speakers, doctors?
Are any of the words borrowings from Latin as the word coronavirus is in English? If so, why is it important to have a Welsh spelling for the word as well?
Do you think this glossary took a long time to complete?
Who will it help?
Now read the next text. It concerns other languages spoken in England and Wales besides English and Welsh. English and Welsh are sometimes referred to as the ‘indigenous’ languages of England and Wales respectively, mostly because they have a much longer time depth of being spoken in those countries. We turn our focus now to other languages and read the next piece, which appeared on the BBC this week:
Evans, Alice 28th July 2020. Coronavirus: Safety fears over lack of translated virus advice. BBC England. Available online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53537062
The government claims to have translated advice into 25 languages. Have you seen advice in any languages other than English where you are?
If so, where did you see it?
Was it in leaflet form, on the TV or on the radio?
Who do you think might be best to translate advice? Speakers of the language with no experience in translation, medical professionals, government ministers, or a combination?
What can be done about advice which changes fast – how do translators keep up with the volume of information and how can they make sure the advice reaches the citizens who need it?
COVID TRANSLATION - GRASSROOTS RESPONSES
I give you now an example of what is sometimes called ‘grassroots’ translation - done on a limited budget and often by non-expert translators who just speak two languages rather than being qualified translators. This is a broadcast of languages which was put together by a charity called Walsall for All who work in and around the town of Walsall in the West Midlands of England. You can see that the people doing the broadcast are reading out health advice in their own languages.
Walsall for All, 1st May 2020. "Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives" message in 17 different languages. Available at
Are the languages the people speak the same as the ones the UK Government translated healthcare advice into in the first article you read?
Might you need other languages where you come from?
Were the clips clear and helpful – can citizen translators (people who simply speak a language and are not trained translators) get a message across accurately and clearly, do you think?
Pay attention to each speaker – are they all simply translating ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ and if not, does it matter?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN COMMUNICATION BECOMES IMPOSSIBLE?
Now we turn to a blog from a healthcare professional in the United States who speaks more than one language and runs a communication blog called and English. Have a read and identify the main problems she discusses which happen when a patient cannot communicate with health professionals:
Vincent-Bancroft, Géralde. The Importance Of Multilingualism In The Medical Profession, 21st June 2018. Available online at
What does she propose is the answer to this, and do you think this happens in your country and your region?
Could you communicate health matters in another language that you speak?
What problems can you foresee if we rely on patients’ families to translate for them?
Should children under 16 translate for their parents?
What problems might arise for unqualified translators if the government ended up relying on them to translate for communities?