• Alysa Salzberg

Is English a danger to global health?

You’ll sometimes hear that Latin is the language of medicine. On the surface, that makes sense – so many medical terms have their roots in that language. But over the course of the 20th century, a subtle shift took place. English became the global lingua franca, and as a result, medicine’s new language.


This may seem like a good thing. After all, English is a widely-spoken, living language, rather than a language used by a small portion of people who don’t apply it to everyday life. A modern-day medical lingua franca should allow for easier communication between healthcare providers and researchers around the world.


That’s been the case in many ways. But there are some circumstances in which having a single dominant medical language can actually be a disadvantage.


A notable downside to a dominant language in medicine can be found in the area of medical education and research. Nowadays, many medical journals and institutions will only publish articles in English. Medical textbooks used around the world are also predominantly written in English. This means that anyone who isn’t able to achieve English fluency may not be able to learn or communicate important health-related information.


For instance, a non-English-speaking scientist may not be able to share his or her findings in a widespread source like a respected medical journal. And healthcare workers in countries with a low percentage of English speakers may not be able to easily communicate accurate, important health-related information to the population.


Journalist Christine Ro shares some troubling concrete examples of this in a fascinating article that explores how the medical language bias affects medical research and awareness in African countries.


One issue is that some non-Anglophone countries may be unable or unwilling to analyze and communicate untranslated medical information. She quotes African epidemiologist Yap Boum:


If you have a breakthrough on a new way to handle menstrual hygiene, for example, and if that research is in English, how do you expect the minister of health of Niger or Benin to have the information? And if he doesn’t have the information, he is not going to change any policies in is country.


This mentality can have deadly consequences. For instance, during some Ebola outbreaks, non-Anglophone African countries weren’t able to use English to communicate with neighboring Anglophone nations. Additionally, information in English wasn’t translated into local languages for everyday people to understand. Ro attributes these factors to the high Ebola death rate among women in Sierra Leone and Liberia.


The problem of the English bias can even be found in countries with a relatively high percentage of speakers of English as a foreign language. For instance, according to one report, German medical researchers may opt to publish only significant or positive findings in English. This means that readers who only speak English won’t know about any trials that have negative results, and readers who only speak German won’t get information about positive or significant discoveries. This issue also occurs in the Chinese medical research community, as well as many others.


Researchers and healthcare professionals around the world have proposed a number of solutions to this problematic side of a medical lingua franca. Some, like machine translation, seem feasible – although imperfect (after all, there’s a large margin of error with machine translation, compared to carefully monitored translations by humans). Others are downright outlandish. For instance, one well-meaning(?) research paper suggests charging a fee for research published in English.


A more reasonable option, on the other hand, is for medical journals to accept research in any language. This research could then be published in both its original version alongside an English translation, giving more options to readers and allowing researchers to express themselves in the language in which they feel most at ease and best able to communicate crucial information.


Will any of these suggestions become practice? Hopefully, growing awareness of the medical language bias will put some kind of change into motion and allow anyone to have access to potentially life-saving medical information, regardless of their native tongue.




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Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg

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