Multilingualism and global health

14 May, 2019

(with thanks to Isabelle Wachsmuth, HIFA-French, WHO)

I would like to recommend this article (in French) about the importance of multilingualism.

A Google translation (with inevitable errors) is provided below.

Of particular interest is the concept that multilingualism is not just about being able to communicate, and it is not even just about inclusion - it is about the added value that different linguistic backgrounds can bring to actual scientific thinking, inquiry, understanding and application. Your article implies that if every human spoke just one language (in a hypothetical world) then we (humanity) would be handicapped in this respect (contrary to what many people - especially anglophones - would assume).

HIFA-English, HIFA-French, HIFA-Portuguese and HIFA-Spanish are working to synergise all these elements to promote global health and universal health coverage.

I have asked the author of the above article, a professor of linguistics in Geneva, to provide expert advice.

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages. Twitter: @hifa_org FB:

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[Google translation with inevitable errors: Is the English language the only scientific language?

Should we ask francophones to always produce, broadcast and teach science in French? Or should we accept that all work and conferences are done in English? [Alexander Raths -]

It is often thought that all science is in English. Any? No, because some languages ​​still resist the exclusivity of a dominant language. It is an essential choice. The explanations of Laurent Gajo, professor at the School of French Language and Civilization at the University of Geneva.

The language of science, a political choice?

At present, the French language is in a complex position compared to other languages. On the one hand, it gives ground to English, the dominant scientific language. On the other hand, it continues to be the language of reference between French-speaking scientists. Therefore, should we ask francophones to always produce, broadcast and teach science in French? Or should we accept that all work and lectures should be in English, at the risk of not being able to discuss certain scientific concepts in the official languages ​​of the countries? Switzerland is at the forefront of these questions.

Dissemination in a dominant language, such as English, necessarily influences the production of knowledge. To maintain its place in world science, Switzerland must publish and train its researchers in English. In order to discuss scientific concepts in the languages ​​of the Confederation, it must ask its researchers to preserve their linguistic diversity. This requires time: it is necessary to write research protocols or reports of experience in French, then systematically switch to English to disseminate knowledge internationally.

How language defines science

However, these efforts have positive consequences. Indeed, to ask scientific questions in different languages, we think differently. Because concepts are not defined in the same way in different cultures. To discuss science, you have to talk about it first. And that does not make sense, even within a more or less homogeneous linguistic community. Formulating concepts correctly then becomes an important phase in the development of science. The reformulation of knowledge helps to improve and extend the theoretical structures. Science is therefore better when the concepts have been refined in several languages.

The aim is therefore to make scientists aware of the importance of linguistic diversity in their field. And the role they have to play in defining concepts that are clear and easily understood by the public. Faced with these realities, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) is implementing a new language policy. This stipulates that the Swiss scientific place must open up even more internationally without losing its anchorage in the country. "The SNSF aims to foster a multilingual scientific culture, where 'lingua franca' is considered necessary but not enough." This policy calls for innovation. We must test new methods of scientific communication, while respecting the richness that linguistic diversity represents for science.

RTS Discovery with Laurent Gajo, professor at the School of French Language and Civilization at the University of Geneva]