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Barbara McClintock

Emergency Linguistics: The Translation of Public Health Information in Emergency Situations

Illustration of 7 diverse medical professionals standing in a V-formation on a grey background.

Every act of communication is an act of translation.

Gregory Rabassa, translator of Spanish and Portuguese fiction

Illustration of 7 diverse medical professionals standing in a V-formation on a grey background.
Konstantin Mironov ©

The translation of public health information is critical in emergency situations, particularly in a country like Canada that welcomes thousands of immigrants every year whose mother tongue is not English or French. A new discipline has been proposed, emergency linguistics, which promotes the inclusion of language professionals on front-line teams; the effort could help doctors communicate with patients and ensure disaster preparedness committees follow good communication practices.

Protecting vulnerable communities

The adoption of emergency linguistics could save lives. For example, Quebec is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. Many people living in the Tosh community in Boisbriand only speak Yiddish or avoid TV and radio, according to a Globe and Mail article. When the number of COVID-19 cases climbed, public health authorities worked with community leaders to translate public health directives and to protect the approximately 4,000 people living in the Tosh community.

As another example, Spanish-speaking farm workers in Quebec and Ontario are also a community at risk.

However, some of the most vulnerable people in the pandemic have been seniors. The Ontario government recognized that there are many seniors in Ontario who speak only French and who had to listen to Quebec Premier François Legault’s press briefings to get news. According to Le Droit, Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s minister of francophone affairs, announced in April that Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s press briefings would be subtitled in French on YouTube. In addition, all Ontario news releases since the beginning of the pandemic have been bilingual. To Premier Legault’s credit, he set aside politics and added an English summary in his own words to all of his press briefings.

When we look at what other countries are doing, however, it is clear that Canada should be doing more.

Emergency language services

Author and linguist Tony Thorne references the Chinese government, who included linguists on the coronavirus outbreak team to explain medical terminology and health directives to patients. As there was a language barrier between doctors from other parts of China and the first patients in the Wuhan province, Chinese language services prepared a handbook of Hubei dialects for the medical team and made it available on social media. Then, a guide was prepared in more than 20 languages to better inform foreign residents about COVID-19 and to protect their health. Making language services part of the emergency response to this pandemic led to a whole new specialization, called “emergency linguistics,” says Thorne.

Given the significant health risks communities face in a health emergency, it’s important for language professionals to be involved in communications at all levels of government so that more information is available in French and other languages.

Are you aware of other examples where emergency linguistics could play a role?


Previous post from Barbara McClintock: The Language of Political Commentary: From Nadir to Zenith

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4 Comments on “Emergency Linguistics: The Translation of Public Health Information in Emergency Situations”

  • What an interesting text, Barbara. Thank you for sharing it.

    I think emergency linguistics can play a role in natural disasters (for example, ice storms, forest fires, hurricanes, tropical storms, tsunamis), as residents in particular geographical areas may not necessarily speak the language or dialect of the majority. Were natural disasters to strike, all residents would need to know what to do, where to go, or who to contact—and that information should be provided in as many languages or dialects as possible.

    Undoubtedly, some of these natural disaster victims would wind up in hospitals or other long-/short-term care facilities. Upon the victims’ arrival, the victims’ friends, colleagues, and family members would need to understand guidelines or information transmitted from the medical staff to the patients. It would be imperative for health care staff to provide simultaneous interpretation for patients who do not speak or understand information passed on to loved ones. After all, any serious communication gap can result in the victims’ survival or death. Every word counts!

  • Germain Laberge


    A very interesting text, eminently pertinent in these strange and difficult times. Thank you.

  • Laura Edlund


    Thanks for the great article, Barbara. There are some examples from Nunavut, for example, of alerts about COVID-19 in Inuktitut (and in keeping with Inuktitut being one of the four official languages in the territory). I’m curious how Yukon addressed the multiple official languages. On a related topic is how legal contracts address COVID-19, other communicable diseases, natural disasters, and civil authority (government-imposed shut-downs).

  • “ When we look at what other countries are doing, however, it is clear that Canada should be doing more.”

    I don’t know if this counts as an emergency, but we need to look at how we treat non-English or French speakers at our international airports. I was travelling through Lester B Pearson a couple of years ago when I came across a very agitated Mexican man who was not being allowed to go through security and join his family for his flight that was about to take off. Security agents and Air Canada employees were being very aggressive with him in increasingly loud English. There was no attempt at all to communicate with him in his language, like even making a call a PA system asking for somebody who spoke Spanish. This is a major international airport and I could not believe that there were no systems in place to help travellers who don’t speak French or English. Thankfully, I live in Mexico myself and I am sufficiently fluent in Spanish that I was able to step in and help him through the situation. He had to go back to the check-in counter and check a bag that had too much liquid to go through as hand luggage. The Air Canada officials at the check-in desk were aggressive with me about going up on the counter with him to interpret. They told to me to mind my own business if I was not associated with this man. I kept advocating for him and managed to get everything sorted and get him on his flight. What were they planning to do if he could understand their instructions? This was such a simple situation where the man really didn’t do anything wrong and it could have turned into a big incident because of a language barrier. I sent a complaint to the airport and Air Canada about their employees’ behaviour during this incident. I just got back a form letter that did not even address the situation.

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