Language in the Times of COVID-19: To Unite or to Divide (by Dr Sunny Man Chu Lau)

Language has always been a site of political struggle. All people regardless of their race, religion, age or gender are now being affected by COVID-19.  However, to deal with the unprecedented global emergencies, different governments and community groups are using language to achieve varied political ends. While in some situations language is employed as a positive tool to democratically reach all people to inform and protect, in others it is weaponized for socially exclusionary purposes.

Despite its initial suppression of warnings of the virus, China eventually took drastic measures to put Wuhan in lockdown to quarantine the spread of the disease. The Beijing government has also reportedly taken prompt trans-provincial efforts to bridge potential communication barriers to ensure those speaking local language varieties or ethnic languages are informed and as such able to access medical services.

Yuming Li’s[1] translated and abridged article (2020, March 27), titled Language Lessons of COVID-19 and Linguistic Disaster Preparedness, reported that a medical assistance team from Qilu Hospital of Shandong University, within 2 days of their arrival in Wuhan, compiled a number of emergency language resources, including The Guidebook of Wuhan Dialect for Medical Assistance Teams (with audio material) and The Handbook of Doctor-Patient Communication.

Concurrently, the Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Language Resources initiated a joint program with a number of research institutes to offer language services to reach out to diverse language communities. The Handbook of Hubei Dialects for Medical Assistance Teams was published and distributed as free pocketbooks and was made available for download from official WeChat accounts and websites, with audio recordings for instant translation on topics ranging from common COVID-19 symptoms to diagnoses and treatments in 11 Hubei dialects including, Wuhan, Xiangyang, Yichang, Huangshi, Jingzhou, E’zhou, etc. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Instant translation software — Mandarin expressions on symptoms and their equivalents in the Wuhan dialect, one of the 11 Hubei dialects available on the website

The language services were later expanded to include foreign languages targeting international students and expatriates, which resulted in the publication of A Guide to the Prevention and Control of COVID-19 Epidemic in Foreign Languages on February 27, 2020 (Figure 2). The guide includes topics on protection measures, diagnoses and tips for entry to China, with written texts and audio clips in over 20 languages.

While the actual use and effectiveness of these materials require further research, what stands out as commendable is the concerted efforts made in compiling the emergency language materials and their timely dissemination through various mobile technologies to the wider public. Li goes on to argue that these provisions of language services in times of emergencies demonstrate the necessity for a specialization of language research named “emergency linguistics” that would be devoted to language and communication as part of essential emergency preparedness.

His advocacy for the inclusion and development of language services as part of the prevention and control of public emergencies suggests his belief that it is imperative China put global healing and control of COVID-19 over and above the country’s standard political agenda. Emergency linguistics research will help inform linguistic contingency plans that include decisions to be made on what languages and varieties to use, types of information to include, what channels for dissemination as well as other language-related content such as prevention, early warnings, rescue and post-emergency recovery, etc.

While China’s behaviour illustrates that the country is open to adopting multilingual and multimodal approaches to emergency responses, the U.S. is heading in the opposite direction. When the immigration courts attempted to put up English-Spanish bilingual posters with information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Stern, 2020, March 10; Alvarez, 2020, March 9), the Trump administration’s knee-jerk response was to order them to take the posters down. Although the directive was later rectified due to complaints filed by the National Association of Immigration Judges, the restrictive English-only measure reflects a deep-seated monolingual hegemony in line with the government’s hardline xenophobic immigrant policy.

In Canada, the Ontario government offers COVID-19 related information in 30 languages (Figure 3) outside of English and French, the country’s two official languages; Alberta has also adopted a multilingual approach, though with fewer language options (Figure 4). In contrast, British Columbia and Quebec, provinces that boast the second and third largest immigrant populations in the country, are providing information related to the pandemic respectively in English and in English and French only. The Guide-autosoins COVID-19 distributed by the Quebec government to all households is however in French only; the English version is only available online (where a link to a video guide in American Sign Language was later added).

Figure 4: Coronavirus Information for Albertans – Information available in multiple languages

According to a study on language as a determinant of health and quality of health service in Quebec (Lussier, Tu, & Blaser, 2019), about 1% of its total population (around 75,000) are allophones who speak neither French nor English and are the most vulnerable when it comes to having access to emergency information. Another vulnerable group is English-speakers who do not speak French (around 6 %—454,000) and yet when being sick have to navigate the health system whose dominant working language is French. Researchers point out that when communicating health problems and treatment options particularly with elderly patients or patients in pain or distress, one’s mother tongue is still the best option (Ouimet, Trempe, Vissandjée, & Hemlin, 2013). Continued research on language emergency preparedness and its impact is one important lesson to be learned by all governments.

While efforts of varying degrees are made in different jurisdictions to reach out (or not) to linguistically diverse populations for health and safety purposes, we are also seeing a rise in exclusion and discrimination against certain language groups. In Hong Kong, for example, after the outbreak of Coronavirus in Wuhan, it was reported that more than 100 restaurants had posted online messages or notices on-site that they would only serve local people and not tourists from mainland China. Kwong Wing Catering, for example, posted a Facebook message on January 28, 2020 (Figure 5) announcing that they would only serve Cantonese- and English- speakers while declining service to those speaking Putonghua (i.e., Mandarin spoken by mainland Chinese), excluding Mandarin-speakers from Taiwan.

Figure 5: Facebook Status Update, Kwong Wing Catering

The chain restaurant has made its name as an outspoken supporter for democratic protests against the extradition bill in the months prior to the pandemic. The spread of the disease across the border has further aggravated an anti-China sentiment and deepened the divide between Hongkongers and mainlanders. The responses to the restaurant’s Facebook post were similarly divisive and contentious. Some applauded such a move as Hong Kong “patriotism”, and others called for control measures such as checking customers’ identity cards or passports in order to verify their nationality to ensure services were not offered to mainlanders, particularly those from Southern China whose mother tongue is also Cantonese. Amidst the flurry of exchanges, thankfully, a few drew attention to the fact that the virus did not discriminate– that any person from anywhere could be the next victim, and it had nothing to do with which language they spoke. But their voices were quickly drowned by fiery attacks as they were called out as traitors of the democratic movement.

This social media swarming is not an isolated incident; the pandemic is being politicized along linguistic lines to serve a political end, just as the many times Trump has insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” instead of by its official name.

“Language is a particular resource and terrain for reproducing or struggling over the reproduction of social difference and social inequality” (Heller & Martin-Jones, 2001, p. 6-7). Trying times and emergencies often bring out the best and the worst in people. However, during such times, isn’t it just more sensible and fruitful to use language in productive ways for protection and recuperation, rather than for division and exclusion? As educators, we should bolster our efforts to foster and spread compassion, education, and information rather than hatred and divisiveness. We should teach language in ways that promote critical literacy and intercultural awareness for equity and social justice.


[1] Li’s article was originally written and published in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Newspaper (2020, March, 09). Its original title “战疫语言服务团的故事” literally means “the story of the language service team fighting an epidemic (or pandemic)”.

References

Alvarez, P. (2020, March 9). Immigration judges want to know how to handle coronavirus. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/09/politics/coronavirus-immigration-guidance/index.html

Heller, M., & Martin-Jones, M. (2001). Introduction: Symbolic domination, education, and linguistic difference. In M. Heller & M. Martin-Jones (Eds.), Voices of authority: Education and linguistic difference. Westport, CT: Abex Publishing.

Li, Y. (2020, March 27). Language lessons of COVID-19 and linguistic disaster preparedness (J. Zhang & J. Li, Trans.). Language on the Move blog. Retrieved from https://www.languageonthemove.com/language-lessons-of-covid-19-and-linguistic-disaster-preparedness/

Lussier, M.-H., Tu, M. T., & Blaser, C. (2019). At the intersection of language definitions: A portrait of linguistic communities in Québec and its territorial service networks in 2016. QC, Canada: Government of Québec.

Ouimet, A.-M., Trempe, N., Vissandjée, B., & Hemlin, I. (2013). Adaptation linguistique des soins et des services de santé: enjeux et stratégies. Retrieved from https://www.inspq.qc.ca/pdf/publications/1656_AdapLinguisSoinsServicesSante.pdf

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