They may not be as easy to spot as the exhausted, masked nurses and doctors caring for patients infected with COVID-19, but the world’s language experts are among the unsung heroes in the global fight against the pandemic.
“COVID is the world’s biggest translation challenge,” says linguist and AAAS Member Gretchen McCulloch.
McCulloch specializes in the language of the internet. Her eclectic research interests include internet linguistics, linguistics outreach, emojis and memes. In her recently published book “Because Internet,” her podcast, “Lingthusiasm,” and column for WIRED magazine, she educates and entertains on internet communication with history, context and myth busting.
But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted some of this linguist’s research to new fields in public health. She is analyzing language and communication in the prevention, treatment and tracing of the virus.
To conquer the disease, public health information needs to reach virtually everyone on the planet. But there are 7,000 languages in the world. McCulloch says only 300 of them have Wikipedias, and only about 100 are on Google Translate.
“So how do you bridge this gap between a few big global languages that have a lot of electronic resources? The pandemic doesn't care what language you speak; The pandemic is going to potentially go after you,” she says.
McCulloch has been closely following groups like “Translators Without Borders,” which are producing COVID-19 information into dozens of languages. She says, for example, if a public health nurse needs fact sheets in Amharic because there is an immigrant population in the area that speaks this language, they can look at this database and see what’s already been translated.
“None of that would have been possible without the internet,” says McCulloch.
But it’s the human beings with fluency in these Indigenous languages, and their compassion for others, that make this a reality.
“It’s people using unglamorous techniques like spreadsheets and email. It’s not, ‘Oh, we’ve got AI [artificial intelligence] and it’s going to solve everything,’” she says.
While initially drawn to language through French classes in her primary education in Canada, McCullloch’s interest in popular linguistics grew.
“I spend a lot of time on the internet! And, like many linguists, I can't really turn that linguist part of my brain off—whether I'm hanging out with people face to face or online, I'm always noticing things about language. So, when I started my blog, “All Things Linguistic” and then later my podcast “Lingthusiasm,” it got me more and more interested in analyzing internet language because I was encountering so much of it,” she says.
McCullough was quick to see how technology sets the language of the internet apart from other written and spoken words. She can quickly search both academic records and social media for a vast laboratory of unedited, unfiltered words to watch language evolve in real time. As language adapts to terms like LOL and SMH, some older people bemoan the fact that these acronyms abound; and complete sentences can be a scarce commodity. But shortcuts and changes in written and spoken language can be effective, not lazy.
“If you look at an athlete who has figured out the most efficient way of getting from Point A to Point B, how to do it as fast as possible, that’s not a bad athlete; That's a really good athlete. When we figure out how to get our tongue from one position to another in the most efficient way possible, such that we can still be understood, that too is efficient. That is admirable, that's exciting,” she says.
Some of McCulloch’s research touches upon more formal and business communication. For example, McCulloch’s study of the use of the ellipsis reveals some generational disconnects. In emails and texts, older users choose ‘...’ as an informal transition between thoughts, perhaps how they might have written a postcard. Younger users tend to give it more weight, a not so subtle assertion that something else is going on; that there is an unspoken implied demand.
“I have heard people say, ‘I finally learned my mom, or my boss, isn't being passive aggressive; I should just be assigning it to a different generational bucket,” says McCulloch.
McCulloch stresses that there are no absolutes in language. But there are choices that are kinder and more inclusive. Solutions are often not one size fits all either. As such, McCulloch urges companies and governments to avoid the simpler solution of plugging content from a dominant language into a translation program and think they have done their bit. To someone like McCulloch, an extra step in working with a linguist or native speaker is increasingly vital, not just in the present times of a global pandemic, but also because the internet has become less and less English dominated, down from 90% to around 50%.
People who speak hundreds of lesser known languages deserve accuracy and access to the same resources, whether it’s for news, commerce or entertainment, she says, and they deserve care. Most of all, she encourages the scientific community to be respectful.
“Am I using language in ways that connect people, that make other people feel dignified and valued and just as important as I am? It's not that one of us has to be right and one of us has to be wrong,” she says.
McCulloch says certain linguistics techniques can be valuable tools for all scientists, especially when dealing with a confused public often flooded with misinformation. Effective use of rhetoric and persuasion can give skeptical audiences on issues like climate change space to change their minds, rather than just getting attacked for their beliefs.
“Don’t stand on your high horse because you think graphs are better. If people need to be told a story about the climate rather than just be given facts and figures, tell them a damn story,” McCulloch says.