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Breaking barriers: Why language is important in bringing Science to the public

These times we live in are dreadful for many, if not all.

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, people are forced to distance themselves from one another or isolate themselves in their homes. With in-person activities either limited or banned completely, our methods of communication and relaying of information —previously done through the distribution of printed pamphlets and information sheets, advertising in public areas, and holding talks open to a public audience—have altered significantly. 

At a time when information dissemination is vital, our options are limited. While online platforms provide avenues to spread essential information, especially regarding the pandemic, the situation presents an old yet persisting problem: linguistic barriers to communication.

The divide

According to Education First, a company that facilitates language training with cultural exchange, the Philippines is 20th among 100 countries in 2019 when it comes to English Proficiency, six ranks lower than in 2018. Though this might not reflect too badly considering that most Filipinos’ mother tongue is usually one of the Philippines’ many local languages, this may be detrimental to foundational learning, especially when the technical terms of topics such as Science, Health, and Medicine are usually communicated in English. 

The problem may lie beyond a lack of initiatives, but insufficient lexicon—not having or not being knowledgeable enough about the vocabulary in our local language systems. 

To address this, the late Bienvenido Miranda, the pioneering director of the National Research Council of the Philippines, conducted a study titled A Tested Scheme for Creating the Filipino Science Vocabulary in 1994. It was a long-awaited project to lessen the gap between Filipinos and the sciences’ technical terms. One study, however, is tantamount to merely a step in the direction we wish to take. 

“If scientific discourse in Filipino is to flourish in a semantically respectable way, a functional [word list] must be drawn up via a deliberate search for Science terms,” said Miranda in his research.

In the study, the first priority in translating English scientific terms to Filipino was to make use of existing words in Philippine languages, principally Tagalog. To fill gaps where no direct translation could be made, new words were formed by “combining Philippine words or parts thereof”. According to Miranda, the “guiding principle” was meaning-orientedness, hence the focus on semantics. “The sense of the English original must be reflected in the Filipino equivalent. If the English word has two disparate meanings, two Filipino versions are sought to distinguish them,” he expounded. 

The study gathered nearly 8,000 entries that have subsequently been published in two print volumes—one in 1992 and one in 1980, around three to four decades ago. 

In an era where everything is digitized, print media are less accessible. Newspapers, for example, have been relied on for the past centuries as a primary source of information, especially in areas where digital infrastructure is underdeveloped; however, the threat of viral transmission has made most people hesitant over handling possibly contaminated materials. 

Since the first COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, little information about the disease and the virus strain that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, has been translated into their equivalents in various Philippine languages. This is in spite of 10 such languages—namely Tagalog, Bisaya, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bicolano, Waray, Maguindanaon, Kapampangan, and Pangasinense—being spoken in 90 percent of Filipino households, according to Babbel Magazine. 

How, then, do people navigate the situation when the relevant information about the pandemic is unavailable in an understandable or local language? 

History tells us how poor communication in times of disaster and crisis can bring about grave consequences. Better risk prevention measures could have been followed during the onset of typhoon Yolanda if people knew what a storm surge meant and how high the water could rise. It would have been even better if these technical terms were translated in Waray, the primary language used in Leyte.

Similar to our situation now, jargon like “incubation period”—the time between when one has acquired the virus and when one starts showing symptoms or signs of sickness—and “asymptomatic”, or showing no physical manifestations of the disease despite having it, have become common phrases in media. People might have been more conscious of their actions if they understood these terms and the implications for how COVID-19 can easily spread, recognizing that one might already be carrying the virus without knowing it. 

In this regard, Bagong Gawi’s social media pages are an emerging solution. A COVID-19 response initiative led by medical students, Bagong Gawi aims “to guide Filipinos on proper hygiene etiquette and ways of living” by translating scientific terms in English to their equivalents in local languages during the pandemic. 

“We have noticed that the COVID-19 cases have been on the rise, and that many of our countrymen still lack the proper knowledge on how to live in this ‘new normal’,” relays Isabella Kaw, the organization’s social media manager. 

Heeding the call

At a time when actions that cultivate accessibility—especially in communication—are most important, Bagong Gawi decided to fulfill this duty. “We hope to explain how we should go about this [pandemic situation] in a way that most Filipinos would understand,” explains Externals Head Mary Poquiz on releasing materials—such as infographics, digests, and bulletins—in different local languages.

For Bagong Gawi, the objective of translating information from English to Philippine languages is to “make sure that the translated contents are easily understood by Filipinos from different walks of life”, enabling knowledge to be disseminated accurately in “the most effective way”. Poquiz discloses that the organization had external support from school organizations, non-government organizations, and barangay units to help in translating materials and in disseminating information. 

Regarding the limitations of internet connectivity, however, Bagong Gawi tries its best to accommodate those who rely on free data; since photos and visuals might not load properly, the organization places the text content of each infographic in the post captions as well.

“Aside from asking our organization partners to share our infographics [on] online platforms, we also give them permission to print our materials in brochures or in non-disposable materials [such as] shirts, fans,” she elaborates.

The organization has since tracked the reach of their materials to have gone as far as four schools and institutions for people with special needs around Rizal province and Metro Manila.

In their own ways, Miranda and Bagong Gawi are among those who have answered the call to be of service to society. Their efforts can spur future initiatives to make technical terms more accessible and understandable to the broader public, transmitting information in a language more native and inherently familiar to all of us.

By Ramon Castañeda

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