Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Why Removing Language Barriers is an Opportunity for Equity in Global Health

By guest contributor Yap Boum II

During the Africa Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) held in Kigali, Rwanda in early March 2019, we organized a French-language discussion workshop with participants from six African countries where French is an official language. They shared their experiences on the impact of language barriers on global health. They spoke of the challenges they faced due to the dominance of the English language in scientific discourse. These challenges included linguistic isolation and a double exclusion. First, French-speaking researchers struggle to publish in English, and second, once published, their work is accessible only to a minority. The supremacy of English-language publications and the exponential increase in information available in English compared to other languages represent a major source of inequality. This creates a vicious cycle that diminishes the presence of French in scientific literature, penalizing French-speaking researchers. The outcomes of this workshop were published in English and French in The Lancet Global Health. However, this is not a French issue but an issue of multilingualism.

Equity in global health means that every scientist, regardless of their native language, should be able to speak confidently and listen effectively to contribute equitably. When scientists are required to communicate in a language they are not proficient in, it creates a significant barrier to their participation. This inequity prevents them from fully contributing to global health initiatives. Non-English speakers often struggle to speak during conferences and meetings and face difficulties publishing their scientific results in journals predominantly in English. This language barrier also extends to funding opportunities, as many calls for funding are in English, making them inaccessible to non-English-speaking scientists.

I recently attended an EU-Africa meeting in Brussels where the topic of developing talent was discussed. The majority of funding calls are in English, which means non-English-speaking scientists are excluded from these opportunities, creating an inequitable environment. It is disheartening to meet scientists who are frustrated during meetings and conferences because their voices cannot be heard. It is reminiscent of a nightmare where you are shouting, but no sound comes out.

More must be done to allow scientists to speak, publish, and apply for funding in their native languages. While this will incur costs, some organizations are already taking steps in this direction. WHO, MSF, and Africa CDC, among others, systematically use translators for their meetings and conferences. Others rely on artificial intelligence for real-time translations and translating publications.

In our recent article in PLOS Global Public Health, entitled “From Barrier to Enabler: Transforming Language for Global Health Collaboration,” we recommend the following:

1. Scientific Journals: Offer access to translations of published articles in the language of the study’s location to ensure local accessibility, proper use, and relevance.

2. Conference and Meeting Organizers: Provide translation services and allow scientists to present and discuss in their official languages.

3. Institutions: Leverage funding to train researchers and public health experts in the language spoken in the country where they will operate. This builds capacity among international stakeholders and enhances effectiveness and cultural and scientific exchange.

4. Funders: Allow grant applications and reports to be submitted in the local language.

5. Scientists and Public Health Experts: Make an effort to learn English, which is the current lingua franca.

Whenever possible, I ask journal editors to publish my articles in French to ensure communities and stakeholders are aware of and benefit from the research conducted in their environment. Major scientific journals are making strides toward inclusivity by publishing articles in the authors’ native languages as supplementary material. This enhances accessibility and ownership of research findings among communities most in need.

While tools like AI can catalyze language transformation from a barrier to an enabler, the most important factor is the will. The will of scientists to learn English because it is the lingua franca, and the will of institutions to provide translation mechanisms to break the barriers. Using this will, we decided to publish comments on our recent article in Swahili, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. We want all scientists to be part of this conversation using their language, and we hope The Village platform will be a catalyst for this movement.

Removing language barriers in global health is not just a matter of convenience; it is a matter of equity. By ensuring that all scientists, regardless of their native language, can fully participate in global health discussions, publish their findings, and apply for funding, we create a more inclusive and effective global health community. This, in turn, leads to better health outcomes for all.

Consider the profound impact of empowering non-English-speaking scientists. They can engage more effectively in global health initiatives, sharing insights and innovations that may otherwise remain unheard. Their research, often conducted in diverse and unique environments, can provide critical data and perspectives that enhance global health strategies.

For instance, imagine a French-speaking researcher in West Africa who has made significant findings in malaria prevention. If their work is only published in English, it might not reach the local health practitioners who need this information the most, or other stakeholders who rely on those evidenced to build their strategy to control malaria. By providing translations, we ensure that this valuable knowledge is accessible to those who can implement it effectively in their communities.

Moreover, enabling scientists to present their work in their native languages at international conferences can foster richer, more inclusive discussions. When language is not a barrier, the exchange of ideas becomes more fluid, and the collaboration across borders becomes more meaningful. Scientists can ask questions, share experiences, and propose solutions without the added stress of communicating in a foreign language.

Equity in global health also means recognizing the value of diverse linguistic and cultural perspectives. Each language carries with it unique ways of understanding and describing health phenomena. By embracing linguistic diversity, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of global health challenges and develop more homegrown and effective interventions.

In conclusion, removing language barriers is essential for equity in global health. It fosters Confidence, enhances Communication, and improves Comprehension, leading to effective Collaboration. By investing in translation services, multilingual publications, and language training, we create an inclusive and effective global health landscape. Let’s embrace this to strengthen the 4C pyramid.

Related Posts
Back to top