Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Language Activism

Here is an interesting and complicated case involving language law. In addition to the factors covered in the article are other important points that I wish to unpack.

This matters a lot because America does not have an official language despite treating English as one effectively. Creating one or more official languages opens up this can of worms, which many African nations and some others are currently facing.

Explain in isiZulu why I must take your medicine.

This is the challenge that could face the pharmaceutical industry in court soon.

Mongezi Bolofo said he had no alternative but to go to court after the Pan SA Languages Board decided not to investigate his complaint against giant medicine distributor Dis-Chem, which had failed to provide medicinal notes in isiZulu

Okay, isiZulu is the language of the Zulu people, recently added as an official language alongside English and Afrikaans in South Africa. The complaint was lodged while the legislation was in draft process, but that doesn't really matter: the challenges will be ongoing.

One thing they forgot was: "Explain in isiZulu HOW I must take your medicine." Medical errors kill lots of people every year, and injure many more. Every time there's a language gap -- which includes foreign doctors in America, by the way -- the chance of misundertandings with serious consequences gets a lot higher. In most translations you have some wiggle room. In medicine there is none. The translation must be perfect and so must the comprehension.

This is where legislation usually crashes and burns against the rocks of biology and economics. You can require that something be done. You cannot force people to be good at it; most humans lose their ability to acquire new languages fluently around puberty. You cannot make money to pay for it appear out of thin air; you have to fund it somehow. So what commonly happens when you add a new official language is this: it doesn't actually get used universally because not enough people are fluent in it and not everyone can afford to hire a translator who is. Plus if you require them to hire said translators, that runs up the expenses of everything that involves communication.

If a country has 10 official languages, they have 10 times the workload compared to a country with only 1 official language, when it comes to things like paperwork (which must be available in all 10) and public officials (who must either be fluent in all 10 or have access to translators who can cover the same range). This is fantastic for representation and for translators, but it's a nightmare for bureaucrats and businesses, and it can be downright deadly in the medical field. This is why aviation uses aviation-English all over the world, which is a kludge with its own problems, but at least they're not trying to run airports in 100 different languages.

But I will not rest before the official indigenous languages gain their status and my people can access services in their languages.”

Bolofo insists that relegating isiZulu represents marginalisation of his language and culture

Well, yes. It is about marginalization. Speakers of less common languages get pushed to the fringes, and that's what official recognition is supposed for fix -- for the lucky few. Thousands of other languages are still left out in in the cold where most of them are rapidly dying, which is a different and very grave problem.

But look at what happens when we try to cover just one new language across a whole country. Does it have to be on every piece of paperwork? Every sign? Every office? That's still doable with 3 languages, but it's going to cost a fortune and take a long time to upgrade everything. That's money South Africa probably does not have, especially in light of its raging water-trouble.

Are there even enough speakers of isiZulu who are also educated enough to translate difficult projects like drug or legal paperwork? Since these are marginalized people, I would bet there are not. So how do you fix that gap? Your options are either make educated people fluent in isiZulu or make fluent isiZulu speakers educated. Both of those take a lot of time and money. You can't expand that instantly. And which way do you push? The former is probably faster and easier, but the later is more useful to Zulu people and would yield higher quality results. Native speakers always perform better than translators using a second (or more) language. What you really need are bilingual (trilingual, etc.) people raised so from birth, with equal fluency. Otherwise one or the other language will suffer, which runs up your error rate. So one of the few concrete pieces of advice I have here is that South Africa should make a major effort to boost the education of isiZulu speakers to where they have enough people who can translate everything that needs translating (or put it in isiZulu in the first place).

A separate but related issue is: do lots of isiZulu speakers want to become professional writers, lecturers, translators, etc. or not? Because if they don't, that's a problem. Either they're forced into it, or they're stuck with someone else speaking for them with a second-or-later language that probably isn't conveying the cultural nuances they hoped to promote by gaining official status.

He claimed the council had asked him to lodge a complaint in English when he was questioning the exclusion of isiZulu in the information insert on medicine he had bought.

Now what if he didn't speak English, or didn't speak it well? For a language to be official, genuinely, you have to be able to do everything in it -- because some people just aren't good enough with the other(s). In any mixed-language country, there will always be people who communicate exclusively or much better in this language but not that one. So it's not enough to have the drug paper in isiZulu. The doctor (or a translator) has to be fluent enough to answer patient questions in it, and the complaint department has to do the same for when the previous two aspects break down and someone wants redress of grievances. If it's incomplete it won't work.

That is exactly what will happen for, oh, 10-20 years because there's no way to push this fast. You can change a computer program instantly (at least once it's built and can be installed) but you can't change people instantly. Especially with a less common language, you'll have to wait for lots of people to skill up. It's going to take several years just to slap extra credentials on people who are already well set up to expand what they do, and a generation for kids to grow up bilingual (or more) if that's what you really want -- assuming you start NOW with all 3 languages in every preschool.

She said the board had limitations and was restricted legislatively, meaning the complaint could not be addressed adequately.

Bolofo said the board’s response was “utter malice” because he had not filed a case against a private sector company but against the council

They both have points. The organizations obviously aren't equipped to meet the needs, which will make people angry. Is it malice? Well, this is South Africa, so people have been attacking each other for centuries. That's not going away, and they're all stuck with the mess. But it's not necessarily malice on the part of an individual or an organization if they don't have resources they didn't think they even needed last year. They have to figure out what-all they need and how the hell to pay for it and then how to hire an isiZulu translator when literally every other organization in the country is trying to do the same thing and there aren't enough to go around. It is not going to get fixed any time soon. It doesn't have to be malice to cause the problem, but lack of malice will not relieve the problem if someone needs medical instructions in isiZulu and those are unavailable or wrong.

“They first tried to force me to write my complaint in English which I refused ... They had no language unit and they were still using English and Afrikaans.

“So, for me, they were not fit to rule on the issue of language and they were discriminating against isiZulu

Well, yeah. Of course it's discrimination; English and Afrikaans speakers can get stuff in their native language and isiZulu speakers mostly can't. But is it discrimination for the purpose of hurting Zulu people? Possibly not. It may have happened because they didn't realize they needed isiZulu capacity in 500 places they didn't last year -- how do you find ALL the places that need it in your organization? It could have been that they couldn't find or afford a translator. What are you going to do when every translator who can do isiZulu has like a 5 or 10 year waiting list because everything has to be put in isiZulu now? What do you prioritize, things that just came in today and aren't late yet or things that have been waiting years already? Sure, medical stuff is a priority, but do you put your one translator in triage or translating drug instructions? These are not problems you can fix with legislation. Need does not create ability.

“While the community pharmacy is required to make available patient information leaflets for each medicine dispensed, this information is usually made available by the supplier or manufacturer of the medicine.

The pharmacist said the pharmacy was not able to provide Bolofo with a patient information leaflet in isiZulu because the manufacturer of the medicine had not provided it,” Masango said

Here's another huge can of worms. If it has to be done, who is responsible for doing it, the producer or the end seller? Can a drug be sold if it doesn't have isiZulu instructions? Which will kill more people: banning the drug until it's translated, rushing and having wrong instructions in bad isiZulu, or not having isiZulu instructions at all? Because one or more of those things is going to happen, simply because you can't translate everything instantly. The only thing the law can fix is clarifying who is responsible for the translation, so people know where to complain.

He said when the general regulations were eventually published in August 2017 for implementation, it had been legislated that the patient information leaflet should contain information in English and at least one other official language.

So that's basically useless. Under that provision, the official language -- the one everything HAS to be in -- is English only. Everything else is an extra, pick whichever you want, but only English will give you access to everything. Or even most things.

“As such, even under current legislation, it would be difficult to dictate which one of the 10 official languages, other than English, a manufacturer of medicines should use.

No shit. They can pick one of the other 9 at random, and then people really will scream about discrimination. It does nearly nothing to help people who only speak a non-English language, unless they happen to luck into needing something available in their language. So of course isiZulu speakers want theirs to be a real official language, required on everything, not 10% or so of whatever stuff randomly selects their language as the spare. They have every right to lobby for that representation. But if they really want it? Focus on getting native speakers into college where they can learn to be translators, because you win you're going to need them.

“However, we are confident that pharmacists explain medicine usage, efficacy, safety and dosage with each patient when they dispense medication.”

Bullshit. They don't even manage that when speaking the same language. Miscommunications of this type are a leading cause of medicinal injuries and deaths. People are busy, they don't take time to explain things, they shove a bottle or bag at the patient and expect them to get the hell out of the way. It's hard enough to get your questions answered if you are articulate, fluent, and advantaged. If you're working across languages, forget it. Just in America, look at the higher rates of death among Hispanic and black people -- part of that is linguistic, either different languages or different dialects.

I am a huge fan of language diversity. I support representation. But know what you're getting into, because exactly none of this is simple or cheap. If you're not going to require total coverage, don't call it an "official" language. Partial coverage means it's a "recognized" language.

Just to consider America: It would be the height of colonialism to make only English the official language de jure instead of de facto. What else should we include? Spanish is an obvious choice as the next-most-common one, and another global language. French is a runner-up because people hate Spanish-speakers right now. Leaving out all the native languages would be unconscionable, but which one to choose? Navajo is the most spoken, but that's a Category 5 language coming from English, far beyond the capacity of most people to learn, so a nonstarter. Cherokee or Lakota would be a good bet, having lively revitalization programs. Adding two more languages to our de facto official language would be extremely difficult and expensive. People don't want to do that. But making English alone the official language would be a PR nightmare in a browning world. This is why the topic comes up every few years, but so far has been quietly damped off, because the more alert politicians don't want to open any of those worm cans any worse than they already are.
Tags: activism, economics, ethnic studies, linguistics, news, politics
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