How do non-native speakers understand COVID-19 communication?



Governments around the world have been working on solutions to the COVID-19 situation day in, day out for over a year now. They need to devise and implement unprecedented and far-reaching measures to quell this pandemic. Communication from these governments is key. After all, how do you get a country’s citizens to give up their freedom for so long and so drastically? This requires clear and centrally managed communication. It is for good reason that the heads of government have taken the lead when it comes to informing the media. They hold press conferences and speeches announcing the most important measures and changes.

Tuesday at 7 PM 

This is also the case in the Netherlands. So far, outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte has held more than twenty coronavirus press conferences. Initially together with Jaap van Dissel, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control (CIb) of the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), and later with Hugo de Jonge, Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport.

Each press conference was held on a Tuesday evening at 19:00 and broadcast live on various TV channels. On average, around 6 million people tune in to watch them. The Netherlands has 17.2 million residents. No TV broadcast scores such high ratings.

It is essential that every resident of a country—the Netherlands, in our case—understands what is said at these press conferences. During the press conferences in the Netherlands, a sign language interpreter is on stage to interpret the message into sign language in real time. This underlines the value of making sure that everyone can understand the message.

What stood out was that there was initially no provision for non-native speakers. As such, Global Talk decided—on our own initiative—to translate the press conferences (the spoken word translated) into eight foreign languages which are common in the Netherlands: Syrian Arabic, Turkish, Polish, Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea), Moroccan Arabic, Farsi (often spoken by people from Iran and Afghanistan, for example), Berber and English. This will allow everyone to understand the latest measures in their own language. In my view, this is essential in fighting the pandemic.

Referenced by the national government 

More than twenty times we have now posted the translated versions on our website the day after the live press conference, including the one from last night. Anyone can watch them or share them with others. Many organisations, including municipalities, health care and social services refer to or use these translated videos in their own coronavirus communication. The official Dutch government website with information on COVID-19 soon started referring to our translated videos. The translated press conferences are also available on NPO Start, the video-on-demand service by the Dutch Foundation for Public Broadcasting (NPO).

Understandable language in the rest of Europe 

In Belgium, the press conferences by the Prime Minister or responsible specialist Minister are in Dutch and French, simultaneously supported by a sign language interpreter. The press conferences are not translated into other languages, but the measures in force are. I know that this has been thought through in Sweden, as it is covered by a contract with the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, but what about the country where you live? Do governments and their leaders maintain the same frequency of informing residents about the latest measures? Are the press conferences translated for the large group of non-native speakers in your country?  Or do governments have other means of reaching out to non-native speakers and letting them know the most important measures.

With more than 500,000 non-native speakers in Europe, how important is communication in one’s own language? And what is the impact if large groups of people are not reached in a pandemic?

Understanding is everything is our motto at Global Talk. A motto that applies in every situation, but holds especially true during this pandemic.