The Language Barrier Cripples Asian Bioethics

- Dena Hsin-Chen Hsin
China Medical College, Taiwan
91 Hsueh-Shin Road, Taichung 40421, Taiwan
& Doctoral Program in Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Science City, 305-8572, Japan
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 211.

I attended the Fourth Asian Bioethics Conference held on 22-25 November 2002 in Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea. More than a hundred people attended the conference, and 54 papers were presented within the three days conference. The opening ceremony, closing remarks, dinner parties, welcome and farewell parties were held during this period. Success and fullness were the common conclusions of the final result. However, I want to ask whether everyone was satisfied from the information of bioethics debates by using only one language - English?

More than half (N=34, 63%) of the papers were from Chinese, Korean and Japanese speaking countries. There were six papers from countries where English is a minority language (Thailand, Israel, Iran, German and Turkey). There were 12 papers from seven countries where English is, or has recently been, an official language (Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Philippines).

If we considered the total attendance, with domestic Koreans or people from nearby countries, then, the population of persons for whom English is not their major language will more than 90%. We have to ask how many people understand the talks and debates held during the conference? While to follow slides in English is not so difficult by at least half the people, many people are crippled by the language barrier to speak out their own point of view or to start a dialogue or debate. From talking with people and understanding my own frustrations I think it is true that a lot of key people from the majority countries did not donate their thinking and ideas during the discussion sections.

This raises a number of questions for international conferences, that I would like English native speakers to consider. These include:

Should English ability alone decide the quality of bioethics talks?

Can the goals of the Asian Bioethics Association be achieved by accepting diverse voices through only one language - English - as a communication media?

We cannot say that those people who can speak or express in English very well can represent the majority voice of their culture.

People who were invited to attend the conference (with generous financial support) may not have had the most effective results from this conference as they would have if they could have used there own language.

To resolve the question of the language barrier is always a big task for the organizers of international occasions and activities. Persons from all the non-English speaking countries are striving to make an effort in their English ability to improve their communication efficacy with the global world. However, for global bioethics communications, a better interaction is not only the duty of one side (non-English speaking countries); it should be a target of the Association and all participants.

Regional associations like the Asia Bioethics Association should be more alert to this situation than totally international ones. At the moment, I have no idea about how to resolve this very difficult problem. I also understand that simultaneous translation cost a lot, which cannot be afforded by a non-profit organization. However, a more open attitude to reconsider the priority of our blessed mission is what we are learning through bioethics. Thus, a serious concern about this "fly in the ointment (or you may say critical)" talks should also be respected.

The lack of English has also been discussed in this journal before by Frank Leavitt ("Whose English language", EJAIB 10 (2000), 185). He also said that English is changing through the contributions of non-native speakers to become easier. Yet English is a handicap for people in many regions of the world, and we hope that more of the diverse journals and publications from Asia, in their languages, can be made on-line and available like EJAIB. Please forgive me for my language barrier (and thanks to Darryl Macer for checking my English). I hope with all my heart that I may express these kind of diverse ideas in my own language someday, but then, I wonder if you could read it? 

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