Healthcare Vocabulary: On Developing Regional Languages

A. Ashni
8 min readAug 8, 2020


In 2018, I attended the UNDP National Youth Parliament as a media correspondent. Young delegates from every state in the country came to participate, which brought to the fore a predictable problem.

Floor time was largely spent on voicing grievances about the lack of translators. Delegates from the Hindi belt weren’t comfortable with English, while delegates from the South and the Northeast weren’t comfortable with Hindi. I don’t remember what the conference agenda was because we barely got around to it.

In the midst, my colleague nudged me and whispered, “This would be much simpler if we made knowing Hindi or English mandatory.” A disastrous suggestion.

What happens when we shift focus from facilitating translation to necessitating a national/global language? Who misses out and on what? I thought these questions but had no references to answer them at the time.

Fast forward to 2020, I began working at a disability resource center as a Content and Research Strategist. In an interview with a Physiotherapist for one of our projects, I first learn of the disproportionate on-ground impact of COVID-19 on linguistic minorities. “Explaining precautions in Telugu or Hindi takes a lot longer than in English,” she says, “We are overwhelmed with how much time we have to devote to each patient. It is not sustainable.”

Increasing COVID consciousness in Indian regional languages is slow owing to a dearth of standardised non-English resources on sanitisation and social distancing.

We speak about 122 major and 1600 minor languages, yet the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s efforts are primarily focused on English and Hindi content alone. State governments have too been paying little attention to extending campaigns to marginalized dialects.

As a result, the full burden of translation lies independently on all public and private healthcare entities.

This is time-consuming and inefficient. But more importantly, potential mistranslations will affect how patients manage their lockdown lives. “There are no direct translations for most English medical terms, so I have to find indirect ways of explaining certain concepts,” the Physiotherapist says. It is potentially hazardous to give this responsibility to anyone not trained in translation.

“Sometimes, it goes very wrong,” she admits.

It shouldn’t be groundbreaking to say that language is consequential to socio-political conversations, especially for already marginalized communities. If progress and dialogue happening in one language cannot be effectively and promptly translated into other languages, some communities miss out where the rest of the world moves forward.

All Dictionaries Are Created Equal

And yet some have slower developing scientific vocabularies. Why?

It is given that if scientific progress is conceptualized in the concerned language itself, the vocabulary to convey the same automatically exists. I am by no means implying that minority languages can only acquire a scientific vocabulary by translating from science recorded in English or other dominant languages. I am rather arguing that in India, a lot of science recorded in English is inaccessible to a large section of the population by virtue of there being few standardized efforts to build a vocabulary to facilitate translation.

There are of course nuances to these broad, overarching factors. There are issues of access to English science journals and/or the Internet, issues of geography, literacy, caste…the list goes on.

And nowhere is this most directly fatal than in healthcare.

ओर्गास्म, पी.सी.ओ.डी, फैलोपियन ट्यूब…

As an undergraduate, I conducted puberty and menstrual science workshops for the campus housekeeping staff. I created a Hindi script for the menstrual cup demonstrations I was to conduct, avoiding technical English terms as far as possible to ensure the language was accessible to my audience, who primarily spoke a nameless Hindi dialect from Haryana.

I realised that while there were Hindi equivalents to the organs and conditions I needed to refer to, they were of a more Sanskritised Hindi bent than the Urdu-Hinglish that is colloquially spoken. Moreover, I found these words only in dictionaries and no one from my audience recognized them. So while the vocabulary does technically exist, it is obscure and inaccessible.

Menstrual cup demo.

Wherever there were no everyday Hindi terms to pick from, my audience would ask to write down the English terms in devnagari, committing them to memory. Those who couldn’t write simply slid past the technicality and used ‘वो’ as a placeholder.

“वो उसके अंदर जाता है तो वो होता है| When ‘that’ goes into ‘that’, ‘this’ happens.”

It was clear to me from these interactions that (1) not only were conversations about reproductive health in this Haryaanvi-speaking community non-specific but also (2) schools and medical professionals had failed to allow the community’s women the vocabulary to understand their own bodies. And this is the first level at which ignoring regional languages compromises healthcare:

‘Disabled’ is not পাগল, മന്ദബുദ്ധി, பைத்தியம்…

While working in disability healthcare, I once asked my peers from around the country to share with me all the words in their languages that referred to people with IDDs. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the responses I received translated roughly to ‘crazy, ‘retarded’, or at the least ‘slow’.

My brother has what English calls ‘Down Syndrome’. I have never heard those two words come from the mouth of anyone in my family. I’m a native Gujarati speaker and those who taught me the language cannot tell me the formal equivalent for ‘intellectual disability’. “એને મગજ માં કઈ થયું છે, something (problematic) has happened to their brain,” is the typical Gujarati equivalent for all Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDDs).

In colloquial conversation, we skirt around stigmatised disorders to the extent that learning the formal terms becomes unnecessary.

When we don’t build healthcare vocabularies for regional languages, translations often become heavily dependent on the translator rather than standardized. This can often lead to unfortunately degrading consequences (Exhibit A from Google Translate, reported 04.08.20; rectified since).

There is no distinction between Autism, Down Syndrome, Global Developmental Delay, or other sub-categories of IDDs in Gujarati. Hence regardless of very fundamental differences in their conditions, Gujarati speakers by default relegate anyone with an IDD to a single “abnormal” out-group.

And this is the next level at which ignoring regional languages compromises justice:

More Questions Than Answers

This phenomenon — of slurs replacing formal diagnoses — is not restricted to casual conversation. Medical professionals may also find themselves using these terms in the absence of more specific and sensitive vocabulary.

I remember a conversation with a co-worker about a renowned Psychiatrist in Hyderabad. Upon assessing a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, he had refrained from giving the child’s non-English-speaking parents a named diagnosis. Rather, he simply said “आपका बेटा पागल है. Your child is mad.”

When confronted by my colleague, he said, “इन लोगों को बोलने से क्या फायदा? What’s the use of giving details to such people?”

This is the real-world impact of the classist bias against non-English languages— a doctor not bothering to put in the effort of translating his patient’s diagnosis, concluding that non-English speaking parents wouldn’t understand the complexities of their child’s condition.

And this is the next level at which ignoring regional languages compromises healthcare:

And this is far from an isolated incident…

Case Study: Can’t Throw Money At It

To maintain anonymity, this case study is about one SchoolX in AreaX of coastal Andhra. It is blessed with foreign aid, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and a vast campus. The founders and staff display a genuine zeal to do right by their students.

Students here have physical, developmental, and/or intellectual disabilities (IDDs), and SchoolX invited our organisation to conduct a workshop for their parents. My colleagues left prepared for an advanced session. They collaborated with an expert from another organisation in Bangalore, and took off for AreaX from Hyderabad.

When they reached the campus and interacted with the staff, they realised that the session they had planned would not do. It turned out that most of the parents and school staff themselves had little basic understanding of the different IDDs. Before an advanced session, an extremely rudimentary session on the medical basics of disabilities was imperative.

Now of course this unfortunate situation is a product of a multitude of factors:

  • Geography AreaX is isolated. The closest clinics and doctors with assessment facilities are hard to reach. Not too many experts drop by.
  • Income This is a rurality and labour is largely manual. For parents, a trip to a city doctor means losing a day’s work, plus the travel costs in addition to medical fees. The result is that few children have a diagnosis and fewer still have an accurate diagnosis.
  • Literacy Unable to read, parents have few means to inform themselves better about their child’s condition and access to online resources becomes meaningless.

And these factors were only exacerbated by the fact that most parents only spoke Telugu.

Parents had sparse and often inaccurate information about their children’s conditions. Many were simply labeled ‘Mentally Retarded’ despite their symptoms suggesting if not outright indicating Autism Spectrum Disorder or Down Syndrome. Without accurate diagnoses, it is no wonder the families were unable to identify what kind of care was necessary.

My colleagues got to work, meeting each family separately to detail for them their child’s disorder, the challenges that would come with, and the therapies required. “Parents wrote down every word”, my colleague told me, “making sure they got down in black and white all the correct English spellings, since they had no frame of reference in Telugu.”

To recap:

So? Now what?

Building vocabularies is not a one-time gig. This is not the agenda for a 10-person 3-year task force. It’s a semi-organic continual process, involving interaction among the whole language community. It never concludes, only speeds up or slows down.

And speeding it up is crucial. Inequalities of language exacerbate inequalities of access. Sparse healthcare understanding is heavy especially on women, transpersons, PWDs, and senior citizens.

It’s time we gave every language the due respect of knowledge transfer. We cannot continue to deny marginalized peoples the right to wholly understand and make informed choices about their bodies in their thinking language.

For now, I’m waiting for someone to give me a phrase to take to my grandmther so she can finally describe her grandson with dignity.