Natural Semantic Metalanguage and its future perspectives: interview with Anna Wierzbicka, Bert Peeters and Cliff Goddard, part I

We are glad to open this new year of Chronicle of Health Care and Narrative Medicine with an interview with three worldwide known linguists: Prof. Anna Wierzbicka, Australian National University, Canberra, Prof. Cliff Goddard, Griffith University in Brisbane and Prof. Bert Peeters, Australian National University, Canberra.
They are the discoverers and scholars of the Natural Semantic Metalanaguage; however, the interview encompassed also broad questions related to the present and future of Linguistic, its application to healthcare, and more globally to our humankind.

Don’t miss the explanation of carer-caregiver, according the NSM: inside the words, you will find – as it happens I would barely say always – the core meaning of the word. Once read it, even if you are not a carer, you will experience what a carer goes through. And the cognitive revolution is far beyond the 70.000 tipping years ago: here, spirituality and religions smoothly coexist with anthropology and science.

A wise and competent reading: simply enjoy it slowly, without missing the lines…

MGM. What are the future main frontiers of linguistic science? How do you see the future of NSM-based semantics in a broader context of human sciences?

AW. Just to start with a couple of general reflections – and feelings. NSM is a way of thinking, and a way of connecting with other people. To think in this way is to try to think with simple words which are so clear to us that they don’t need to be further explained: they are self-explanatory; and, indeed, they can’t be further explained. These words – our basic human concepts – provide a rock on which all our thinking and understanding depends.

There are good reasons to believe that everywhere on earth people’s thinking relies, in the end, on the same set of basic human concepts (we call them, following Leibniz, the alphabet of human thoughts).These include concepts like GOOD and BAD, DO and HAPPEN, KNOW, WANT and FEEL.

Because these basic concepts are, as evidence indicates, shared by all human beings – regardless of their language, culture, education, etc. – they enable us to connect, potentially, with all human beings. This includes, we believe, not only those who are young, healthy, educated, and with a high IQ, but also those who are old, sick, mentally disabled, illiterate, or in some other way socially or psychologically disadvantaged.

When Maria Giulia told us that with the help of NSM some people who are suffering from major depression and generally don’t talk and write, were able to express their thoughts and wishes, I was overwhelmed with emotion; similarly, when she said that children and adults affected by Prader-Willi condition were able to express themselves clearly and let the doctors know their thoughts, wishes and emotions, I was deeply moved; and I bet Bert and Cliff felt the same. Was I surprised? To tell you the truth, no; but overwhelmed, yes.

But now let’s hear from Cliff and Bert, who I’m sure will respond in more focussed way to your question, Maria Giulia, about the frontiers of linguistics, and where NSM fits into human sciences generally.

CF. Okay then. Aside from semantics (the study of meaning), there are three frontier areas in linguistics which I personally think are important and exciting. The first is sociophonetics. This means trying to understand how people impose social meanings on the microscopic details of people’s voices, pronunciations, and ways of speaking. Related to this is using digital methods to study person-to-person interaction in real time. The third concerns internet communication: I really think the internet is as important as the advent of widespread literacy. But above all, there is the overriding importance of words and meaning – and NSM-based semantics is the best available tool for studying and understanding meaning. Not in some narrow, logical, “objective” sense – but meaning as it is to people. Human understanding. So, as I see it, NSM-based semantics has a role to play across the whole span of the human sciences.

That said, linguistics is still a very fragmented discipline and there is a long way to go before even basic principles, such as the importance of describing meanings using simple translatable words, are widely accepted even by linguists. Likewise, there is still a long way to go in combatting Anglocentrism.

BP. Yes, very few people realize there’s anything wrong with the uncritical use of English as a lingua franca. It’s a common perception that language is simply a way for communicating ideas and that most of us are pretty good at using language for that purpose. Linguists need to raise more awareness of the fact that English, no matter how useful it is, is a language like thousands of others spoken on the planet. A language that has no claim at being better than others, no claim at being closer to the “reality” out there. It has its own cultural specificities, often hidden and therefore typically ignored.

This is where NSM semantics can make a difference, not only in the broader context of the human sciences but in the context of science in general. In fact, in recent years, NSM semantics has been rather good at spreading the message that talking to the rest of the world in English, whether in so-called plain English or in its many scientifically adulterated variants, is not necessarily the best road towards optimal communication. We need to be unrelenting in drawing attention to the fact that there are certain common human concepts that everyone can understand, and (many more) very “local” concepts that are embedded in particular languages and/or cultures and that are inaccessible to cultural outsiders. Unless, that is, they are explicated using semantic building blocks that everyone shares.

AW. This is a point of fundamental importance, and not only for linguistics. Many linguists and anthropologists are these days emphasising the diversity of languages, and of course they are right to do so. But some now question the existence of any language universals whatever.

At the same time many students of religion and ethics take the opposite position and stress what human languages share. For example, in his book What is the Point of Being Christian (2005) Timothy Radcliffe writes:

As Christians we believe that the unity of the human community is rooted in shared language.

Referring to an earlier book by theologian and philosopher Herbert McCabe, Radcliffe writes

Cats and cows have a biological unity which means that they are able to interbreed. Human beings have that kind of unity too, since we can mate with each other. But we are linguistic animals, which means that we are called to a deeper unity. Human unity is founded on our ability to talk to each other. Language is the breakthrough into a new sort of communion.

Radcliffe concludes with a statement which I believe has a special relevance for linguists, and for semanticists in particular:

Our human vocation is to go searching for new and deeper ways of belonging together, new ways of speaking, which realise out capacity for communication more profoundly.

I think that different people and different professions may have different vocations; but Radcliffe’s statement resonates deeply with my own thinking and experience as a semanticist. In seeking to discover common human concepts and to construct a language accessible, in principle, to all people, colleagues and I have sought to realise more profoundly our human capacity for communication, for mutual understanding, across languages and cultures. For me, this is vitally important.

MGM. Natural Semantic Metalanguage was a dramatic discovery for linguistic science. It has already been applied to provide people suffering from depression, people with diverse abilities, people with autism, with a better opportunity to talk. Looking to the future, how can linguistic science, and NSM semantics in particular, fertilize health care?

AW. Rather than commenting on linguistic science as a whole, I want to say something about the unique contribution to health care that I believe NSM-based semantics can make. This unique contribution has to do with the “minimal languages” that colleagues and I have sought to devise in the service of clear thinking and effective communication. In particular, I believe that Minimal English can play a transformative role as a tool for effective health communication in English-speaking countries. I have two points to make. First, the main obstacle is language. Patients often don’t fully understand what doctors and nurses are saying. The problem is particularly acute for many immigrants and indigenous people, but also for others, in particular, those without secondary or tertiary education. Medical and nursing staff may be aware of this problem, but they don’t know how to solve it because they don’t receive adequate linguistic training.

Second, this obstacle is not insurmountable, i.e. it doesn’t have to be like this. It should be possible now for medical practitioners to receive training about how to speak to patients (and about patients, when in their hearing) in words which all patients can understand. Such training is now possible because a lot is now known about words which can be understood by people of different cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, and of different levels of education.

I believe that even very basic training in Minimal English could make a great difference in communication. And of course, what applies to Minimal English in English-speaking countries, in many other contexts applies to other minimal languages.

BP. Minimal English can assist not only doctors, nurses and patients, but a larger audience as well. For example, in Australia the word carer has a special semi-technical meaning in the health and welfare systems. People who are carers can receive a payment (a subsidy) from the government, but many people who qualify as carers don’t see themselves as such, they don’t necessarily even understand the word. Anna developed an explanation in Minimal English.

You are a carer if it is like this:

You do many things for someone every day, you do it because it is like this:

you know that this person cannot do many things like other people do;

you know that if you don’t do many things for this person every day,

very bad things can happen to this person;

you don’t want very bad things to happen to this person;

because you do these things every day, you can’t do many things as you want like other people.

CG. I’d like to mention a collaboration that’s happening now in paediatrics. It’s between NSM linguists (in Australia and in Finland) and paediatrician Professor Martha Welch and colleagues at Columbia State University, USA. Prof. Welch is the originator of the Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS), which is used to assess the emotional connection between infants and mothers, so as to detect difficulties in emotional connection and to prompt interventions, if necessary. This can be especially important for children who are born prematurely.

Our collaboration is about adapting the materials used for training health care professionals to use the WECS into minimal language. For example, instead of describing certain positive aspects of emotional connection in terms of attraction and reciprocity, they can be described in part as follows:

– The child very much wants to be close to Mom. Mom very much wants to be close to the child.

– Mom often looks at the child’s face. Mom feels something very good when she sees the child’s face. The child often looks at Mom’s face. The child feels something very good when he/she sees Mom’s face.

– Mom often looks at the child’s eyes, at the same time the child looks at Mom’s eyes. Mom feels something very good because of it. The child feels something very good because of it.

– Mom often touches the child with her hands, she often touches the child’s face with her face. When Mom does this, the child feels something very good. At the same time Mom feels something very good.

Obviously, such a text is much clearer and much more explicit than one using words like attraction and reciprocity, and it is also easy to translate into other languages. For this reason, we are calling such language Clear Explicit Translatable Language, acronym: CETL (pronounced “settle”).

According to trials underway at present, using training materials expressed in CETL (Clear Explicit Translatable Language) can greatly cut the time that’s needed for a nurse or other health professional to learn how to apply the WECS accurately and reliably.

Natural Semantic Metalanguage and its future perspectives – second part


Written by

Epidemiologist and counselor – 30 years of professional life in health care. Classic humanistic background, including the study of Latin and ancient Greek, followed by scientific academic studies, chemistry and pharmacology. First years of career, in private international environment. I worked in medical research, moved to health care organization, getting academic specialization in Epidemiology. Later, in consultancy and health care education. Counselor with transactional analysis orientation. Currently, director of Innovation in Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD, an independent not for profit Italian Business School with an humanistic approach acknowledged by the Italian Ministry of Researech.. Active member of the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at Hunimed, Milan, and in 2016, referee for World Health Organization for “Narrative Method in Public Health.” Writer of the book; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence Based care and Medical Humanities,” edited with Springer and of international publications on narrative medicine in scientific journals. Last book “The Languages of care in narrative medicine: words, space and sounds in the healthcare ecosystem”. Lecturer in different international contexts from Academy to Public and Private Foundations.

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