Minimal English in healthcare: interview to Cliff Goddard

We host an interview to Cliff Goddard, linguist professor at the Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. With Anna Wierzbicka, it’s one of the head promoter of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage.


1) English and Minimal English: what is the basic difference?

There are two main differences. First, the core vocabulary of Minimal English is much, much smaller than full, normal English — only about 200 words. Second, these words, and the basic grammar that goes with them, are cross-translatable, as far as we know, into all or most of the other languages of the world.


Together, these two aspects mean that Minimal Engish offers people a way of talking and thinking that is both very simple and very clear (no technical terms, no abstract terms), and at the same time, very transportable across languages and cultures.


A new book (“Minimal English for a Global World”, to be published this year by Palgrave), sums it up like this: “Minimal English is a highly reduced version of English which can ensure maximum translatability without compromising intelligibility”.


Minimal English is based on research by specialist linguists from the field of cross-linguistic semantics, that is, the study of how different languages express meanings differently. Over decades of work, these linguists have built up a lot of knowledge about the basic building blocks of meaning, and about what kind of words exist in all or most languages, versus what kind of words are specific to only one language, such as English, or to one cultural zone, such as the “Eurozone”.


By the way, when I said before that the “core vocabulary” of Minimal English is about 200 words, that doesn’t mean that the vocubulary is absolutely fixed at that number.  Minimal English is intended to be flexible and adaptable too. In particular contexts and for particular purposes, it can be expanded. Why not? Provided that the additional words are carefully chosen to as few as possible and as translable as possible. For example, in many parts of the world to get across important health messages, it would be good to add a word like ‘mosquitoes’, simply because many illnesses are spread by mosquitoes.


The idea behind Minimal English is to build on the advantages of English as a global lingua franca, while reducing the disadvantages.


2) What are the disadvantages?

Well, first I’d like to say that there are advantages to having a global lingua franca, and that clearly English is fast assuming this role. The advantages are improved communication via a common language. But the spread of English as its downsides too. Often there can the impression of good communication, but beloe the surface there can be a lot of invisible miscommunication and misunderstanding.


Native speakers of English (Anglos, if we can call them that) usually underestimate how many Anglo English words lack precise equivalents in other languages, even in most European languages. That goes for both “plain words” such as ‘fair’, ‘mind’, ‘fact’, ‘friend’, ‘rude’, and ‘sex’, and more “educated” words such as ‘evidence’, ‘violence’, ‘cooperation, ‘commitment’ and ‘relations’. All these words carry a lot of Anglo cultural baggage and they don’t travel well across languages.


There are also many “untranslatable” key words of the broader European culture, such as ’system’, ‘structure’, ‘function’, ‘information’, ‘rational’, and ’politics’. They may have close equivalents in most European languages, but not in many other languages of the world.


Minimal English aims to be “minimally English”, in the sense of carrying (or smuggling) as little Anglo cultural meaning as possible. It aims to be “English without the Anglocentrism”, if that makes sense.


3) What about Minimal Italian?

Yes of course there is Minimal Italian, as well — just as there is a Minimal Chinese, Minimal Spanish, Minimal Arabic, and so on.


All these Minimal Languages ought to correspond closely with each other, both in their core words and their core grammar — because both their words and grammar are restricted by being maximally clear and maximally cross-translatable.


4) Why do you believe that Minimal English is important?

Three main reasons. Minimal English can help people to say things in a way that is easier to understand, and also easier to translate across language barriers. And as well, using Minimal English (or Minimal Italian, for that matter) can help people to think more clearly. When we have to give up complicated vocabulary, it helps us to find the essential ideas that we want to express. The sub-title of the book I mentioned before (“Minimal English for a Global World”), the title is “Improved communication using fewer words”, but we could equally add “Improved thinking using fewer words”.


Coming back to translatability, in a global context translatability matters a great deal, both in terms of effective communication and in economic terms too. There is a vast amount of translation going on in today’s world, especially in information-based writing of all kinds: about health, education, community development, environmental issues, school textbooks, safety manuals, consumer information, …the list goes on and on.


There are many “hidden costs” of poor translatability. It makes so much sense to write for translatability from the onset, that is, to compose the texts, as far as possible, in cross-translatable words. So we are hoping that Minimal English will eventually have a big impact across many fields.


Minimal English even has potential applications in language technology and computing, but first and foremost it is a human thing.


5) Do you expect that Minimal Language (English, Italian, Chinese..) could allow better doctor-patient relationships, avoiding the intrusion of scientific language, technical language, and so on?

Of course, very much so. Anything that can help professionals speak more clearly and more “personally” is good —  not only between doctors and patients, but also between other professionals and their clients. Very often, scientific language, technical language, acts as a barrier between people.


In the realm of medicine and health, however, Minimal English (and other Minimal languages) might be  even more relevant and helpful than in other fields. As the narrative medicine approach shows us, there is a great need to “re-humanise” encounters between doctors and their patients, and to promote the idea of helping the whole person.


In my opinion, scientific language (technical language) can not only get in the way of good communication between people, it can even encourage a kind of “objectifying” of people and their life situations, turning attention away from feelings and life stories.


It seems obvious to me that a great deal of good can come from the encounter between narrative medicine and Minimal English, but also that there is a great deal still be learnt — about the best ways to apply Minimal English in the health domain and the best ways to promote it through professional education and training.


Minimal English for a Global World

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Luca Magni

    Hi Maria-Giulia,

    Thanks for sharing. I fully appreciate that the importance of the work conducted around minimal languages (minimal English/Italian/etc.) goes well beyond the opportunity they offer for a more objective exchanges around reality.

    The identification higher or lower use of Minimal Languages within discourses may certainly facilitate, the highlighting of subjective twists in communication and direct attention, investigations and cure into those areas.

    Very inspirational and relevant for a large group of professional and practitioners!


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