Multilingualism in a health crisis

Project management

Scientific partner: Stefano Losa, Daniela Kappler, SUPSI-DFA

01.2021 - 12.2024
Diversity, Inequality, Institutions, Migration, Policy

This research project performs a retrospective analysis of the challenges posed by Swiss multilingualism during the Covid-19 pandemic. Continuous communication with the population is necessary in times of crisis – indeed, communication is an essential aspect of crisis management, be it to provide information about the current situation, health issues and distancing rules, or to explain work-related rights and obligations, access to emergency financial aid, and even educational matters. In Switzerland, all such communications take multilingualism into account for the following reasons:

  • To reach the population who speak one of the official languages (at a national, cantonal or communal level), translations into German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic are necessary; moreover, regional adaptations, interpretations and transpositions of information are required, as the situation unfolds differently in the different areas of the country.
  • Many efforts are also taken to inform those residents in Switzerland who speak a language other than a national language or English and who are thus excluded from ordinary channels of communication. Public authorities as well as private organisations and associations have provided translation and interpretation services, and have adapted messages for barrier-free access (e.g. simple language) and for languages spoken by migrants.

Translations are viewed as a crucial factor in ensuring access to vital information and in reducing risk during a health crisis. Nevertheless, little is known about the conditions, discourse and expectations driving these adaptation and translation processes. There are also no clear data on how the population receives and uses these resources and services.

Purpose – Expected results

This research project aims to promote a better understanding of the linguistic challenges that have been brought about by the current health crisis. The focus is on investigating the conception, production, circulation and reception of multilingual resources and services. Moreover, the project aims to retrospectively piece together what lessons on multilingualism in Switzerland have been learned by governmental, institutional and private organisations over the course of this crisis. In the process, practices and strategies that take into account specific linguistic, social and regional needs can be identified. Moreover, close attention is given to French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland and Graubünden in order to better understand the specific challenges facing the individual language regions. It is expected that the results can be applied in future to optimise the ways in which the tools of crisis management reflect the ideals of social inclusion and language sensitivity.