Watch Your Language!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Niisoja Torto
Niisoja Torto at work at WHO HQ in Geneva.

“Mesdames et Messieurs…” the flight attendant began as we commenced our descent into Geneva. As she spoke, I grew excited at the thought of what my next three months would entail: 1) the privilege to work at the epicenter of global health policy, and 2) the opportunity to brush up on the French I had once learned and loved. At the time, I was committed to re-learn the language of love. I never would’ve thought that instead, now six weeks into my time in Geneva, I rather needed to learn an entirely new language—the language of the United Nations (UN).

I almost drowned on my first day, overwhelmed not by the scope of my work but by the extent of new language I had to master—N4G, ICN2, UNSCN, GPW13, WHA. By the end of my first day, my vocabulary list included not only many acronyms but also words that were too similar for me to immediately distinguish between (e.g. chronic diseases, lifestyle diseases, and non-communicable diseases, etc.). I should have made flashcards just as I did when I was learning French.

Soon enough, however, I was speaking the vernacular like it was my native tongue. I finally spoke a language that my parents and many of my friends could not speak. Yet, I soon realized that the reality of the UN language not being understandable by others made no sense. The vernacular of the UN was meant to be precisely the opposite—understandable by all. This critical paradox solidified in my head after attending a panel entitled “Communicating impact: lessons for raising the profile of NCDs.”   

With celebrities in the health and nutrition field sitting around me in the same room, the panel of journalists took an unexpected turn, criticizing the audience on its use of language. It seemed comical at first: high-level directors, executives, and scientists sitting in a room listening to a panel talk about the group’s meaningless use of the term “non-communicable diseases” or NCDs. This criticism which seemed trivial at first was actually critically important.

In the food and nutrition community, I think most people would agree that the ultimate goal is to make impact at the local level whatever that may be (whether national, sub-national, city, village, etc). When we convolute our messages, research, and guidance with impenetrable language that requires time to understand, we drive further away from not towards that goal. We use words like the double burden of malnutrition, triple burden of malnutrition, dual burden of malnutrition, global syndemic, etc. to seemingly describe the same issues. It causes confusion.

We criticize industry groups such as big tobacco, the unhealthy food industry and their allies that intentionally use language tricks to distort and cloud the evidence; yet, we sometimes fail to see how our own language use, especially at the global level, falls to the same fault.

In nutrition, if we are to fight strongly against the formidable force of an unhealthy food industry that promotes unhealthy food systems, we need a unified, direct and comprehensible language. We need to stop creating new words to describe the same phenomena. Yes, nutrition is a complex, cross-cutting issue, but that shouldn’t stop us from seeing how over-complication on something as simple as language hinders progress. To mainstream our nutrition messages, we need to invest much more on the public advocacy piece, which will have a huge return of investment. Otherwise, as one of my professors put it, we will never be ‘singing the same song’ as those empowered to demand or make change at the local level.

Throughout my journey to learn ‘UN’ the language, I’ve confronted the challenges nutrition and science, more broadly, face globally in the fight to improve health outcomes at the local level. We need to watch our language; although, I might still need to say pardon my French every once in a while.

Niisoja is rising senior at Duke. He is interning at the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.