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FH Newsletter 2021 Issue 2

Study Investigates the Evolution of Social Distancing Terms in the Time of COVID-19

Cover Story

WFH (“work from home”), social distancing and lockdown — new phrases have been created and everyday words have been repurposed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. To reflect our changing experiences and circumstances, language is continuously adapting and evolving. Before the pandemic the term “social distancing” was virtually unheard of. Now it has become ubiquitous in our daily lives and is commonly seen among COVID-19 health campaigns. Our recent research attests to the interaction between language evolution and social realities and the influence of social dynamics on language.

Our Doctor of Applied Language Sciences student Xiaowen Wang and Chair Prof. Chu-Ren Huang studied the evolution of social distancing expressions in bilingual public health campaigns in two geographically close yet culturally distinct metropolitan cities: Hong Kong and Guangzhou during the COVID-19 pandemic from January to April, 2020. “Both cities provide English-Chinese bilingual versions of public announcements urging social distancing but divergent approaches were taken. Guangzhou stably adopted the traditional expression avoid physical contact that is familiar to local citizens. Conversely, Hong Kong has witnessed changes in social distancing terms caused by the pandemic, ” said the researchers. “Another ‘contact prevention’ expression, avoid social contact (避免社交接觸), was coined in Hong Kong, and it was gradually replaced by the new term social distancing (保持社交距離), triggering competing Chinese translations of social distancing across epidemic stages.”

 Key takeaways from the study
  • Guangzhou adopted the traditional behaviour-inhibiting terms for social distancing (e.g. avoid physical contact (不接觸)) while the social distancing terms evolved in HK in tandem with the waves of the epidemic curve;
  • HK gradually constructed a four-stage negotiation to call for social distancing (from ‘減少社交接觸’ in Stage 1 to ‘保持社交距離’ in Stage 2, and the use of both ‘保持社交距離’ and ‘減少社交接觸’ in Stage 3 and finally back to ‘減少社交接觸’ in Stage 4);
  • This research contributes to the understanding of multilingual risk communication in public health crises and informs the design of future public health campaigns.

The study is mainly based on the Module-Attribute Representation of Verbal Semantics (MARVS) theory proposed by Prof. Chu-Ren Huang. To more accurately analyse the use of social distancing terms, the researchers divided posters in Hong Kong into four stages according to the themes of the public health campaigns in response to the pandemic situation. “While Guangzhou relied on behaviour-inhibiting expressions (e.g. avoid physical contact (不接觸)) to complete the public health campaign (Figure 2), Hong Kong constructed a four-stage negotiation slowly to build up the need and mandate to create new, uniform social behaviour,” the researchers elaborated. “In Hong Kong, the shifts of campaign stages correspond to the waves of the epidemic curve (Figure 1). Behaviour-encouraging expressions are predominantly used across stages, which fluctuate to track the epidemic curve of COVID-19. For example, Stage 2 (February 28–March 26 2020), which highlights ‘social distancing (保持社交距離)’, began when the epidemic curve went down and the public services were declared to gradually resume (Figure 3).” Stronger expressions such as warning (“Any person who contravenes the regulation shall be liable to a maximum fine of …”) were used in Stage 3 when the new requirements to reduce gatherings in Hong Kong were issued to combat the rising threat of COVID-19, and the corresponding Chinese version of the term maintaining social distancing gradually changed from ‘保持社交距離’ to ‘減少社交接觸’ in this stage.
Figure 1. The public health campaign stages in relation to the epidemic curve of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong by April 30, 2020: (A) epidemic curve of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong (by 30 Apr 2020); (B) public health campaign stages. (figure extracted from “From Contact Prevention to Social Distancing: The Co-Evolution of Bilingual Neologisms and Public Health Campaigns in Two Cities in the Time of COVID-19”)

Figures 2 and 3. Text showing expressions of avoid physical contact in the poster from Guangzhou and text showing expressions of social distancing in a poster released at Stage 2 in Hong Kong. (figure extracted from “From Contact Prevention to Social Distancing: The Co-Evolution of Bilingual Neologisms and Public Health Campaigns in Two Cities in the Time of COVID-19”)

As noted by the researchers, strong evidence from medical science has demonstrated that social distancing is an effective measure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the common threats, both Guangzhou and Hong Kong have made great efforts to promote social distancing in their public health campaigns and have carefully adopted appropriate linguistic devices that suit their socio-cultural contexts in the bilingual posters. Through carefully examining the co-evolution between social distancing terms and COVID-19 public health campaigns, this study informs the design of future public health information materials, and contributes to the understanding of multilingual risk communication in public health crises.

Xiaowen Wang is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Humanities, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Prof. Huang Chu-Ren is Chair Professor of Applied Chinese Language Studies at the Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.


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