everywhere in Europe, it is easy to find information
it doesn’t matter how well you can read
writers make their message easy for everyone to understand.
The Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe imagines just that. It shows what works and what still needs doing to make language easy for everyone. Camilla Lindholm (University of Tampere) and Ulla Vanhatalo (University of Helsinki) edited it, and Alice Lehtinen (another fantastic Finn) is the copy editor. I was delighted when Frank & Timme sent me a review copy. (It’s volume 8 in their series on easy, plain, and accessible language.) So I was feeling favourable towards this tome before I even opened it.
At 658 pages, this is not for the faint-hearted. To read it, I had to break it down. So I started with my working languages. I’ve trained in Plain English (with the CIEP) and Polish (a workshop with Tomasz Piekot and the ITI Polish Network). I’m doing a course on accessible Finnish (at the University of Tampere). I want to learn more about how Germans use easy language to inform people about elections. And I know how useful easy language can be. Learning Finnish in Finland, some of the first books I read were easy reads. I started consuming easy news (Selkouutiset) long before I could cope with the “real thing.”
Except easy is the “real thing.” It is not dumbed down. It is for all sorts of people who find reading difficult. This includes language learners, people with learning difficulties, and older or ill people. Easy language is for adults. I would suggest that if plain language is at about CEFR level B1, easy language is at level A1 to A2. But each country has a different classification system. One of the problems with this is that what is easy for one person is difficult for another.
The variety in this book is startling. “Europe” here doesn’t only mean the EU. After a few chapters, if you know a bit about a country, you can guess about how they handle easy language. Ex-empires Russia and the UK have made government communication clearer. Multilingual Switzerland has a patchwork of initiatives that don’t integrate. The Germans are big on theoretical research, but less good on user-led practice.
But the stereotypes don’t hold. Austria has produced some excellent practical resources in German. Bilingual Finland has learned from Sweden to join forces to promote easy language. Countries that take pride in their literary tradition can relax the rules. Easy Spanish guidelines recommend ditching the subjunctive. You can write literature in easy language – it works best if readers help you do it.
This book is worth it for the bibliographies alone. Each chapter includes a list of the latest theoretical literature and practical guidelines. This offers a great way in to easy writing in a particular language. Dipping into countries you do not know much about can give you ideas about what could work in your country.
The authors show that context matters. Socioeconomic and postcolonial factors influence how people learn to read. Reading and writing well mean different things in different languages. If you find reading difficult, you might find accessing the internet difficult too.
Yet there are some surprising omissions. No chapter on France – is easy language not used there? I’d like to know more. The editors give a brilliant overview in the introduction. But they did not collate recommendations from across the continent in a conclusion. In such a big book, was there no space?
Important questions for future research and practice come up in different chapters. Does easy language create an “information ghetto” or do easy reads meet real needs? Is giving people access to audio-visual information in apps or online more important? Do readers with learning difficulties and reading difficulties need different texts? Who should make the rules for easy language? Researchers, translators, teachers, social workers… or service users and readers? How can countries honour international commitments to accessibility in practice?
On the principle of “nothing about us, without us,” some authors recommend writing abstracts on the topic in easy language. So I did that for this book here:
The Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe is a big book.
50 writers wrote it.
They say that easy language for everyone.
It is easy to read and understand.
It started 50 years ago in Sweden.
Now people use it in many countries.
This book has chapters about 21 countries.
It answers 5 questions about each country:
1. What is the language like?
2. Are there rules about easy language?
3. Who uses easy language?
4. Can people learn about easy language?
5. How can we make language easier for everyone?
If you want answers to these questions, (get your library to) buy the Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe. It will inspire you to make language easier for more people, wherever you are.